In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting stories by black women. All of these selections illustrate the complexities that black women have faced when confronting new destinations or social realities. Because of a history of gender and racial bias, black women writers have been underrepresented in the literary canon. In broadening the landscape the literature we’re sharing in the classroom, it’s crucial to raise the visibility of the work of black women writers and listen to their stories.
From memoirs to historical fiction, novels to short stories, these eight works by black women writers offer thought-provoking social commentary and unrelenting honesty.
1. Becoming by Michelle Obama
There’s a reason why Becoming has taken a steady spot on several bestseller lists. The memoir is an invitation into Michelle Obama’s private world, sharing the intimate experiences that have shaped her into one of the most iconic women of our time. She shares the triumphs and setbacks from her humble beginnings on the South Side of Chicago to her historical residency on Pennsylvania Avenue. A woman who will not be defined by one title, Becoming is about dreaming big and embracing your personal growth.
Awarded the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir told in verse. Woodson recounts growing up as a young African American in South Carolina and New York during the 1960s. During a time of racial segregation, Woodson parallels her coming-of-age narrative with her poetry as she discovers her voice through writing about her experiences as a young black woman dealing with racial injustice.
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel traces the history of two families from Africa: one that was sold into slavery and one that was spared. The chapters alternate between the descendants of the two families, each generation representing a different time period of the shared African American experience in the United States. The intersecting narratives explore a long, dark history of oppression, providing different lenses into the past. Gyasi’s novel is a reminder that “history is storytelling” and listening to the voices of those silenced and suppressed will help us understand what has shaped the present.
4. Kindred by Octavia Butler
The first science fiction novel written by a black woman, Kindred is about a 20th-century African American woman who is frequently transported back in time to the antebellum South. As she switches between her home in 1970s Los Angeles and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation, she meets her ancestors and experiences the role of a black woman during slavery. Octavia Butler highlights how the intersectionality of power, race, and identity have contributed to the social conditioning that has influenced years of racism.
5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Inspired by the 2009 police shooting of Oscar Grant, The Hate U Give is about a young black girl finding her voice and speaking her truth. When she witnesses the shooting of her best friend at the hands of a police offer, Starr Carter must decide whether to share what she knows or stay silent. In this YA novel, Angie Thomas addresses contemporary issues of racism and police violence by telling the story through the eyes of a relatable, young protagonist caught between two worlds. Starr’s story encourages fearlessly speaking up on behalf of all of those who have been silenced.
6. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Helen Oyeyemi draws on Nigerian mythology to tell a story of a solitary, young girl struggling to find her place in the world. During a summer visit to Nigeria, the young protagonist finally finds someone she believes she can call a friend, even though no one else can see her. With vivid imagination, Oyeyemi takes readers through a mysterious series of events that lead to a haunting discovery. A novel about the dualities of identity and culture, Oyeyemi’s story encourages readers to explore what lies at the root of feeling displaced.
In this short story collection, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares twelve different tales about identity and displacement. The characters are mostly women who leave Nigeria in pursuit of a new life in the United States. Each narrative highlights the complexities of the immigrant experience and the struggle to maintain connections with heritage while adapting to a new culture. Adichie is a native Nigerian who moved to the U.S. for college, and her writing provides insight into not only the loneliness embedded in migration but also the importance of acknowledging your roots.
Bulawayo’s novel highlights the motivations that influence individuals migrating to a new country and their search for belonging. As a young African immigrant assimilating to American life, Darling experiences the difficulties of growing up in an unfamiliar culture. As the protagonist shares the differences between her home country of Zimbabwe and her livelihood in the U.S., she depicts how coming of age in an impoverished country rather than a prospering country yields different outcomes.