10 Books By Living Black Women to Read During Women's History Month
“The point is that struggling against those who would keep us from learning and from being studied—and by us, I mean Black people here, but also all marginalized people—is nothing new in this country’s history. The forces of exclusion are old and resilient. Then, as now, the only way to defeat them is to pursue that which has been prohibited. We read the banned books, we study the verboten topics, and we share them, still.”
Dr. Imani Perry, “We Read the Banned Books,” The Atlantic (February 23, 2023)
Black women authors are among the artists who have had the most profound impact on my writing. Whether Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Jamaica Kincaid, or Edwidge Danticat, Black women fiction writers have helped me shape my craft, take particular kinds of risks, and find the courage I need when creating my stories.
Politicians and others in the United States have been censoring literary voices in an attempt to whitewash history and eliminate art in favor of propaganda. They are especially interested in erasing the contributions of Black and/or LGBTQIA+ artists. Many districts have banned one of the greatest books of all time: Morrison’s Beloved.
Morrison once said something quite chilling that applies to our current state of affairs. She linked, through time, all of those with the tyrannical impulses that lead them to fear the dissemination of truth in the form of literature:
“Hitler burned books and used a phrase that’s very interesting when he was condemning a certain kind of art in Munich. He said, We have to get rid of the artistic criminal. In other words, the idea of an artist as a criminal because of the production of his art is an idea that I had never heard before and since. In other words, there could be such a thing as an illegal song or an illegal book. And you have to understand that I come from a race of people for whom at one time in the country it was illegal to be taught to read; it was illegal and punishable, by physical punishment and sometimes fatal punishment, to learn how to read.” (Source)
But it is important that we resist these attempts in every way imaginable. What is it that Solange sings in her song “Almeda”?
“These are black-owned things/Black faith/Still can't be washed away/Not even in that Florida Water/Not even in that Florida Water.”
[Side-note: I know what Florida Water is, but I like the reinterpretation for the purposes of this discussion. :) ]
Since relying on a sociopolitical structure that hates marginalized peoples to properly educate those of us from marginalized experiences is a tenuous endeavor at best, it is our responsibility—our families, communities, and kinship circles; in plain terms: US—to replace the half-truths and lies we are fed with the whole truth and unvarnished testimonies.
Below, you will find 10 recommendations of books by Black-American women to read for Women’s History Month. I selected Black-American women in particular because their work is a common target of the censors due to what it reveals and also who it implicates. I chose living authors because it is important to give people their flowers while they are still here and can speak for themselves.
This list is fiction heavy because fiction does a lot of head/heart work.
And as always: BUY, BORROW, AND READ BANNED BOOKS!
The Good House by Tananarive Due
“The Good House is the critically acclaimed story of supernatural suspense, as a woman searches for the inherited power that can save her hometown from evil forces.
The home that belonged to Angela Toussaint's late grandmother is so beloved that the townspeople in Sacajawea, Washington call it the Good House. But that all changes one summer when an unexpected tragedy takes place behind its closed doors, and the Toussaint's family history—and future—is dramatically transformed.
Angela has not returned to the Good House since her son, Corey, died there two years ago. But now, Angela is finally ready to return to her hometown and go beyond the grave to unearth the truth about Corey's death. Could it be related to a terrifying entity Angela's grandmother battled seven decades ago? And what about the other senseless calamities that Sacajawea has seen in recent years? Has Angela's grandmother, an African-American woman reputed to have "powers," put a curse on the entire community?
A thrilling exploration of secrets, lies, and divine inspiration, The Good House will haunt readers long after its chilling conclusion.”
Corregidora by Gayl Jones
“A literary classic that remains vital to our understanding of the past, Corregidora is Gayl Jones’s powerful debut novel, examining womanhood, sexuality, and the psychological residue of slavery. Jones masterfully tells the story of Ursa, a Kentucky blues singer, who, in the wake of a tragic loss, confronts her maternal history and the legacy of Corregidora, the Brazilian slave master who fathered both her mother and grandmother. Consumed and haunted by her hatred of the man who irrevocably shaped her life and the lives of her family, Ursa Corregidora must come to terms with a past that is never too distant from the present.
Selected, edited, and first edited by Toni Morrison, it is ‘the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of Black men and women,’ (James Baldwin) and ‘a tale as American as Mount Rushmore and as murky as the Florida swamps.’ (Maya Angelou).”
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
“In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, swept up by the tides of the Great Migration, flees Georgia and heads north. Full of hope, she settles in Philadelphia to build a better life. Instead she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment, and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins are lost to an illness that a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children, whom she raises with grit, mettle, and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them to meet a world that will not be kind. Their lives, captured here in twelve luminous threads, tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage—and a nation's tumultuous journey.”
