Hyphen Recommends: Books by Black Writers

A list of Black writers, theorists and activists who have educated, challenged and inspired us through their fiction, children's books, nonfiction and poetry
June 7, 2020

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Hyphen stands with the Black community in recognition of the disproportionate oppression it has faced and continues to face in this country. It is critical that Asian Americans speak out against anti-Black racism and do what we can to end the systemic oppression that threatens their lives. Asian Americans owe Black resistance a great debt for many of our freedoms in this country today, and we will continue to stand with the Black community in our shared fight for justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others, as well as the dismantling of white supremacy. We cannot be complicit. We must examine ourselves and our own communities. Black lives matter.

The Hyphen editorial team has compiled a list of Black writers, theorists and activists who have educated, challenged and inspired us through their fiction, children's and middle grade books, nonfiction/criticism/essay/memoir and poetry. We encourage our readers to purchase these books directly from the author where possible or from Black-owned bookstores, a list of which can be found at African American Literature Book Club. We have also included purchase links in this list to some of our favorite Black-owned stores, including Eso Won Bookstore, based in Los Angeles, Calif.; Pyramid Books, based in Boynton Beach, Fla.; Semicolon Bookstore in Chicago, Ill.; and Black Stone Bookstore in Ypsilanti, Mich.


Lesley Nneka Arimah
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories (Riverhead Books, 2017)
If you want to learn how to write a short story, there is no better model to learn from than the brilliant work of Arimah. Each sentence is so masterfully crafted, every plot intricately nuanced. Arimah gifts the reader with her technical precision and artistic prowess. (Recommended by Creative Nonfiction Editor & Assistant Health Editor Grace Jahng Lee)

Kaitlyn Greenidge
We Love You, Charlie Freeman: A Novel (Algonquin Books, 2016)
About a Black family who is selected for a research experiment where they live with a chimpanzee and speak to it in sign language and the dark secrets of the institute sponsoring the project. The book spans a lot of topics, from coming of age to sisterhood, language, family, sexuality and of course, race, making it both a thought-provoking and moving read. (Recommended by Editor-in-Chief Karissa Chen)

Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing (Knopf, 2017)
An epic examination of slavery's moral and ethical consequences. Brilliantly imagined. Expertly structured. I couldn't put it down. (Recommended by Fiction Editor James Mattson)

T. Geronimo Johnson
Welcome to Braggsville: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2015)
The book follows four Berkeley students from California to rural Georgia, where they stage a protest after a Civil War reenactment. Simultaneously funny and horrifying, this novel deftly shows how academic rigor — and well-meaningness — often substitutes for real compassion and empathy. (Recommended by Fiction Editor James Mattson)

James Alan McPherson
Elbow Room (Random House, 1986)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this collection of short stories floored me when I first read it. The writing is immersive, the characters so varied and animated. I read all 12 stories in one sitting, and in the end, I better understood the crucial connection between community and humanity. (Recommended by Fiction Editor James Mattson)

Maurice Carlos Ruffin
We Cast a Shadow: A Novel (One World, 2019)
A dystopic-ish (but not really because it feels all too real) novel about a society that is filled with racism, segregation and mass incarceration, but in which you can pay a hefty sum to get "demelanized." The novel centers on a father who fears for his biracial son and is willing to do anything to make money so he can afford the procedure, including swallow a lot of racist shit. So, a satire, but not really, because it's a little too close for comfort — which makes it exactly essential reading. (Recommended by Editor-in-Chief Karissa Chen)


Vashti Harrison
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017)
Among these women, you'll find heroes, role models and everyday women who did extraordinary things — bold women whose actions and beliefs contributed to making the world better for generations of girls and women to come. Whether they were putting pen to paper, soaring through the air or speaking up for the rights of others, the women profiled in these pages were all taking a stand against a world that didn't always accept them. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)

Vashti Harrison (with Kwesi Johnson)
Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019)
An important book for readers of all ages, this beautifully illustrated and engagingly written volume brings to life true stories of black men in history. Among these biographies, readers will find aviators and artists, politicians and pop stars, athletes and activists. The exceptional men featured include writer James Baldwin, artist Aaron Douglas, filmmaker Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, lawman Bass Reeves, civil rights leader John Lewis, dancer Alvin Ailey and musician Prince. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)

Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
March: Books 1 - 3 (Top Shelf Productions, 2013)
Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon and key figure of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper's farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African American president. Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole). March is a vivid firsthand account of John Lewis' lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis' personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)

Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020)
(A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning)
A timely, crucial and empowering exploration of racism — and antiracism — in America. The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi's National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America and inspires hope for an antiracist future. It takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited. Through a gripping, fast-paced and energizing narrative written by beloved award-winner Jason Reynolds, this book shines a light on the many insidious forms of racist ideas — and on ways readers can identify and stamp out racist thoughts in their daily lives. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher) 

Nic Stone
Dear Martin (Ember, 2018)
Justyce McAllister is a good kid, an honor student and always there to help a friend — but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can't escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out. Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up — way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it's Justyce who is under attack. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher) 

Jacqueline Woodson
Brown Girl Dreaming (Puffin Books, 2016)
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become. (Recommended by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)

Hilton Als
White Girls (Penguin, 2019)
White Girls is a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of essays by New Yorker critic Hilton Als. Spinning together deeply personal stories and reflections with cutting criticism of television, music, photography and more, Als refracts race, gender and sexuality over and over with wisdom and insight. Als' writing supersedes convention and demands reading and rereading. (Recommended by Film, TV & Music Editor Chris Karnadi)

Elaine Brown
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story (Pantheon Books, 1992)
Elaine Brown was the first (and only) woman to lead the Black Panther Party. Brown led the party from 1974 to 1977 while co-founder Huey Newton was in exile in Cuba. I read this book while a student at Cornell University in Professor Carole Boyce Davies' class ASRC 3206: Black Women and Political Leadership. It left an impact on me because of how thoroughly Brown describes the sentiment “the personal is political” by detailing the complex power dynamics she navigated in the BPP. (Recommended by News & Politics Editor Shivani Parikh)

Ross Gay
The Book of Delights: Essays (Algonquin Books, 2019)
I love this book, which is a series of short essays that catalog a delight a day in the life of the author over the span of a year. The delights range from the small yet observant to the deeper and more meaningful, but each one feels full of true gratitude and heart and is described in the way only Ross Gay can. (Recommended by Editor-in-Chief Karissa Chen)

Saidiya Hartman
Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) 
Saidiya Hartman traces the history of the Atlantic slave trade by recounting a journey she took along a slave route in Ghana. Following the trail of captives from the hinterland to the Atlantic coast, she reckons with the blank slate of her own genealogy and vividly dramatizes the effects of slavery on three centuries of African and African American history. The slave, Hartman observes, is a stranger — torn from family, home and country. To lose your mother is to be severed from your kin, to forget your past and to inhabit the world as an outsider. There are no known survivors of Hartman's lineage, no relatives in Ghana whom she came hoping to find. She is a stranger in search of strangers, and this fact leads her into intimate engagements with the people she encounters along the way and with figures from the past whose lives were shattered and transformed by the slave trade. Written in prose that is fresh, insightful and deeply affecting, Lose Your Mother is a "landmark text" (Recommended by Senior Books Editor Leah Silvieus, summary from publisher by Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams).

bell hooks
killing rage: Ending Racism (Holt Paperbacks, 1996)
I read bell hooks in my 20s. She immediately resonated with me and justified the anger I felt at times when I was harassed or targeted for being different. The book was like a protective mechanism on the subway in New York City. I knew who were my allies on the subway: some would read the title and nod, and some would scoot away. (Recommended by Senior Books Editor Evelyn Ch'ien)

Kiese Laymon
Heavy: An American Memoir (Scribner, 2018)
A complex and moving portrait of the author's experience growing up in Mississippi and his complex relationships to his mother, grandmother, his own body and his country. Laymon is empathetic and honest even as he navigates hard questions with no easy answers. (Recommended by Editor-in-Chief Karissa Chen)

