In honor of Black History Month, here is my list of books by contemporary black female authors – brilliant works by fierce women that everyone should read.
About a year ago, I saw a tweet from bestselling Black female author Tayari Jones that has stuck with me ever since.
On Twitter, Tayari tells of a white woman who approached her at a book signing. This woman raved about how Jones’s book An American Marriage was the first time she had ever read a book by a Black female author (it actually might have just been by a Black author, which is even more astounding). In the story, Jones was understandably not particularly amused by this woman’s self-congratulations.
Upon hearing this story, I began to wonder. How many books had I read by contemporary Black female authors?
Honestly, I wasn’t sure. I generally don’t pay much attention to who writes the books I read. Usually, I have no idea of the author’s race and sometimes even gender. I just want to enjoy their work.
So I began to probe through my list of books read on Goodreads, checking to see how many books I had read by Black female authors. Unsurprisingly, I had read quite a few amazing books by Black authors.
In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to highlight 22 books by contemporary Black female authors. No, you shouldn’t just read them because they are Black or female, though those are parts of their identities that should not be denied. You should read them because they are fierce and brilliant and the most incredible writers.
Black Female Authors: Bestsellers in Fiction
The American Dream. Many hope for it, but how many truly find it? Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel details the lives of Cameroon immigrants living in New York City: Jende Jonga, who is trying to apply for legal status under a false asylum claim; his wife Neni, struggling to finish schooling in hopes of becoming a pharmacist; and their son Liomi, trying to balance his American-ness with his Cameroon side. In the days preceding the Great Recession, Jende gets lucky enough to get a job as chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive. Mbue brilliantly paints a fascinating look at immigrant life – the struggles with the immigration system, the desire for a better life, the balancing of cultural differences and the financial burden that comes with being poor in America. Embodying the spirit of Black urban authors, Mbue asks you to ponder: What really brings happiness? and Is the American dream all it’s cracked up to be?
Topping the list of Black female authors in 2020 to keep your eye on, Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age is getting tons of notice right now. Blogger Alix Chamberlain has built herself a brand empowering women. When she moves to Philadephia, she feels overwhelmed by her two young daughters and comes to rely on her babysitter, Emira Tucker. While watching Alix’s two-year-old, Emira is shocked one day to be stopped by a grocery store clerk, only because she is a Black woman with a white toddler. Reid certainly sparks a conversation about racism and privilege, as both Alix and Emira’s boyfriend have completely different views on the same event. If you are willing to forgive the writing a bit, you’ll find it a thought-provoking read.
If you are looking for bestsellers by Black female authors, An American Marriage was one of the top fiction books of 2018. At first glance, newlyweds Celestial and Roy seem like the perfect American couple. He’s a young executive, and she’s an emerging artist. However, as life comes into play and Roy is unjustly imprisoned, their marriage begins to fall apart. Discussing love, marriage, and race, this thought-provoking read is one to add to any reading list.
Thirteen-year-old Jojo is trying to figure out life as a half-white half-Black teen in Mississippi. When his family learns his father is being released from prison, his mom Leonie, a struggling drug addict, packs up Jojo and his little sister for a drive up to the state penitentiary where Jojo encounters the ghost of a boy who was killed as an inmate. Combining a dysfunctional family character study with a haunting ghost story, Sing, Unburied, Sing has won rave reviews from critics and placed Ward as one of the top contemporary Black female authors. What impressed me most was how much everything about the book was expertly crafted to convey the story that Ward wanted to tell, not necessarily the story you want to read.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze depart Nigeria for a life of freedom in the West. Although, Ifemelu achieves academic success she is also confronted with what it means to be Black in America. On the other hand, Obinze is denied entry to the US and must settle into a shadowy undocumented life in London. Eventually, they make their way back to Nigeria, finding a renewed love for each other and their country. With her insightful writing, Adichie has become one of the top contemporary Black female authors to read.
Appearing twice on my list of contemporary Black female authors, I wanted to showcase Woodson’s versatility in both adult and children’s literature. Woodson’s story opens with sixteen-year-old Melody coming-of-age ceremony in Brooklyn. From there, the narrative jumps into the past to tell all that has led the family to this moment – the struggles her parents and grandparents have faced. Covering racism, gentrification, education, class, and ambition, Red at the Bone leaves you plenty to discuss in fewer than 200 pages.
This debut novel from up-and-coming author Abi Daré highlights the coming-of-age of a Nigerian woman. All Adunni wants to do is get an education, so that she can craft her own future. When her father sells her as the third wife to a local man, Adduni runs away to the city, only to become a servant to a wealthy family. Yet, Adunni finds that no matter her circumstances, she can still speak out for herself and all the other girls just like her.
N. K. Jemisin
I hated this book. So why is it on my list of the top Black female writers of the 21st century? Because no one else has ever won three Hugo Awards for Best Novel in three consecutive years for each book in the same trilogy. In a world rocked frequently by catastrophic earthquakes over the millennia, Jemisin tells a story of three women – a young girl just coming into her magical powers, a young woman learning of the injustice of the current system, and a grieving mother hunting for her child as the world collapses around her.
Nonfiction By Contemporary Black Female Authors
If you are looking for bestsellers from Black female authors, Michelle Obama’s memoir is easily one of the top-selling books of the decade. Detailing her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her success as a working mother and her years in the White House, Michelle Obama shows how her past has shaped her into who she has become today. A poignant memoir of a woman trying to do her best for her family while balancing the greater good of having a husband in politics, Obama’s story is a remarkable tale no matter what your political affiliation.
