The best Harlem Renaissance books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about the Harlem Renaissance and why they recommend each book.

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Huck's Raft

By Steven Mintz,

Book cover of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Your schoolbooks left them out, but young people are American history makers and they have been so for over 300 years. Huck’s Raft presents the way children shaped the American experience and how their lives evolved over time. You’ll meet young people here from the seventeenth-century port cities to the nineteenth-century slave plantations to the Depression-era hobo camps and on to the end of the twentieth century. It’s history you need to know and will have fun learning.


Who am I?

I’ve been writing, speaking, blogging, and tweeting about the history of American children and their childhoods for many decades. When I went to school—a long time ago—the subject did not come up, nor did I learn much in college or graduate school. I went out and dug up the story as did many of the authors I list here. I read many novels and autobiographies featuring childhood, and I looked at family portraits in museums with new eyes. Childhood history is fascinating and it is a lot of fun. And too, it is a great subject for book groups.


I wrote...

Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America Into the Twentieth Century

By Janet Golden,

Book cover of Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America Into the Twentieth Century

What is my book about?

Babies Made Us Modern analyzes the dramatic transformations in the lives of babies during the 20th century. I take my readers through the story of how babies shaped American society and culture. Babies led their families into the modern world, helping them to become more accepting of scientific medicine, and leading adults into consumer culture as parents and others shopped for baby items. Curiosity about babies led Americans to become open to new theories about human development and to welcome government programs and advice.

Babies weren’t just pathbreakers, they also kept families rooted in traditions, from religious celebrations to cultural practices, to folk medicine. This is also a story about diversity that explains how gender, race, region, class, and community shaped life in the nursery and was, in turn, shaped by the vulnerabilities of babies.

Jump at the Sun

By Alicia Williams, Jacqueline Alcántara (illustrator),

Book cover of Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston

The life of Zora Neale Hurston, the extraordinary novelist and first female African-American anthropologist, was bigger than words. But this picture book catches the uncatchable. The words are gorgeous. And the illustrations further illuminate the portrait, including delightful hats on the endpapers (a hat-tip to Ms. Hurston’s “HATitude”).


Who am I?

I’m a picture-book author who wrote about Mahalia Jackson so more people would feel the sense of awe about her that I do. When I first read how she was treated by our own country, I was furious. But her amazing grace allowed me to focus on the positive aspects of her life, like she did.


I wrote...

Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens

By Nina Nolan, John Holyfield (illustrator),

Book cover of Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens

What is my book about?

Even as a young girl, Mahalia Jackson loved gospel music. Life was difficult for Mahalia growing up, but singing gospel always lifted her spirits and made her feel special. She soon realized that her powerful voice stirred everyone around her, and she wanted to share that with the world. Although she was met with hardships along the way, Mahalia never gave up on her dreams. Mahalia's extraordinary journey eventually took her to the historic March on Washington, where she sang to thousands and inspired them to find their own voices.

Dead Dead Girls

By Nekesa Afia,

Book cover of Dead Dead Girls

The reason I’m flinging this debut historical mystery at everyone who reads books is because of its main character, Louise Lloyd. Lou is a tiny, determined, fierce Black lesbian who lives in 1920s Jazz-Age Harlem and really does not want to keep solving crimes, but crimes keep happening and who else is going to solve them? If you like your heroines ferociously competent, your murder mysteries fast-paced, and your stories to be equal parts harsh tragedy and unstoppable joy, this one’s for you. Plus, it’s the first in a series!


Who am I?

I love historical fiction in all its forms, from the multi-volume family epics to the Dear America middle-grade books I grew up with. And I really, truly don’t understand why historical fiction has a reputation for being dry, dull, or worst of all, like homework. Sure, there are some novels written for history buffs only, but the vast majority aren’t, and neither is mine. When I wrote A Tip for the Hangman, my goal was to write historical fiction that reads like a page-turner, not a textbook. The books on this list all pull off that trick beautifully, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


I wrote...

A Tip for the Hangman

By Allison Epstein,

Book cover of A Tip for the Hangman

What is my book about?