Kiese Laymon
How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (Agate Bolden, 2013)
No writer speaks truth and delivers political and cultural commentaries like Kiese Laymon. This essay collection by one of the greatest writers in American history digs deeply into Laymon's experiences as a young Black man in Mississippi, with topics ranging from family, violence, presidential debates, hip hop, gatekeeping within the white-dominated publishing industry, Black love and ultimately, Black abundance. The title story from this collection begins with these words: "I've had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies — once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. Not sure how or if I've helped many folks say yes to life, but I've definitely aided in a few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun." (Recommended by Creative Nonfiction & Assistant Health Editor Grace Jahng Lee)

Ashanté M. Reese
Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2019)
In this book, anthropologist Ashanté M. Reese challenges dominant white food justice narratives utilizing terms such as "food desert" to describe depletion, emptiness and a lacking. In this ethnography, Reese captures stories from residents of Washington D.C.'s Deanwood neighborhood to show that despite destabilization in their food system, they remain self-reliant and active agents in determining the food they consume. (Recommended by Senior Food and Agriculture Editor Sarah Huang)

Michael W. Twitty
The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad, 2017)
Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty shares a story of Southern cuisine and food cultures by tracing his ancestry between Africa and America. Contextualizing the history of the South from slavery to Black-owned farms, he describes the often-uncomfortable reconciliation with ancestral pasts. (Recommended by Senior Food and Agriculture Editor Sarah Huang)

Saeed Jones
How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2019)
Haunted and haunting, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir. Jones tells the story of a young, Black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence — into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another — and to one another — as we fight to become ourselves. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher) 

Claudia Rankine
Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014)
Claudia Rankine's bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in 21st century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV — everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person's ability to speak, perform and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named "post-race" society. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher) 


Cameron Awkward-Rich
Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016)
Praise from Danez Smith: Cameron Awkward-Rich’s debut is a stunning announcement of a voice that demands we move closer as much as it wishes we’d go away. The ornate emotional terrain of these poems is charted with the poet’s sometimes spare, sometimes wild, always skilled lyric. We are invited into a story Awkward-Rich suggests we “know the words” to, but damn if it doesn’t sound better when this poet tells us. As much about stillness as it is about transition, Sympathetic Little Monster is at once analytical, magical, confessional, dismissive, but ultimately, and simply, a collection breaking new ground in Trans, Queer, Black and American Letters. For many, Awkward-Rich’s poems will burst open the mind, the heart and even some doors, but when you get in there, just leave him alone. (Recommended by Senior Books Editor Leah Silvieus, summary from publisher)

Jericho Brown
The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)
Brown’s brilliant latest collection, The Tradition, just won the Pulitzer Prize and one of his most striking poems from that collection, “Bullet Points,” has been circulated widely on the internet lately, but it was his second collection, The New Testament, that was particularly a revelation for me as a young poet exploring the intersections of religion, eros and violence — and the redemption that might be found in re-envisioning the scriptures and religious traditions one has inherited. (Recommended by Senior Books Editor Leah Silvieus, summary from publisher) 

t’ai freedom ford
& More Black (Augury Books, 2019)
t'ai freedom ford's second collection of poems, & More Black, is direct, ingenious, vibrant, alive, queer & BLACK. By turns tough and sexy, wrapped up in the evolving language and sonics of life, these poems take their cue from Wanda Coleman's American Sonnets as they rhapsodize and dialogue with artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon and Wangechi Mutu, along with many other musicians, artists and writers. The kinetic energy of ford's words leap off the page in rebellious, stunning and revelatory fashion — poems that mesmerize with sheer velocity and telling pauses. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)

Vievee Francis
Forest Primeval: Poems (Triquarterly, 2015) 
"Another Anti-Pastoral," the opening poem of Forest Primeval, confesses that sometimes "words fail." With a "bleat in [her] throat," the poet identifies with the voiceless and wild things in the composed, imposed peace of the Romantic poets with whom she is in dialogue. Vievee Francis’s poems engage many of the same concerns as her poetic predecessors — faith in a secular age, the city and nature, aging and beauty. Words certainly do not fail as Francis sets off into the wild world promised in the title. The wild here is not chaotic but rather free and finely attuned to its surroundings. The reader who joins her will emerge sensitized and changed by the enduring power of her work. (Recommended by Senior Books Editor Leah Silvieus, summary from publisher)

