This past summer, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the globe, it became evident that racism and anti-Blackness aren’t regulated to policing but through all industries. Book publishing is no exception.
While the conversations about Black people’s relationship with police pivoted to conversations surrounding the workplace and Black representation on screen, Black authors took to Twitter to expose the racism that many of them face in the industry. From racist high-ranking executives, relatively low advances compared to their white counterparts, and lack of marketing for their books, Black authors have largely felt unsupported in an industry that claims to relish diverse voices.
Many have thought the answer to these concerns is having white people buy “anti-racist” books or simply handing out imprints owned by Black people without the proper resources or guidance, but there can be no fix to racism without the actual investment of Black authors and their stories.
This isn’t an anti-racist book list. This is a list of talented, brilliant writers who deserve your attention — and your money.
Luster by Raven Leilani
Raven Lelani’s transcendent debut novel is a thorny examination of power, race, and its intersection with loneliness. Edie — the 23-year-old protagonist — is an apathetic Black millennial working in publishing and living in a rodent-infested apartment when she involves herself in a relationship with a white man, Eric, who is in an open marriage. The destructive relationship results in Edie moving in with Eric and his wife and becoming a confidante to their adopted Black daughter Akila. Luster is a remarkable debut novel about an ordinary girl attempting to make sense out of the senselessness of being Black and alive in America.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Through the eyes of Wallace, a Black, queer biochemistry graduate student in the Midwest, Taylor explores the microaggressions and isolation that accompanies the world of academia. As Wallace becomes entangled in an abusive relationship with a white classmate, he is forced to confront and grapple with the wounds of his past. The emotional texture of this quiet novel proves to be one of the best debuts this year.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
It’s no secret that Black people who were deemed “white-passing” did so to secure a better future in America, a decision that also meant severing communication with their families. So starts this multi-generational saga about the Vignes twins, Stella and Desiree, who at sixteen run away from home, opting to go down different paths. One is back living in their singular southern town with her Black daughter, while the other is passing for white in a comfortable life with her husband, her daughter, and silently grappling with a secret that can change the course of all their lives.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
National Book award-winner James McBride opens up his humorous novel with the church deacon, Sportcoat, shooting a drug dealer in the face in front of everyone. Set in 1960s New York City, McBride dives into the lives of the people affected by the shooting: the Italian mobsters, the cops, the residents, and the members of the church where Sportcoat was once a deacon.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Following her bestselling collection, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and writing a critically acclaimed episode of Hulu’s Shrill, Samantha Irby is back to deliver hilarious anecdotes about the millennial condition. In her latest collection, Irby— now 40 — uses her wit to give a glimpse into her daily life meeting with Hollywood executives and the difficulty of forming adult friendships.
Finna by Nate Marshall
This dynamic collection of poems set out to celebrate Black vernacular, its impact on pop culture, and its importance in storytelling. Separated into three parts, Finna also explores our current world invigorated by white supremacy and the dangerous ways gendered language can breed violence.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
Mikki Kendall has long been the cornerstone of the rich Internet dialogue. Creator of the viral hashtag, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, Kendall has written about white feminist ideology and how it has insisted on centering sexism at the expense of other marginalized communities. Hood Feminism decenters the dominant narrative that white women have had in the realm of feminism and instead focuses on other issues like poverty, gun violence, and police violence. It’s a timely and vital critique of a movement that has largely been commodified and exclusionary.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson has quickly become one of the world’s most vital and culture-shifting voices working today. A decade after releasing her masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson published Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. In this gripping study, Wilkerson effectively illustrates how America’s racial system shares a resemblance to the caste system of Nazi Germany and India.
The Dead Are Rising by Les Payne & Tamara Payne
Malcolm X is many things: a revolutionary, a cultural icon, and one of the most polarizing figures in American history. He is also still very much misunderstood. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne spent 30 years conducting research and interviews to understand the man that was Malcolm X. Sadly, Les passed away before finishing the book. His daughter Tamara Payne completed his work. In this National Book Award-winning biography, Payne explores the life of Malcolm X from childhood to his adult fight for racial justice.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
With the releases of Freshwater and Pet, Akwaeke Emezi has quickly cemented themselves as one of the most imaginative and brilliant writers working today. Emezi’s remarkable third novel begins with a death: the titular propagandist, Vivek, is found dead on his mother’s doorstep. We then follow the mysterious life of Vivek and his quest for identity. The novel defies the bounds of a traditional murder mystery and further proves that Emezi is a vital voice in fiction.
You Should See Me in A Crown by Leah Johnson
In this sweet queer teen rom-com, Leah Johnson explores the life of Liz Lighty. She’s not popular, is economically disadvantaged and awkward. When she’s denied a scholarship to attend her dream school, Liz attempts to become prom queen to win the title along with a scholarship that will get her into the school of her dreams.
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
Set during the 1992 Rodney King Riots, Reed introduces us to Ashley Bennett, a wealthy Black teenager living a charmed life in LA. Her life shifts when after LAPD officers are acquitted for beating Rodney King, she’s no longer seen as “Ashley” but as one of the Black kids. As violent protests burn throughout the city, Ashley’s life starts to fall apart. In a highly timely debut novel, Reed explores the issues of class, race, and the importance of staying true to yourself.
The Secret Life of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Deesha Philyaw takes us through four generations of Black women and girls who are caught between the double standards of the Church and following their hearts and passions. Beautifully crafted, Philyaw shows us that everyone needs a break from being good every now and again.
The Dragon’s, The Giant, the Women by Wayétu Moore
Wayétu’s memoir isn’t the typical African war story. There are no unforeseen pitfalls or refugee camps. In this stirring memoir, Moore recounts her experience of fleeing Civil War-torn Liberia for the United States at five years old. Poignant, real, and vulnerable, Moore captures the voices of her family to examine the delicate issue of immigration and the various ways trauma can manifest.
How to Make A Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker
Jerald Walker examines the racial bias in the medical profession, the complicated legacy of Michael Jackson, and confronts personal stereotypes. These essays are as much a cultural critique as they are personal, with each laying the foundation for humorous revelations on being a Black man in America. This collection isn’t just about the fraught realities of living while Black, but about being human.
Yannise Jean is a freelance writer from Brooklyn. You can follow her @yjeanwrites
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