I’ll be the first to admit that my reading list needs more diversity, and I’d be willing to bet that yours does too. Unfortunately, it’s a problem that extends to the publishing industry at large. Last year for Book Expo of America’s first “reader conference,” they unveiled a list of 30 children’s and young adult authors…and every single one was white. In response, the We Need Diverse Books movement took off. It’s one year later. BEA announced another all-white book panel for this year’s children’s conference. Sigh.
We need diverse books. We need diverse authors. So why not take Black History Month as an opportunity to do something about it? This month, I’m making a conscious effort to diversify my reading list. Today, that starts with these ten African American authors. Join me in adding them to your “To Read” shelf!
1. Issa Rae
Issa Rae’s inevitably hilarious essay collection, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, came out just last week, and I’m stoked to get my hands on it. For a preview of what awaits you inside these pages, check out Issa’s award-winning web series of the same name. It garnered her 150,000 YouTube subscribers, and put her on Glamour’s 35 Under 35 list as well as Forbes’ 30 Under 30. She developed a comedy for ABC with Shonda Rhimes that unfortunately didn’t get picked up, but she’s currently working on another with Larry Wilmore. Get on the Issa Rae bandwagon like…now.
2. Tavis Smiley
Specifically, I mean Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Year. I was working at Hachette when this by-all-accounts fantastic book was being published, and it’s a failure on my part that I haven’t read it yet. Kirkus called it “a reverential look at Martin Luther King Jr.’s last agonizing year that does not disguise the flaws of a saint,” including his struggles with alcohol and infidelity. Death of a King tells a more intimate story that gives readers a more complete understanding of Dr. King and the hero he was.
3. Ralph Ellison
I’ve said it before on Levo and I’ll say it again: You probably read (or were supposed to read) Invisible Man in high school, and you need to read it again. Ellison’s powerful novel is—unfortunately—just as relevant and necessary today as it was in 1952. In addition to important insights about “color-blindness” and ignorance, Invisible Man is a love letter to language and its power to shape meaning and identity. Read it. Read it again.
4. Toni Morrison
One of the greatest writers alive, Pulitzer-, Nobel Prize-, and Presidential Medal of Freedom-winning Toni Morrison is an obvious necessity on this list. I’m obsessed with this quote from Morrison about her books in a recent interview: “I’m not trying to cast blame, I’m just trying to look at something without blinking.” Since we can’t all go to Oberlin and soak up her wisdom in person, we’ll have to get by reading Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and the rest of her incredible works.
5. LaShonda Barnett
LaShonda Barnett’s debut novel Jam on the Vine was published last month to a flood of starred and rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, and the like. It’s being touted as a new American classic that belongs alongside Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and the reviews seem to be on board with that bold claim. It tells the story of a young black journalist named Ivoe Williams, who, in the midst of 1919’s horrific Red Summer, helps her family flee the South and founds America’s first female-run African American newspaper.
6. Ernest J. Gaines
Ernest Gaines has published nine books and myriad short stories since 1956, but to start, you’ve got to read his Pulitzer-nominated, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, A Lesson Before Dying. A young man returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach and visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. They forge a bond and come to understand the heroism of resistance. It’s an unbelievably moving novel that you will not soon forget.
7. Maya Angelou
Since she passed away last year, I’ve been moved to read more of Maya Angelou’s tremendous canon. Unsurprisingly, that started with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. The New York Times Book Review explains Maya’s originality perfectly: “The wisdom, rue and humor of her storytelling are borne on a lilting rhythm completely her own, the product of a born writer’s senses nourished on black church singing and preaching, soft mother talk and salty street talk, and on literature: James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Shakespeare and Gorki.”
8. Ernessa T. Carter
Like Issa Rae, Ernessa T. Carter is a young writer you should keep an eye out for. Her first novel 32 Candles was published in 2011 to impressive reviews, and I’m hoping for a follow up son! 32 Candles tells the story of ugly duckling Davie Jones, a nerdy girl growing up in poverty in small-town Mississippi and dreaming of her “Molly Ringwald ending.” When she grows up and reinvents herself as a Hollywood lounge singer, her dark past threatens to catch up with her.
9. Zora Neale Hurston
If you haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God yet…I think you know what I’m going to say. The 1937 classic is an enduring Southern love story that “belongs in the same category with that of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway (Saturday Review).” But you know what you should also read of hers? Some of her fantastic children’s books, like Lies and Other Tall Tales and What’s the Hurry, Fox?
10. Nick Burd
I have been loving on YA lately, so Nick Burd’s debut The Vast Fields of Ordinary is absolutely next on my list. It’s the story of a teenage boy’s last summer at home, complete with a crappy job, a crappier boyfriend, and his parents’ marriage falling apart. He soon meets and falls in love with a mysterious stranger, but at the end of summer, tragedy strikes. The New York Times called it “fascinating and dreamy” and said “The Vast Fields of Ordinary reads like the best kind of first novel—it’s packed with insights that might have been carried around for years, just waiting to come out.” Yes please.
Photo: Mark Edward Atkinson / Tracey Lee / Getty Images