Tracy K. Smith
Best known for her award-winning poetry, poet Tracy K. Smith, former Poet Laureate of the United States, pens a deeply personal memoir in Ordinary Light. Growing up in California, Smith had a fairly typical upbringing with parents who loved her. After spending a summer with her grandparents in Alabama, Smith learns a completely different side of being Black in America. Contemplating the difficulties of mother/daughter relationships and trying to find your own path, Smith has been a lyrical story that will draw you in and make you realize why she is one of the top contemporary Black female authors.
Margot Lee Shetterly
Hidden Figures captivated move audiences when it came out and propelled Margot Lee Shetterly onto the list of must-read Black female authors of the 21st century. Can I admit that I have not read this book or watched the movie? Telling the true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians, this book should be right up my alley, since I studied mathematics in college. Segregated from their white colleagues, these fierce women used pencil and paper to calculate the physics needed to launch men to the moon. I’ve heard complaints that the writing is dry but the characters are fascinating.
Roxane Gay has made a name for herself among contemporary Black female authors with her bestselling collection of essays, Bad Feminist. In her poignant memoir, Gay focuses on her weight and self-image. After being raped as a child, Gay used food and an overweight body as a shield. Speaking with candor on the realities of being obese in America and the conflict between self-love and self-care, Gay’s opinions are raw and honest and complicated.
Similar to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, this celebrity memoir/self-improvement book chronicles one women’s year of self-improvement: in this case, of saying yes. Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy and literally all of ABC’s Thursday night lineup, realized that, though at the top of her career, she wasn’t happy. When her sisters observed, “You never say yes to anything,” Shonda discovers her sister is correct. She has let fear hold her back. You’ll find Rhimes’ account at times hilarious and at the time deeply touching. It makes you wonder what you are letting hold you back and belongs at the top of the list of great books by Black female writers in the 21st century.
Glory Edim, the founder of the popular book club Well-Read Black Girl, has compiled this motivating collection of essays from contemporary Black female authors. With such big names as Jesmyn Ward, N. K. Jemisin, Tayari Jones among others, you won’t find any better nonfiction books with strong female leads anywhere. Telling of how they found themselves in literature, these fierce females will inspire you to remember the value of a story.
YA Books by Black Female Authors
No list of bestsellers by Black female authors would be complete without Angie Thomas’s young adult take on a police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter works hard to find balance in her life between her poor neighborhood and the elite suburban prep school she attends. Yet, when Starr is the only witness to the fatal police shooting of her best friend, she finds herself in the middle of a national headline. With all the recent coverage of police shootings, Thomas’s novel adds a new layer to the conversation on this important topic.
Another excellent entry in fiction discussing Black Lives Matter, Stone has penned an instant bestseller. Justyce McAllister has left his rough neighborhood behind to become top of his class at his private school. Though even an acceptance letter to Yale doesn’t stop him from his classmates’ scorn and racism. Just trying to get through his senior year, he starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to help cope. Yet when he and his best friend encounter an off-duty police officer one day when they are just out for a drive, Justyce’s whole life is affected.
Nicola Yoon has had two books turned into successful movies: Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star. Telling the unlikely romance of Natasha, desperately struggling to prevent her family’s deportation to Jamaica, and Daniel, the perfect Korean son burdened by his parents’ expectations, it’s a teen romance even adults will love.
The book world was abuzz recently with excitement for this fantasy Young Adult novel, and rightfully so. Zélie Adebola watched as a ruthless king ordered the death of her mother and all the other maji in an effort to rid the world of magic. With one last chance, Zélie must use the help of a rogue princess to restore magic before the crown prince manages to eradicate magic for good. Beautifully blending Nigerian mythology, symbols from the Yoruba religion, and young adult fantasy, Tomi Adeyemi shines in her debut novel and the perfect example of Black YA fantasy books.
Xiomara Batista feels trapped and confused as she grows into adulthood. Instead of letting her fists fly, Xiomara begins to record her thoughts into a little leather notebook. When she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she realizes the power in expressing her own emotions even if against her family’s disapproval. Between Poet X and her recent book With the Fire on High, Acevedo is one of the top Black female authors to watch in 2020.
Middle Grade Fiction by Modern Black Female Authors
Growing up as an African-American in both South Carolina and New York during the 1960-70s, Jacqueline Woodson never truly felt at home in either place. Caught between the highly urban New York and the Southern views of South Carolina, she learned to find a place in the world balancing the best of each. Told in enchanting verse, the story of her childhood is poignant and moving. I’m not usually one for poetry, but Woodson’s eloquent lines bring her story to life.
Sharon M. Draper
One week at her mom’s. One week at her dad’s. Not only is Isabella’s life split in half by her parents’ divorce, but also she feels as if her own identity is divided in two. Half-white and half-Black, Isabella’s split custody parallels her split racial identity. Sharon M. Draper’s middle grade bestseller explores Isabella’s need to figure out how a blended girl bridges the gap in a world full of duality. Not nearly as light-hearted as the pink striped color suggests, Blended is a more serious discussion on important topics for kids today – divorce, racial profiling, and blended families. A great explanation of Black Lives Matter for middle schoolers from one of the best contemporary Black female authors.
Alicia D. Williams
There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself, and she can list every single one for you. When her gambling-addict father loses the rent money again, Genesis and her mom must move in with her grandma. Genesis begins to like her new school, and her teachers even urge her to try out for the talent show. By how could a girl with as dark skin as hers ever stand in front of an audience? Discussing self-loathing and verbal abuse, Genesis Begins Again is a great modern tale for middle schoolers.
What are your favorite books by contemporary Black female authors?