Sugar by Bernice McFadden
“A novel by a critically acclaimed voice in contemporary fiction, praised by Ebony for its ‘unforgettable images, unique characters, and moving story that keeps the pages turning until the end.’
A young prostitute comes to Bigelow, Arkansas, to start over, far from her haunting past. Sugar moves next door to Pearl, who is still grieving for the daughter who was murdered fifteen years before. Over sweet-potato pie, an unlikely friendship begins, transforming both women's lives—and the life of an entire town.
Sugar brings a Southern African-American town vividly to life, with its flowering magnolia trees, lingering scents of jasmine and honeysuckle, and white picket fences that keep strangers out—but ignorance and superstition in. To read this novel is to take a journey through loss and suffering to a place of forgiveness, understanding, and grace.”
Mama by Terry McMillan
“The explosive novel that introduced the world to #1 New York Times bestselling author Terry McMillan.
Mildred Peacock is the tough, funny, feisty heroine of Mama, a survivor who’ll do anything to keep her family together. In Mildred’s world, men come and go as quickly as her paychecks, but her five children are her dream, her hope, and her future. Not since Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has a black woman’s story been portrayed with such rich power, honesty, and love.”
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.
There is fourteen-year-old Jael, who has a crush on the preacher’s wife. At forty-two, Lyra realizes that her discomfort with her own body stands between her and a new love. As Y2K looms, Caroletta’s ‘same time next year’ arrangement with her childhood best friend is tenuous. A serial mistress lays down the ground rules for her married lovers. In the dark shadows of a hospice parking lot, grieving strangers find comfort in each other.
With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.”
The Heads of Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
“In one of the season’s most acclaimed works of fiction—longlisted for the National Book Award and winner of the PEN Open Book Award—Nafissa Thompson-Spires offers ‘a firecracker of a book...a triumph of storytelling: intelligent, acerbic, and ingenious’ (Financial Times).
Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with race, identity politics, and the contemporary middle class in this ‘vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive’ (George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo) collection.
Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks—while others are devastatingly poignant. In the title story, when a cosplayer, dressed as his favorite anime character, is mistaken for a violent threat the consequences are dire; in another story, a teen struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with so-called black culture.
Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires ‘has taken the best of what Toni Cade Bambara, Morgan Parker, and Junot Díaz do plus a whole lot of something we’ve never seen in American literature, blended it all together...giving us one of the finest short-story collections’ (Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division).”
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
“Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.
In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.
Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.
Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.”
The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation by Raquel Willis
“A passionate, powerful memoir by a trailblazing Black transgender activist, tracing her life of transformation and her work towards collective liberation.
In 2017, Raquel Willis took to the National Women’s March podium just after the presidential election of Donald Trump, primed to tell her story as a young Black transgender woman from the South. Despite having her speaking time cut short, the appearance only deepened her commitment to speaking up for communities on the margins.
Born in Augusta, Georgia, to Black Catholic parents, Raquel spent years feeling isolated, even within a loving, close-knit family. There was little access to understanding what it meant to be queer and transgender. It wasn’t until she went to the University of Georgia that she found the LGBTQ+ community, fell in love, and explored her gender for the first time. But the unexpected death of her father forced her to examine her relationship with herself and those she loved. These years of grief, misunderstanding, and hard-won epiphanies seeped into the soil of her life, serving as fertilizer for growth and allowing her to bloom within.
Upon graduation, Raquel entered a career in journalism against the backdrop of the burgeoning Movement for Black Lives, intersectional feminism going mainstream, and unprecedented visibility of the trans community. After hiding her identity as a newspaper reporter, her increasing awareness of the epidemic of violence plaguing trans women of color and the heightened suicide of trans teens inspired her to come out publicly. Within just a few short years of community organizing in Atlanta, Oakland, and New York, Raquel emerged as one of the most formidable Black trans activists in history.
In The Risk It Takes to Bloom, Raquel Willis recounts with passion and candor her experiences straddling the Obama and Trump eras, the possibility of transformation after tragedy, and how complex moments can push us all to take necessary risks and bloom toward collective liberation.”
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
“An unexpected teenage pregnancy pulls together two families from different social classes and explores their histories – reaching back to the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 -- and exposes the private hopes, disappointments, and longings that can bind or divide us from each other, from The New York Times-bestselling and National Book Award-winning author of Another Brooklyn and Brown Girl Dreaming.
Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson's taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.
As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony in her grandparents' Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody's mother, for her own ceremony-- a celebration that ultimately never took place.
Unfurling the history of Melody's family – reaching back to the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 -- to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they've paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives--even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.”
Books I’ve Read Recently
The Autobiography of Skin by Lakeisha Carr
The Cherokee Rose by Tiya Miles
The Three of Us by Ore Agbaje-Williams
Enjoy your reading! Happy Women’s History Month!
And may you float.
Blessings upon blessings,