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe’s last year at Cambridge, he receives an unexpected visitor: Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, who informs him that Her Majesty’s spies are in need of new recruits. Kit, a scholarship student without money or prospects, accepts the offer, and after his training, the game is on. Kit is dispatched to the chilly manor where Mary, Queen of Scots is under house arrest, to keep his ear to the ground for Catholic plots. But the ripple effects of Kit’s service are more than he bargained for, and much as he tries to extricate himself and build a new life in London’s raucous theater scene, the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason threaten to destroy everything he holds dear. 

Passing

By Nella Larsen,

Book cover of Passing

Although Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield are only old childhood friends, their relationship has intense sister vibes. Each woman’s mix of jealousy and curiosity about the other’s life, the latent homoerotic desire that serves as an undercurrent for so much of the rising action, a suspected affair, and the explosive ending to Clare’s ruse all illustrate the kind of sibling rivalry I love to explore in my critical as well as my creative work. Not to mention, one of my favorite literary flexes of all time occurs near the end when Irene’s plucky friend Felise has to check a white man who has the audacity to yell the word “nigger” at a house party filled with Black people. It is a moment, as is the entire book. 


Who am I?

Nobody’s Magic began, not as the series of novellas it became, but as a collection of stories I couldn’t stop telling. And it wasn’t just my characters’ comings and goings that enthralled me. It was the way they demanded I let them tell their own stories. I enjoy reading and writing novellas because they allow space for action, voice, and reflection, and they can tackle manifold themes and conversations in a space that is both large and small. At the same time, they demand endings that are neither predictable nor neat, but rather force the reader to speculate on what becomes of these characters they’ve come to know and love. 


I wrote...

Nobody's Magic

By Destiny O. Birdsong,

Book cover of Nobody's Magic

What is my book about?

Nobody’s Magic is a triptych novel (a group of three novellas) about Black women with albinism who live in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. Though they range in age from twenty to thirty-four, each of them is facing a coming-of-age crossroads, where they have to decide how they want to live, whom they want to love, and in one case, where they want to be. There’s comedy and tragedy, plenty of intrigue (not to mention a few unsolved crimes), and a few rounds of good sex. In the end, each woman comes a little closer to finding herself, and coming to terms with her complicated—but nevertheless Black—identity.

The Ways of White Folks

By Langston Hughes,

Book cover of The Ways of White Folks

The most famous short story in this collection is about Cora, whose whole life is spent in drudgery first to her own family, and then to the locally prominent Studevants. In her own life, Cora is somewhat unconventional—she feels no shame for having an illegitimate child at a time when that was frowned upon, to say the least—but she’s quietly obedient to her difficult employers. Until, that is, one of them causes a tragedy, and Cora feels compelled to speak up very publicly. And, oh, when she does it is immensely satisfying! (TW: racially charged language and abortion)


Who am I?

All of my books and stories have at least one thing in common: strong women. I’ve always been fascinated by women who are fighters and who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Astra, the main character in A Bright Young Thing, is definitely not alone in pushing back against society’s expectations: the women in these books (and many in real life in the 1930s) also find the strength to say no, to stand in their power, and truly live life their way.


I wrote...

A Bright Young Thing

By Brianne Moore,

Book cover of A Bright Young Thing

What is my book about?

With the sudden loss of her parents, 1930s socialite Astra Davies finds herself with a heap of debts and family secrets to sort out. Faced with a loveless marriage or stepping into the unknown, she makes the audacious decision to make her own way in the world. 

But the road to financial independence is a rocky one, and it’s made more difficult when her business partner turns out to be a fool, a vengeful aristocrat goes on the warpath, and she unwittingly catches the attention of the equally hard up (but very irresistible) Earl of Dunreaven. Astra will have to find strength and skills she never knew she had if she’s going to prove that she’s more than just A Bright Young Thing.

