The best books written by African American female authors every African American female author should read

Who am I?

I am a black female writer who instinctively understood that in becoming an African American writer of stories (and essays), I would need to write from a long tradition of African American culture and history, as well as to learn everything I could from the amazing list of African American female writers who came before me. I embraced that notion, and as I began to place my own words on the page, I paid close attention to how those women writers had carefully chosen their own. These are the five books by African American women writers who have inspired me and helped me become the best writer I can be.

I wrote...

The Persimmon Trail and Other Stories

By Juyanne James,

Book cover of The Persimmon Trail and Other Stories

What is my book about?

This is Juyanne James’s debut collection of stories, exploring the African American experience set in southern Louisiana.

The seventeen stories depict strong female characters, but men and families as well, all learning to find their way. Hard work and perseverance are necessary traits among the characters. Juyanne’s lyrical style evokes the grit and brutal beauty of life in the parishes. [Juyanne is pronounced “Gee-ahn”]

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The books I picked & why

Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Why did I love this book?

Hurston portrays African American vernacular culture like no other writer.

Reading her Harlem Renaissance novel about an African American female searching for identity helped determine the type of writer I wanted to be. Hurston is known for her diction and poetic techniques: the characters in her novel are revealed in rich, careful metaphors and similes.

As a young writer, I wanted to emulate Hurston’s ability to warp language into something so eloquent, hoping that one day the literary world might read my work and think of hers. She also taught me that I should choose my own style in developing my work because no one author’s interpretation or abilities could ever define the depth of African American culture.

Reading her novel helped me understand how important it was to find my place within that rich tradition. 

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cover design by Harlem renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds ...

'For me, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is one of the very greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought, but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece…

Book cover of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Why did I love this book?

As a teenager, reading Angelou’s autobiographical coming-of-age story woke me up to possibilities outside the small town where I grew up.

I realized that if young Maya could overcome the perils of rape and racism, then surely I could survive my own trials and become a strong female and a writer myself. Angelou taught me that writers should never fear the words that must find the page, even if those words are embarrassing or uncomfortable for others to read.

No one reveals characters and their motivation, nor family struggles and sacrifice, like Angelou does. She portrays the African American experience with dignity—even its ugly, unspeakable truths. In the many times that I have read Caged Bird, I have always felt the power of this iconic piece of literature and its ability to inspire generations of young girls.

But mostly, Angelou showed me that I, too, could become a writer. 

By Maya Angelou,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Maya Angelou's seven volumes of autobiography are a testament to the talents and resilience of this extraordinary writer. Loving the world, she also knows its cruelty. As a Black woman she has known discrimination and extreme poverty, but also hope, joy,achievement and celebration. In this first volume of her six books of autobiography, Maya Angelou beautifully evokes her childhood with her grandmother in the American south of the 1930s. She learns the power of the white folks at the other end of town and suffers the terrible trauma of rape by her mother's lover.

The Bluest Eye

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of The Bluest Eye

Why did I love this book?

Morrison often said she wrote her novels because there was no one writing what she wanted to read. I admire that sentiment because it just makes sense: if there is nothing to read, write it yourself.

She did not simply want to write; she wanted to write specifically from the black perspective, from both a thoroughly political and historical context. She taught me that I should always critique society and ask others to do the same. In this book, now studied in literature classes (and other disciplines) across the world, Morrison forces the very young protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, deeply into our consciousnesses, forcing us to look at the plight and circumstances of marginalized people.

Morrison reminded me of one of the many duties of good literature: to lead others to think, which might thereby lead to positive change. In this way, Morrison wants every writer to know that a large part of the tradition of African American literature is to explore the often unspoken yet important topics in society.

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Bluest Eye as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Read the searing first novel from the celebrated author of Beloved, which immerses us in the tragic, torn lives of a poor black family in post-Depression 1940s Ohio.

Unlovely and unloved, Pecola prays each night for blue eyes like those of her privileged white schoolfellows. At once intimate and expansive, unsparing in its truth-telling, The Bluest Eye shows how the past savagely defines the present. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison's virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterised her writing.


The Color Purple

By Alice Walker,

Book cover of The Color Purple

Why did I love this book?

As a teenager when I first read Walker’s novel, I felt a little embarrassed that the author would be sharing our culture’s secrets so easily.

All the things that were happening in Celie’s world, I had seen or heard about in my own home or community, and absolutely no one was speaking openly about those ugly truths. There seemed to be an unwritten rule that no one would. As I continued to read, the novel and other works by Walker, I felt even more assured that she and I had been living much the same existence. Her words seemed to be coming straight from my own limited voice.

Later, as I began my process of becoming a writer, I went back to The Color Purple and saw the natural truths there within the pages. I began to learn that I could subvert, or at least shift and maneuver through the conventions of genre and style to tell my own stories.

I saw that no one writes about the South as Walker does, and as a writer from Louisiana, I accepted that I should write from my own sense of place. I also learned how to listen to characters and let them reveal their interior voices; I learned how to share strong black female voices with the world. 

By Alice Walker,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked The Color Purple as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Alice Walker's iconic modern classic is now a Penguin Book.

A powerful cultural touchstone of modern American literature, The Color Purple depicts the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia. Separated as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie sustain their loyalty to and hope in each other across time, distance and silence. Through a series of letters spanning twenty years, first from Celie to God, then the sisters to each other despite the unknown, the novel draws readers into its rich and memorable portrayals of Celie, Nettie, Shug…

Book cover of The Autobiography of My Mother

Why did I love this book?

I may have admired Kincaid as a person even before I read her novel about a young woman who must find her way in life after her mother dies during childbirth. I admired Kincaid’s determined journey to become a writer: she left home as a teenager, worked, found a job as a staff writer for The New Yorker, then began writing stories and novels, even changing her name in the process.

Reading Autobiography—one of several of her books about the mother/daughter relationship—gave me a meaningful connection between the story being told and the language/syntax being used to tell that story. Kincaid’s amazing sense of honesty is only eclipsed by her lyrically perfect prose. I knew that if I found myself writing in that same beautiful style, I, too, might be able to tell my own stories as they should be told.

I also admired Kincaid’s ease in writing about female relationships, something that should be fundamental and common, but which is often taboo and rare.

And lastly, Kincaid showed me that creativity and imagination are tools I have available to me as a writer.

By Jamaica Kincaid,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Autobiography of My Mother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the recipient of the 2010 Clifton Fadiman Medal, an unforgettable novel of one woman's courageous coming-of-age

Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother is a story of love, fear, loss, and the forging of character, an account of one woman's inexorable evolution, evoked in startling and magical poetry.

Powerful, disturbing, stirring, Jamaica Kincaid's novel is the deeply charged story of a woman's life on the island of Dominica. Xuela Claudette Richardson, the daughter of a Carib mother and a half-Scottish, half-African father, loses her mother to death the moment she is born and must find her way on her…

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