Quintessential Black Literature, According to Black Booksellers

We consulted the staff at eight Black-owned bookshops across the country to share their must-reads by Black authors throughout history.

Collage by Maridelis Morales Rosado for W Magazine.

Last summer, interest in anti-racist reading surged amid Black Lives Matter protests and a racial reckoning that left no institution untouched, as people began questioning their existing notions of white fragility and what it means to be an ally to Black people. In turn, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo shot up bestseller lists and became woven into the fabric of everyday discourse.

Although the books listed above are unquestionably meaningful, they are by no means the only texts on subjects pertaining to Black people and their experiences that should be added to your bookshelf. We consulted the staff at eight Black-owned bookshops across the country to weigh in on what they consider to be quintessential Black literature—must-reads of all genres and by all kinds of Black authors.

People Get Ready, New Haven, Connecticut

Delores Williams, Co-owner

Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson: After decades of theater and on-screen art, she has left us. She was our grandmother, mother, sister, aunt, friend, lover. She was all the things we needed in the divine feminine and we were lucky that she expressed her gifts. Perhaps the biggest lesson she left us: express whatever you believe.

The Son of Mr. Suleman by Eric Jerome Dickey: Eric Jerome Dickey is the king of writing Black joy. His characters evoke a sense of esteem for self, showing how they might be if white folks just left them alone. If we could just be our happy, sensual, ambitious, free selves we would be modeling one of his characters. However, this book takes on grief, racism, and microaggressions in a big way, too; it’s the first of his works to do so with such detailed intention.

Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown: If “double consciousness” were a book for a young Black girl, this would be it. For years, through our experiences, my friends and I have discussed the question of formal education vs. community education and what we give up in search of balance. If you do not live in an affluent neighborhood, do you want your child to be formally well-educated outside of their community? This tome asks the questions: What do we consider “well-educated”? Where do we invest our time and energy?

The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health by Rheeda Walker: This is essential reading. BIPOC folks need to be unapologetic and tenacious about protecting themselves within the health care system. Having a healthy mind is the first step to self-advocacy.

Semicolon, Chicago

DL Mullen, Co-Owner

All About Love by bell hooks: It discusses how love for self begets love for community, and that’s an incredibly important lesson.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Zora was a fierce and feminine voice in a time when being that way was frowned upon. The story is riveting and defines true love through any and all circumstances.”

Harriett’s Bookshop, Philadelphia

Jeannine Cook, Co-owner

She Came to Slay by Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a comprehensive narrative about the life of Harriet Tubman [the heroine for whom the bookshop is named].

Homegirls and Handgrenades by Sonia Sanchez is a book of poetry by Philadelphia’s first poet laureate. Sanchez has many, many more books—but we have to start somewhere.

Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson: This novel, which just came out last month, is a work of historical fiction based on true events. It follows one women’s strategic fight for freedom in the Antebellum South.

The Price of a Child by Lorene Cary tells a fresh, eye-opening story of the Underground Railroad and the life of free Black communities in Philadelphia during the 1800s.”

Eso Won Books, Los Angeles

James Fugate, Co-owner

Our Time Is Now by Stacey Abrams: According to Stacey Abrams, the key is voting. Black Americans turned out in record numbers in 2008 and 2012, making Barack Obama President of the United States. Many stayed home from the polls in 2016, but 2020 showed again the power of the Black turnout—not just for the Presidency, but in Georgia, too, where two Democrats were elected to the Senate. Stacey showed us how to do it, and her book is so important.

A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by Lynell George: A must-read for all the fans of this great writer’s work. We knew Octavia and loved her—this is such a great book on her life and the craft of writing.

Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler: Butler’s book on race is one of the best in the last 20 years. A clear-eyed view on how to live and survive in America, it’s an outstanding work, which should be read and talked about, especially among young people. Confrontations with the police can end very badly and people need a framework for how to handle these issues.”

Good Books, Atlanta, Georgia

Katie Mitchell, Co-owner

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston was the first book I fell in love with. It was assigned reading my junior year of high school. Janie’s story taught me about love, family, and the importance of choosing you. Hurston’s words inspired plenty of essays, poems, and short stories from me that year.

Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis is must-read non-fiction for anyone who cares about civil rights and women’s rights. One of the many things I love about Angela Davis is that her writing is so accessible. She has helped generations of activists and students of social justice movements.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer is the perfect collection of short stories and Colson Whitehead’s favorite book to teach. I laughed out loud plenty of times while reading it and also shed a few tears. It’s the only published book by ZZ Packer and should be on everyone’s bookshelf.”

Sisters Uptown Bookstore, New York City

Kori N. Wilson, Operations Manager

“My mission is to continue to be a beacon of light in the community and the universe. We are not just a bookstore, we are a hub for the exchange of information and ideals. My business is meaningful to me because my purpose allows me to give back to the community. It allows my people to self educate, educate our children and allow them to see themselves in books written by folk who look like them. Our stories, history, and culture must be told, preserved, and housed. Our truth will set us free.” Here’s Wilson’s list:

The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The Dead Are Arising by Les and Tamara Payne

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


Jennifer Gomez and Marvin Francois, Cofounders

“Black literature is as expansive as the Black experience. It’s joy and romance; it’s pain and perseverance. It is real and fantastical. It transcends time and offers nuanced perspectives that inspire readers to peel back the layers of society, history, and themselves.”Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Dubois

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel E. Joseph

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Marcus Books, Oakland, California

Jasmine Johnson, Team Member

Sula by Toni Morrison: In this novel—one that centers Black femme friendship, Black maternity, and self-possession—Morrison’s words are sharp as a knife and as smooth as melted butter. Through her telling, the Black people that live and make ‘The Bottom’ are storied, capacious, full of depth, imperfect, and beyond worthy of our attention. This book never ages; it is always on time.

Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon: Written during the final years of the Algerian War of Independence, Wretched of the Earth is a powerful book that charts the urgency of African independence and radical self-determination. Martinican psychiatrist, playwright, and visionary Frantz Fanon authored a text that is canonical, in part because of the ways it expresses the imperative labor of de-colonization.”

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