Creating Their Own Image

By Lisa E. Farrington,

Book cover of Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists

If you want to learn about the history of African American women artists from the era of slavery to the 21st century, this is the book to read. Lisa E. Farrington astutely analyzes this fraught history with a style of writing that’s available to both scholars and non-scholars alike. It’s for anyone who has an interest in how images of Black women have evolved over time from racist stereotypes in art and popular culture to empowering images created by Black women artists who “contested society’s insistence on their subservience and vulgarity.” Farrington’s groundbreaking book, which was published in 2005, makes it clear that when Black women artists control their own images, it changes the trajectory of both art history and popular culture. 


Who am I?

As a teenager, I found the layered poetry of Sylvia Plath as riveting as an impasto-layered canvas by Vincent Van Gogh. A love for the rhythm of words and paint, as well as the power of art to tell stories and critique history led me to study art history. Influential college professors opened my eyes to the systematic exclusion of women from art and history. Today, I’m a professor at the University of San Francisco, where I specialize in modern, contemporary, and African art, with an emphasis upon issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. I’m particularly interested in women artists and artists who cross cultural boundaries. 


I wrote...

Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

By Celia Stahr,

Book cover of Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

What is my book about?

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo adored adventure. In 1930, she was thrilled to realize her dream of traveling to the United States. Only twenty-three and newly married to world-famous muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was at a crossroads in her life. San Francisco, Detroit, and New York with their magnificent beauty, horrific poverty, racial tension, anti-Semitism, and thriving music and dance scenes, pushed Kahlo in unexpected directions. Shifts in her style of painting began to appear, cracks in her marriage widened, and tragedy struck twice, while she was living in Detroit. Frida in America is the first in-depth biography of these formative years spent in what Frida often called “Gringolandia,” a place that both angered and fascinated her. 

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Book cover of Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance

Everyone recognizes ZNH’s iconic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but Hurston is a master short story writer. She reminds me of the artist Van Gogh, who devoted his work to the common man as Hurston centers her stories on simple folk whose experiences exemplify the human struggle. Profound and pleasing to read, you will smell the flowers, hear the bees buzzing, and occasionally laugh out loud at these beautifully told stories of real life. Although your life may be different from these, you will be reminded of what bonds us more than what divides us. No better time to think about that. 


Who am I?

I’ve loved short stories since I was a young girl introduced to Edgar Allen Poe. There’s something especially exciting about a complete story in few words, and once I had to balance work, children, and personal relationships, stories became all the more cherished for short takes. I especially like tales about and by women, relating to our real challenges, and I review them often so other busy women discover better writers and interesting tales. There is nothing like a short story any time of day, especially in the evening, to soothe the soul. 


I wrote...

Rational Women

By Randy Kraft,

Book cover of Rational Women

What is my book about?

Short stories fit a busy woman’s clock. They inspire and educate and, in other lives, we learn something of our own. These modern women grapple with life choices, vacillating between reason and passion:

A grieving businesswoman seeks connection with a stranger. A cerebral woman marries a professor only to discover she needs more than intellect. A teacher takes her poor students’ lives into her own hands. A high-achiever questions her values. A newspaper editor confronts her biases. A white writer faces the disdain of a black critic. At court for a minor offense, a righteous woman considers her real crimes. A sculptor struggles to mold her newborn. An empty nester chooses a new path. In Paris to please her mother, a docile woman discovers a different destiny. 

Dream Builder

By Kelly Starling Lyons, Laura Freeman (illustrator),

Book cover of Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon

Long before doors opened to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, architect Phillip Freelon was building a legacy. Inspired by his grandfather's paintings, he overcame dyslexia and went on to study architecture, start his own firm and design monumental public spaces.

Who am I?

Carole Boston Weatherford, author of Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, has over 60 books, including the Newbery Honor winner, BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom, and three Caldecott Honor winners: Freedom in Congo Square, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. Recent titles include Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul, and The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop. A two-time NAACP Image Award winner, she teaches at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.


I wrote...

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

By Carole Boston Weatherford, Ekua Holmes (illustrator),

Book cover of Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

What is my book about?

Stirring poems and stunning collage illustrations combine to celebrate the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a champion of equal voting rights.

