50 Books by Black Authors to Read in 2021
From James Baldwin to Jesmyn Ward. From a powerful account of precolonial African life to side-splitting essays about Magic Mike. From timeless classics to brand-new releases…here are 50 of the best books by Black authors to read right now.
1. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
In this thrilling debut, Nella is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. That is, until Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers and the two bond immediately. Things change, though, when Hazel becomes an office darling, and Nella is left in the dust. Then notes start to appear on Nella's desk—"LEAVE WAGNER. NOW”—and she soon realizes that there's a lot more at stake than just her career.
2. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and made a home for herself and her 12 children inside of it. In this winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Brown tells the story of 100 years of her family and their relationship to home in one of America’s most mythologized cities—including how the Yellow House continues to exert its influence on the lives of her loved ones even after it was wiped off the map during Hurricane Katrina.
3. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This knock-out novel follows a Ghanaian family in Alabama, narrated by its daughter, a PhD candidate at Stanford studying reward-depression and addiction (after her brother died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin). It's a deeply moving portrait of a family of immigrants—and faith, science, religion and love—whose experiences are far from the so-called American Dream. (It's also an important reflection of what it's like to be a Black woman in science.)
4. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: Essays by Kiese Laymon
Originally published in 2013, this new edition of award-winning author Laymon's (Heavy: An American Memoir) first work of nonfiction includes six new essays which draw heavily on his family's experiences in the South. From an interview with his mother to reflections on Ole Miss football, Laymon's essays are candid, whip-smart and unforgettable. As one of our other favorite writers, Roxane Gay, notes, "I first encountered Kiese Laymon's writing when I read How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. I was stunned into stillness."
5. Luster by Raven Leilani
This absolutely unsettling (in a good way) first novel tracks three characters: Edie, a young, Black assistant in a publishing house, the older white man she’s having an affair with and that older, white man’s over-achieving white wife. Eventually, Edie moves in with the couple…and things only get weirder from there.
6. Seven Days in June by Tia Williams
Eva is a single mom and bestselling erotica writer. Shane is a reclusive, enigmatic, award-winning novelist, who, to everyone's surprise, shows up in New York, where Eva lives. When the two meet unexpectedly at a literary event, sparks fly, raising the eyebrows of the Black literati. What no one knows is that 15 years earlier, teenage Eva and Shane spent one crazy, torrid week madly in love. Over the next seven days, amidst a steamy summer, Eva and Shane reconnect, but will it be forever this time?
7. Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
This powerful essay collection tackles the intersection of race and feminism, with Kendall arguing that the feminism many women know only benefits a specific type of female. Here, she asserts the feminist movement and its participants need to face issues like guns, incarceration and hunger—and how the fate of Black women is the fate of feminism itself.
8. Love in Color by Bolu Babalola
In her debut collection, Babalola retells beautiful love stories from history and mythology with new detail and vivacity. Focusing on the magical folktales of West Africa, she also reimagines Greek myths, ancient legends from the Middle East and stories from long-erased places. With richly drawn characters like a powerful Ghanaian spokeswoman forced to decide whether she should uphold her family's politics or be true to her heart, Love in Color is a celebration of romance in many different forms.
9. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, Mbue’s (Behold the Dreamers) latest is about environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company. Told from the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula, who grows up to become a revolutionary, How Beautiful We Were is an exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit comes up against one community's determination to hold on to its ancestral land.
10. The Ugly Cry: A Memoir by Danielle Henderson
Danielle Henderson was abandoned at ten years old by her mother, leaving her to be raised by grandparents who thought their child-rearing days were long gone. She grew up Black and weird in a mostly white neighborhood in upstate New York, eventually becoming a tall, awkward teenager who wore black eyeliner as lipstick and was struggling with the aftermath of her mother's choices. Her memoir is about growing up feeling constantly out of place and redefining what it means to be a family.
11. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
In just 209 pages, this Nigerian-born author crafted a powerful account of precolonial African life. Told through the fictional experiences of Okonkwo, a wealthy and fearless Igbo warrior in the late 1800s, the 1994 novel explores a man’s futile resistance to the devaluing of his Igbo traditions by British forces, and his despair as his community surrenders to the new order.
12. Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins
This debut novel follows a young Harlem woman desperate to become a mother after several pregnancies that have ended in heartbreak. This time, she turns to the Melancons, an old and powerful family known for their caul, a precious layer of skin that is the secret source of their healing power. The deal falls through and the woman delivers a stillborn, but what she doesn't know is that her niece is soon to have a baby with her own caul. This sets into motion a decades-long exploration of the gentrification of Harlem, the ethics of non-traditional family-making and the enduring power of folklore.
13. A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib
Inspired by a speech given by Josephine Baker at the March on Washington in 1963, Abdurraqib has written a profound reflection on how Black performance is woven into the fabric of American culture. Focusing on moments like the 27 seconds in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” in which Merry Clayton screams the words “rape, murder,” and Abdurraqib's own personal history of love, grief and performance, A Little Devil in America is a joyous ode to Black performance throughout history.
14. While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams
No, Stacey Abrams isn’t just a lauded voting rights activist; she’s also a bestselling author on the side, and she’s back with another thriller set within the walls of the Supreme Court. The novel follows Avery, a brilliant young law clerk for the legendary Justice Howard Wynn. When Wynn slips into a coma, Avery is selected to serve as his legal guardian and power of attorney, turning her life upside down. Plunged into a role she never anticipated, Avery is unwittingly thrown into a conspiracy that infiltrates the highest power corridors of Washington.
15. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
Simply put, this book will make you cackle. In this collection of essays, one of the funniest writers of our time covers how her difficult childhood led to a problem in making "adult" budgets, a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic-vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father's ashes, how to navigate friendships with former drinking buddies who are now suburban moms and more.
16. I Can’t Date Jesus by Michael Arceneaux
Growing up black and gay in Houston, Texas, writer Arceneaux had to learn to accept himself in a world that wanted him to change. In his debut book, he touches on everything from coming out to his mom to how he almost ended up in the priesthood.
17. She Memes Well: Essays by Quinta Brunson
You might recognize comedian Quinta Brunson from her really funny tweets or her often viral BuzzFeed videos. Her debut essay collection covers her weird road to Internet notoriety. She discusses what it was like to go from flat broke to “halfway recognizable,” and her experience rising up the ranks in a predominantly white industry.
18. You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson
Proof you can be funny and inspiring? Robinson discusses serious issues like institutionalized racism and misogyny along with lighter ones like being U2’s biggest fan and her Magic Mike movie obsession.
19. Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert
No matter how hard Eve Brown strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding, she decides to grow up—even though she's not entirely sure how. She starts by applying for an open chef position at a bed and breakfast owned by Jacob, a Type-A perfectionist who tells Eve there’s not a chance in hell he’d hire her. Then, she hits him with her car…supposedly by accident. With his arm broken and the B&B understaffed, Eve tries to help and the two develop a bond neither saw coming.
20. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother, Noah's unlikely path from South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. (Under apartheid, his parents' union was punishable by five years in prison.) His moving and searingly funny memoir is about making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, with a keen sense of humor and a mother's unconventional, unconditional love.
21. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar
Written by Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Ruffin and her sister Lamar, You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey is about the sisters’ everyday experiences with racism—both subtly casual and overt. From strangers putting their whole hand in Lacey’s hair to being mistaken for a prostitute (or for Harriet Tubman), Ruffin and Lamar tackle modern-day racism with the perfect balance of levity and gravity.
22. Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
Back in 2018, author Layla F. Saad started a month-long Instagram challenge called #meandwhitesupremacy. In it, she asked people to acknowledge the ways they were complicit in the oppression of Black, indigenous and people of color through carefully crafted journaling prompts. The challenge became so popular that it inspired this book. Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor provides readers with 28 days worth of information, resources and challenges to help them understand how they participate in white supremacy and how they can start dismantling it.
23. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s groundbreaking 1956 novel focuses on 20-something David, an American man living in Paris, and his feelings and frustrations with his relationships with other men in his life—particularly an Italian bartender named Giovanni whom he meets at a Parisian gay bar. The book tackles social isolation, gender and sexual identity crises, as well as conflicts of masculinity.
