10 Works of Black Literature America Needs Right Now

R. Eric Thomas presents his recommendations for the Black Lit Canon of 2017

02.07.17
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Reading is so in this year. Everyone in the United States is suddenly buying 1984 because “theoretical dystopias as reality” are the hot new look, so listen up, America. Take your seats. I’m your substitute teacher, Sister Mary Clarence, and it’s time to talk about the Black Literature Canon.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of important books about Black American experiences; rather, this is a survey of books that — like 1984 — will give you insight into the conversations that are happening right now (usually on your Facebook feed).

I will now take questions.

What qualifies you to make this list? Qualifications are out this year.

What should we do if we missed an important book? You need to immediately tell me in the comments. Just, like, be nice. I’m really sensitive. Because America.

What are your thoughts on chocolate croissants? I’m glad you asked. Huge fan. But please, let’s stay on topic.

Would you call this a lit Black Lit reader? I absolutely would.

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For when your resistance is poetic: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

This National Book Award-nominated collection of poetry shot from essential to iconic when Johari Osayi Idusuyi pulled out a copy at a Trump rally in Springfield and blithely read it in full view of the cameras (see above). Put your your most unbothered floppy hat and dive into this gorgeous meditation on race, identity and belonging in America.

Also read: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For by Alice Walker

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For an intersectional primer: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Lorde is a hugely influential Black lesbian feminist essayist, poet and speaker and this collection covers absolutely everything. I mean everything: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism. More than anything, however, she talks about hope for a more just world. Let her words — some of the backbones of intersectional feminism — guide your activism this year.

Also read: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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For when you want to investigate whiteness: Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

I know what you’re thinking: Talk more about chocolate croissants! Also, why are we investigating whiteness? Simple: because race is a construct in which we all participate. Sometimes, to learn about Black experiences, we have to talk about white experiences with race. Jacobs-Jenkins, a brilliant Black playwright, sets his sites on a white family in the modern-day South that is ripped apart by a racially charged piece of its inheritance. It’s a funny, incisive play that takes a look at the dialogues that the country has been having around race for decades.

Also read: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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For literally 253 pages of laughter: Meaty by Samantha Irby

Sometimes important Black lit is about The Struggle; sometimes it’s about a struggle, like Irby’s laugh-out-loud essay, “How to Get Your Disgusting Meat Carcass Ready for Some New, Hot Sex.” The creator of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat takes on blackness, body and dating with a razor-sharp wit that reminds readers that wokeness and joy often go hand-in-hand. When 2017’s many challenges get you down, pick up Meaty and treat yourself.

Also read: I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi

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For badass superheroics: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Book 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze

When Marvel announced that the MacArthur Genius and author of Between the World and Me would be penning a storyline for its venerable Black Panther series, we knew it was going to be lit. The eponymous hero is ruler of the kingdom of Wakanda, a mythical African nation that’s one of the richest and most technologically advanced on the planet. When you need a Black Excellence/Afro-Futurism fix, Black Panther never disappoints. A Nation Under Our Feet focuses on a once-stable kingdom in crisis (sound familiar?) and considers Wakanda as both a utopia (I’d move there in a heartbeat, tbh) and also a model to which all can aspire (#yeswecan).

Also read: Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy

Happy reading! Sister Mary Clarence out!

R. Eric Thomas is a playwright and person on the internet. He writes a daily humor column called “Eric Reads the News” on Elle.com. Read his Sunday Scaries diary for MR here.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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  • Chloe Stella

    Will definitely look into reading these throughout 2017. Does your mag have a section dedicated to literature? If not, it would be great to start some sort of monthly book reading/recommendations column. If yes, then I would definitely love to know more about it! Just a thought. Anyhoo, great article! Thanks!

    • Amelia Diamond

      we have done MR book recommendations! http://www.manrepeller.com/set/mr-book-club

      • Chloe Stella

        Woo! Can’t wait to browse through these and find more to read! Thanks 🙂

    • Hellbetty666

      Ooh I second a recommendations column. I also remember when Cosmo used to do novel extracts – I discovers some of my favourite books that way. MOAR BOOKS*!

      *my bookshelves do not agree with this statement.

  • Thanks for this great selection, some of them are already on my list! I absolutely loved “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written as a letter to the author’s son that personally gave me a lot of perspective.

  • chouette

    Can we throw in Octavia Butler? Afrofuturist, feminist, Nebula-award-winning badass! The Xenogenesis series is so profoundly relevant to a lot of what’s happening (and has been happening) in the world today. Her book Kindred is a quicker read and no less worth checking out – a modern black woman accidentally time travels back in time and has to save her slave ancestors.

  • ms4386

    Thank you for this awesome list! I hope we see more like this.

  • Kathy Cappa
  • Julia

    I’ve been searching for something like a Black Lit reader lately, after devouring all the published poetry of Nayirrah Waheed in the course of a week. I miss my college days spending hours poring over post-colonial feminist literature. I just pulled the plug and Amazon prime’d almost every book on this list. Thanks MR!

  • Olivia

    I love Erasure by Percival Everett!

  • Solid list! I’d add Americanah, Just Mercy, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, The Sellout and Between the World and Me to this List!! Top five books that I read in 2015 that all speak to the black experience in America, which are not singular (African v. African American, urban poor in an East Coast elite school, the criminal justice system as it relates to capital punishment and trying children as adults…WHY and satire).

  • Annamiek

    HIGHLY recommend Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (living legend)