Despite fierce prejudice and abuse, even being beaten to within an inch of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. Integral to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Hamer gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that, despite President Johnson’s interference, aired on national TV news and spurred the nation to support the Freedom Democrats. Featuring vibrant mixed-media art full of intricate detail, Voice of Freedom celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and legacy with a message of hope, determination, and strength.

African American Poetry

By Kevin Young,

Book cover of African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song: A Library of America Anthology

Kevin Young’s anthology is the latest in a long line of Black poetry anthologies; the first was James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), which Young duly acknowledges. Most of Young’s choices I agree with; some I don’t (at least one of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s great sonnets should have been included); but in the main it is a terrific anthology of poets historical up to the present day. I counted almost 40 sonnets among the poems included. Readers who are interested in the dates the poems were published can turn to an extensive set of notes in the back, which are really helpful.


Who am I?

I have been writing and teaching about African American poetry and poetics for more than two decades. My passion began when I kept discovering long-lost poems that were published once, in Black newspapers, and then forgotten. I wondered why I had never learned about Gwendolyn Brooks in school, though I’d read about e.e. cummings and Robert Frost. Once I stumbled on the fact that Claude McKay discovered cummings, I realized how much the questions of influence and power aren’t really central topics in thinking about the genealogy of Black poets and their influence on each other and on poetry in general.


I wrote...

Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition

By Hollis Robbins,

Book cover of Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition

What is my book about?

Forms of Contention tells the story of 250 years of African American sonnet influence: who wrote sonnets and when, who published sonnets, who praised and who opposed the form, who wrote about them critically, how sonnets were included in anthologies, how sonnets have been in and out of fashion, and how sonnet writers contended with each other’s works. The story of the sonnet’s appeal to African American poets from the nineteenth century through the tumultuous twentieth and into the twenty-first, even as sonnet writing remained a vexed pursuit for black poets, for black poetry anthologizers, for Black Arts advocates, and for Black Studies academics, is rich and surprising.

Forms of Contention argues persuasively that the sonnet form should no longer be considered a European form but is in fact an African American poetic form, since some of the best practitioners for the past generations have been Black poets.

What I Saw and How I Lied

By Judy Blundell,

Book cover of What I Saw and How I Lied

Set in post-WWII with wartime flashbacks to an earlier time, Blundell uses music, dance, and fashion to capture the mood and atmosphere of the era. Her descriptions of the fashions had me drooling and wanting to run to the nearest vintage shop to buy a new dress. Blundell’s use of language, imagery, and metaphor worked well and often flirted with brilliance. She captured the dichotomy of having one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood with compelling plot twists, intertwining the complex mother and the daughter relationship from the perspective of a young woman. The romance aspect was realistic and dangerous with the character of Peter exactly what every parent fears for their budding daughter and what so many naive girls think they want.


Who am I?

I write cross-genre fiction with a pen in one hand and a vintage cocktail in the other, filling the romantic void, writing novels when my husband deployed. When in port, we taught swing dancing and have been avid collectors of vintage sewing patterns, retro clothing, and antiques. All of which make appearances in my stories. I’ve always been fascinated with the paranormal and have had some unexplained experiences, some of those made their way into my stories as well. I live in a 1908 home in Texas that may or may not be haunted. I have book reviews, vintage lifestyle tips, recipes, interviews, giveaways, and games on my site!


I wrote...

The Flapper Affair: A 1920s Time Travel Murder Mystery Paranormal Romance

By Tam Francis,

Book cover of The Flapper Affair: A 1920s Time Travel Murder Mystery Paranormal Romance

What is my book about?

Fashion, Passion, Hot Jazz & Murder: Meet Eduard Hall, an odd young man who just happens to fall in love with Mia Waverly, a beautiful ghost from the famous Waverly family, brutally murdered seventy years ago. Though her body was never found. With time running out and through extraordinary forces, they travel back in time to the night of the murders, setting off a chain of events that will change everything. If they can solve the mystery, they may save her and her family, but lose each other forever.

The Flapper Affair is the story of two young lovers crossed by time, space, and an unsolved murder.

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