24. Hunger by Roxane Gay
In this intense, brutally honest book, cultural critic Gay writes with unflinching honesty about her relationship with her body leading up to, during and after a violent childhood sexual assault.
25. Black Futures Edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham
Edited by art curator and writer Drew (This Is What I Know About Art) and New York Times writer and Still Processing podcast co-host Wortham, this collection of images, essays, memes, dialogues, recipes, tweets and more tells the story of the radical, imaginative, provocative and beautiful world that Black creators are bringing forth today, and what it means to be Black and alive right now.
26. Becoming by Michelle Obama
In this intimate and powerful memoir, Obama recounts her childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, her time spent at the White House and more.
27. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Over five years, the acclaimed writer lost five men in her life to drugs, accidents and suicide. Dealing with these losses, she confronted the reality of living through all the dying.
28. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Angelou’s 1969 screed about literature’s power to overcome racism and trauma was on The New York Times best-seller list for a record two years. It’s that good.
29. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction is written as a letter to Coates’s teen son and explores the sometimes-bleak reality of what it means to be Black in the United States. It’s a must-read for young people, as well as anyone who could use a reminder of the subtle—and not so subtle—ways people of color are discriminated against every day (read: most people). Coates recounts his childhood in Baltimore, where he felt he had to be “always on guard,” his experiences with code switching to appeal to white people and the nagging fear of police brutality. Sadly, this one only seems to get more relevant with each passing year.
30. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
In 2019, Bernardine Evaristo became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, for her multi-voiced novel about an interconnected group of Black British women—including a newly acclaimed playwright whose work often explores her Black lesbian identity, a jaded teacher and a successful investment banker. Girl, Woman, Other paints a vivid portrait of the state of contemporary Britain and looks back to the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean.
31. The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
After freeing herself from slavery as a child, Josephine is the proud owner of a thriving farm in 1924. But when her neighbor, a white woman named Charlotte, seeks her company, an uneasy friendship forms—until Charlotte’s relationship with the Ku Klux Klan jeopardizes Josephine’s family. Following her National Book Award–nominated debut, A Kind of Freedom, Wilkerson Sexton’s latest is a historically inspired story about female friendship and impossible survival in the American South.
32. Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom
This writer, sociologist and professor’s debut collection of eight essays combines rigorous research with candid first-person narrative to explore the politics of black womanhood in the 21st century, from the staggering stats about maternal mortality to the hesitation among black women and girls to speak out about sexual assault for fear of implicating black men and boys.
33. How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir by Saeed Jones
In this raw and heartfelt memoir, award-winning poet Saeed Jones writes about being a young, black, gay man from the South fighting to make a place for himself in his family and in the world. From his childhood in Lewisville, Texas, to the MFA program at Rutgers University, it’s about the struggle to find and redefine his identity, as well as a meditation on blackness and queerness, and the ways those identities are continuously discriminated against.
34. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Inspired by a true story, this haunting novel follows a woman named Sethe and her daughter after they escape from slavery and run to Ohio. As we find out about Sethe’s deceased daughter, Beloved, we discover exactly how fiercely Sethe has had to fight to protect her children. Maternal love with a powerful message of perseverance—from one of America’s best writers. While you probably read it in high school, pick it up again for a clearer perspective.
35. Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
In addition to creating, writing and producing Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and producing How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes is the best-selling author of an incredible memoir jam-packed with life advice. While poignantly and humorously chronicling her childhood and rise to success, Rhimes dishes out tips for achieving your goals. It’s a must-read for those wholly uncertain post-college years and beyond.
36. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Smith is known for writing characters so fully realized that you swear you know them, making her novels ripe for adaptation. Our pick would be On Beauty, her 2005 novel about two feuding professors and their families living in a fictional college town outside of Boston. The book tackles black identity, body image, infidelity and class politics, and is an absolute delight to read.
37. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
A masterful historical study, The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Great Migration and the Second Great Migration, two movements of African Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West between 1915 to 1970. The history and statistical analysis of the period are fascinating, but it’s Wilkerson’s biographies of the real people whose lives were changed that make it so memorable. These portraits include Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife who left Mississippi in the 1930s for Chicago and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor who left Louisiana in the early 1950s, moving to Los Angeles.
38. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A look at pre-Civil War era South, The Underground Railroad follows two slaves in Georgia who escape and flee through what Whitehead reimagines as a literal network of underground railroad tracks. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction and more, it’s as much a commentary on the past as it is present-day America. Though it's by no means a pleasant read, Whitehead's genius portrayal of something we think we've learned about is a stunning example of the power fiction has to add depth to real life events.
39. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
In a small, predominantly black community in the South, the identical twin Vignes sisters were inseparable. But later, one decides to run away to California and pass as white. Her white husband and friends know nothing of her history, and her twin sister longs to find her. Weaving together generations of family history, from the Deep South to California and spanning the 1950s to the 1990s, this new novel by the author of The Mothers is an emotional family story that also explores the American history of passing.
40. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
More cheeky than creepy—but with plenty of heart-stopping suspense—this dark comedy about a Nigerian woman whose sister has a nasty habit of murdering her boyfriends stole our hearts. The novel follows Korede, a woman who has always been an unwitting accomplice to her (sort of sociopathic) sister Ayoola’s crimes. But now, Korede is in love, and the guy in question is inching ever closer to Ayoola’s vicious spider web. How can Korede protect the man of her dreams from becoming her sister’s next victim? And ultimately, where will Korede’s loyalties lie?
41. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
This bestseller tells the story of Alix Chamberlain, a white woman, and Emira Tucker, her black babysitter, who gets racially profiled at a grocery store while watching Alix’s daughter one night. As the story unfolds, questions around race, white privilege and tokenism emerge as the two women grapple with their identities and their relationship to one another.
42. What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
The daughter of two mixed-race parents, Thandi has always struggled to navigate the mostly white suburbs of Philadelphia, where she's mistaken for Hispanic, Asian and Jewish. Her questions of identity intensify with the death of her mother, her strongest link to family in South Africa. Stuck between two cultures and continents, she comes to terms with the loss while navigating issues like friendships, motherhood, race, identity and family roots.
43. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This National Book Award-winning tome is a collection of personal poetry about growing up as a black girl in South Carolina and New York in the ’60s and ’70s. It should be considered required reading for everyone—regardless of their age. Woodson’s poems alternate between innocence and experience, but all are touching and powerful.
44. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr is stuck between two worlds: the poor community where she lives and the affluent prep school she attends. This balancing act becomes even trickier when her childhood best friend is shot to death by the police in front of her eyes. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s an important read for adults and teens alike.
45. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Set in central and southern Florida in the 1930s, Hurston’s novel about a young girl named Janie Crawford is widely regarded as a seminal work in both African-American literature and women's literature.
46. Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper
In this timely book, Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies professor Cooper explores the ways sexism, racism and classism are linked, and how feminism has the potential to begin undoing the damage.
47. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
In this Bridget Jones-esque story, a Jamaican British woman working at a London newspaper seeks comfort in the wrong places after a messy breakup with her white boyfriend.
48. American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
The spy genre gets turned on its head in Wilkinson’s debut novel. This Cold War–era tale follows intelligence officer Marie Mitchell from New York City to an undercover mission in Burkina Faso, where she’s tasked with cozying up to a charismatic Communist leader. It has all the hallmarks of a page-turning espionage thriller—along with the complex themes and questions a black female perspective brings to the table.
49. Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham
In Lagos, Nigeria, in 1996, the lives of twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike are turned upside down when their mother loses her job due to political strife. With their family now facing poverty, they turn to a suspicious spiritual institution that leads their father to wager the family home on a bet that goes up in flames. In the fallout, the inseparable sisters are forced to navigate their way on their own.
50. The Dragons, The Giant, The Women: A Memoir by Wayétu Moore
When Liberian writer Wayétu Moore (She Would Be King) was five years old, all she could think about was how much she missed her mother, who was working and studying in New York. Before they could be reunited, war broke out in Liberia, forcing the family to flee their home on foot, walking and hiding for three weeks before eventually settling in the United States. Moore’s memoir covers her early childhood, her years adjusting to life in Texas as a black woman and an immigrant, and her eventual return to Liberia.