10 Under-Read Novels by Black Writers
As part of our celebration of Black History Month, the Great Books Foundation, with the help of a few of our academic and writer friends, has come up with a list of ten under-read novels by black writers. Some books are lesser-known works by famous writers, while others are the work of writers deserving much more attention. All, we think, are definitely worth a read.
Check out our list below:
- Chinua Achebe, No Longer At Ease (1960)—Achebe is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). The supposed follow-up to that literary classic, No Longer At Ease is the second book in Achebe’s “African Trilogy” and tells the story of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi.
- David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident (1981)—Known mostly for his nonfiction and work on Mark Twain, The Chaneysville Incident is Bradley’s second novel. This criminally under-read book centers on a black historian who becomes obsessed with the circumstances surrounding his father’s life and death.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (1953)—Brooks is widely adored for her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, but her lone novella is an utterly brilliant and poetic rendering of everyday black life in Chicago.
- Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker (2004)—“Dew breaker” is a Creole euphemism for the torturers who served Haiti’s president François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. A work of interrelated stories that can be read separately or as a whole, The Dew Breaker is a beautiful text about a brutal epoch.
- Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Sport of the Gods (1902)—The Sport of the Gods tells the story of the Hamiltons, who are forced to migrate north after their patriarch is wrongfully jailed for stealing. Dunbar’s novel is both a timely and timeless exploration of urban black life.
- Mat Johnson, Pym (2011)—A hilarious novel about an English professor, Chris Jaynes, who leads an all-black group to the South Pole, in search of an island mentioned in Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Fans of graphic novels might also enjoy Johnson’s fantastic Incognegro (2008).
- Gayl Jones, Corregidora (1975)—One of the most original writerly voices to come out of the 1970s, Jones’s first novel, edited by Toni Morrison, is a powerful rumination on history, memory, and the black body.
- Suzan-Lori Parks, Getting Mother’s Body (2003)—The MacArthur “genius” grant winner has received tremendous acclaim for her plays, but this humorous road trip novel, inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, is a hidden gem in Parks’s impressive oeuvre—and well worth the read.
- Ann Petry, The Narrows (1953)—Petry’s first novel, The Street (1946), made her the first black woman to sell over one million copies of a book. Set in New England after World War II, The Narrows is a powerful and complex narrative about interracial love and racial conflict.
- George Schuyler, Black No More (1931)—Schuyler was a journalist and social commentator known for his conservative views. Some of Schuyler’s thoughts on race can be traced in this afrofuturistic-flavored satire of the Harlem Renaissance, and his commentary on racism and identity ring relevant today.
Which books would you add to this list? Leave your comments below!
Many thanks to the following people who selflessly lent their expertise and assistance to the compiling of this list:
John Lowney, Professor of English, St. John’s University (LOWNEYJ@stjohns.edu)
Rion Amilcar Scott (@reeamilcarscott), fiction writer, author of the short story collection Wolf Tickets
Professor of English, St. John’s University Michelle R. Smith, MA, poet and fiction writer
Post by Summer McDonald, Great Books K-12 content development editor