Terrance Hayes
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Books, 2018)
In 70 poems bearing the same title, Terrance Hayes explores the meanings of American, of assassin and of love in the sonnet form. Written during the first 200 days of the Trump presidency, these poems are haunted by the country's past and future eras and errors, its dreams and nightmares. Inventive, compassionate, hilarious, melancholy and bewildered — the wonders of this new collection are irreducible and stunning. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)

Tyehimba Jess
Olio (Wave Books, 2016)
Part fact, part fiction, Tyehimba Jess's much anticipated second book weaves sonnet, song and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I. Olio is an effort to understand how they met, resisted, complicated, co-opted and sometimes defeated attempts to minstrelize them. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)

Audre Lorde
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000)
This is an amazing collection of poetry by … one of our best contemporary poets. … Her poems are powerful, often political, always lyrical and profoundly moving. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from Publishers Weekly)

Nabila Lovelace
Sons of Achilles (Yes Yes Books, 2018)
I first encountered Lovelace’s work at a Tin House summer workshop, and I was absolutely stunned by her poems. Her debut collection Sons of Achilles powerfully explores, as she says on her website, the “liminal space between intimacy and violence” and how to assert one’s agency against the backdrop of U.S. state-sanctioned brutality. The poems, which are at turns conversational, meditative and visionarily direct, construct a world in which those who suffer at the hands of others can — and will — save themselves. (Recommended by Senior Books Editor Leah Silvieus)

Aja Monet
My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Haymarket Books, 2017)
My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter is poet Aja Monet's ode to mothers, daughters and sisters — the tiny gods who fight to change the world. Textured with the sights and sounds of growing up in East New York in the ’90s, to school on the South Side of Chicago, all the way to the olive groves of Palestine, these stunning poems tackle racism, sexism, genocide, displacement, heartbreak and grief but also love, motherhood, spirituality and Black joy. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)

John Murillo
Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020)
Murillo was my teacher at the University of Miami, and I owe most of what I know about writing and reading poetry to his guidance. His most recent book, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, is a formally rigorous (it includes a sequence of 15 interlocking sonnets) and lyrically stunning meditation on the interweaving legacies of violence, conventions of masculinity, love and poetry. Each poem is meticulously crafted with a music all its own, and as a collection, the poems possess an encompassingly symphonic quality. I read the entire book in one sitting. (Recommended by Senior Books Editor Leah Silvieus)

Nicole Sealey
Ordinary Beast: Poems (Ecco, 2017)
Sealey’s confident, measured lyric in Ordinary Beast animates the poems with a spare yet tender and vibrant vitality. While many of the poems meditate on different kinds of loss, belying the grief inherent in them is a determined insistence on the power of love. As she tells Jessica Lanay in The Believer: “Love should be neither inconspicuous nor apologetic. Love shouldn’t hide nor should it apologize for itself.” I love this book. (Recommended by Senior Books Editor Leah Silvieus)

Tracy K. Smith
Wade in the Water: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2019)
In Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. These are poems of sliding scale: some capture a flicker of song or memory; some collage an array of documents and voices; and some push past the known world into the haunted, the holy. Smith’s signature voice — inquisitive, lyrical and wry — turns over what it means to be a citizen, a mother and an artist in a culture arbitrated by wealth, men and violence. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection widens to include erasures of The Declaration of Independence and the correspondence between slave owners, a found poem comprised of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets. (Recommended by Poetry Editor Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, summary from publisher)


Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus
Books Editor

Leah Silvieus is the author most recently of the poetry collection Arabilis and is the co-editor of The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit. She holds an MFA from the University of Miami and has awards and fellowships from The National Book Critics Circle, Fulbright, and Kundiman. Her criticism has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Believer, and elsewhere. She is currently based in New Haven, CT, where she is studying literature and religion at Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.