The best books beautifully portraying the strength & vulnerabilities of African-American historical heroines

Suzette Harrison Author Of My Name Is Ona Judge
By Suzette Harrison

Who am I?

I have a youthful spirit, but an old soul. Perhaps, that’s why I love African American history and gravitated to Black Studies as my undergraduate degree. My reverence for my ancestors sends me time and again to African-American historical fiction in an effort to connect with our past. Growing up, I was that kid who liked being around my elders and eavesdropping on grown-ups' conversations. Now, I listen to my ancestors as they guide my creativity. I’m an award-winning hybrid author writing contemporary and historical novels, and I value each. Still, it’s those historical characters and tales that snatch me by the hand and passionately urge me to do their bidding. 

I wrote...

My Name Is Ona Judge

By Suzette Harrison,

Book cover of My Name Is Ona Judge

What is my book about?

New Hampshire, 1796. “My name is Ona Judge, and I escaped from the household of the President of the United States. I was the favored maid of George and Martha Washington, but they deemed me a slave and thought me property. Now I must write the truth that I have lived, and tell my story…”

Meet Ona Judge, the young, brave lady’s maid who dared to risk her entire world by escaping enslavement. Take a walk through her early years and the circumstances that led to her harrowing escape. A dynamic dual timeline narrative based on a true story, this riveting novel will whisk you to another world and arrest your imagination.

The books I picked & why

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By Bernice L. McFadden,

Book cover of Sugar

Why this book?

Once upon a time, I was the founder and president of a book club, Literary Ladies Alliance. Many moons ago, LLA chose Sugar as our monthly reading selection. I was absolutely floored by this unlikely, unconventional heroine of the same name as the novel set in a small southern town that wasn’t ready for this seductive storm, i.e. Sugar. I found her shockingly bold and beautifully unapologetic despite her disreputable past and “questionable morals.” She hungered for love, endured dangerous risks and scandal; and yet for me, Sugar moved with an air of voluptuous freedom that captivated my church girl imagination and respect. While Dianne McKinney Whetstone is my favorite author, Sugar is undoubtedly my favorite novel! I’ve read the book twice and would readily devour it again for its captivating journey back in time and its uncharacteristic, boldly unforgettable heroine. 

The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner

By Andrea Smith,

Book cover of The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner

Why this book?

While the minute details of the plot may have faded, I still recall the feelings Sisterhood left me with, its essence. As the middle of three daughters, sisterhood is highly important to me. Although the women in the book weren’t biologically connected, their bond and unification were definite. I consider our protagonist Bonnie Wilder (despite her own personal challenges), her best friend, Thora, and the women of Blackberry Corner heroic in their efforts to rescue abandoned children—thus, touching on another topic important to me: motherhood. If you like small-town stories with lively, colorful characters, historical references, and a touch of drama dive into The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner. The sense of satisfaction I felt when reading it remains with me still. 

Miss Ophelia

By Mary Burnett Smith,

Book cover of Miss Ophelia

Why this book?

Part coming-of-age story, part slice of adult drama and misbehavior, this book impressed itself on my memory with its deceptive sweetness and heart-wrenching likability. It touches on teenaged pregnancy while examining infidelity stemming from a faulty marriage between a likable man and a bitter woman. I loved its honest examination of problematic, complex relationships—husband to wife, and child to adult. It is beautifully drawn, complex, and definitely on my "Books I can Re-Read Endlessly” list.

Mrs. Wiggins

By Mary Monroe,

Book cover of Mrs. Wiggins

Why this book?

Clearly, I’m a fan of small, southern town tales depicting amazing African American females who make magic out of the injustices stacked against them. Well, meet Maggie Wiggins. She and her best friend, Hubert, turn life tragedies and situations into a “perfectly suited” marriage of deception. Outwardly, they live an enviable existence; but only they know the cost of their happiness. I love Mary Monroe’s ability to infuse humor into the most chilling situations, as well as her small town cosmoses and complicated, “countrified” characters. They frustrate me to no end, yet I find myself rooting for them, just as I rooted for Maggie to win. She does in the end but at such a horrific cost that I’ll never look at a bowl of gumbo the same way again. 

Looking for Hope

By Mbinguni,

Book cover of Looking for Hope

Why this book?

I’ve always been an avid reader despite not having peer-aged characters who resembled or represented me when I was a child. Fast forward to when my children were little: suddenly, there existed a plethora of African-American children’s literature. With pure delight, I indulged my little ones in magnificent books featuring characters that reflected them. Want to know a secret? I read those books for myself as well as for them. Recently, when finding a young African American girl at the center of Looking for Hope, I felt a delightful connection with my inner child. Make no mistakes. The young protagonist, Hannah “Mouse” Maynard, endures a horrific life event that alters her existence, interrupts her innocence, and thrusts her into a perilous, mature journey that fails to diminish her abiding sweetness. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in African Americans, South Carolina, and Arkansas?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about African Americans, South Carolina, and Arkansas.

African Americans Explore 403 books about African Americans
South Carolina Explore 17 books about South Carolina
Arkansas Explore 14 books about Arkansas

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Warriors Don't Cry: The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era, and Dust Tracks on a Road: A Memoir if you like this list.