As a communications and humanities major, I’ve always found it necessary to learn about the diversity in cultures and backgrounds to better understand the world at large. Throughout the years, I have read an assortment of literature that has provided me with a deeper appreciation for black culture and history. Since then, I have revisited some of these novels to refresh and share my perspective with our community. We are in trying, yet potent times for change.
The murder of George Floyd has led to national protests across the country for justice and end to police brutality. While violence is nothing new, we can view this as an opportunity to learn and grow. Will we continue to react the same way we have for the past decades. Or will we decide to respond from an evolved place within? Below are an assortment of African-American classics in literature. These selections provide a look into the vast aspects that make up our country’s history—and with a deeper innerstanding—quite possibly, our future.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God is an outstanding novel that not only paints the history of African-American culture but also speaks to all readers who desire to find themselves amid a societal reform.
One of Hurston’s most famous works, this selection is a classic in African-American literature. Their Eyes Were Watching God depicts the tale of Janie Crawford’s personal evolution through three marriages. As a fair-skinned black woman, Janie is on a quest to step into her own identity rather than a preconceived idea of what society deems to be African-American. Throughout this process, she comes to terms with who she is while strengthening her connection to her ancestral roots.
At the beginning of her career, according to the foreward in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston was often criticized for not writing fiction in the protest tradition. Many claimed her work wasn’t “bitter” enough and didn’t portray the explicit hardships faced by the African-American community. One of her most prominent and most harsh critics was fellow writer, Richard Wright. However, this novel’s longstanding success proves not all influential voices need to shout or yell to be heard, understood, and applied. We can take this and learn from Hurston’s approach in today’s political and cultural climate as we evolve and moveforward.
Native Son by Richard Wright
A contrasting mirror to Their Eyes Were Watching God, Native Son provides an inner-city perspective into the lives of African-American experiences. Where Hurston offers a personal reflection on identity, Wright tackles inequality from a broader perspective. Reading both sides is an essential tool in cultivating a harmonious innerstanding of our history.
The tale of Native Son focuses on character Bigger Thomas who is on his way to jail for an array of suggested crimes toward a young white woman. Wright captures the notion of poverty, inequality, hopelessness, and justice set in Chicago during the 1930s. However, the years that have gone by do not make this tale any less relevant.
According to Wright, he has known Bigger Thomas all his life. “I had spent years learning about Bigger, what had made him, what he meant; so, when the time came for writing, what had made him and what he means constituted my plot,” he shares regarding the ease in the characters unfolding.
As you read this novel, you’ll notice Bigger is in all of us. He is not just the young African-American male in this story. He is the product of societal flaws in the white man, the black man, the colored, the disconnect, and the potential for genuine connection. This reflection uncovers and brings to surface new ideas for unity in a time we have seen once too many.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
Where Bigger Thomas magnifies the inequality amongst all sides, Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man examines the notion of race as a double standard. In this case, the character in the book has light enough skin that he can “pass” for white. This trait takes the character on a journey of opportunities ranging from musical mentorship and elite gambling memberships—all at the price of ignoring ancestral roots and living inauthentically.
Whether you are African-American or not, this story sheds important light on the sacrifices we make to make our dreams come true. In a nutshell, the novel asks, are you willing to throw your identity away for a fleeting experience only to deal with the guilt later? Or will you stand true in your authenticity no matter the obstacle?
“I believe it to be a fact that the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” —James Weldon Johnson
Originally published anonymously, Johnson’s words are a blueprint of the many feelings African-Americans face in modern America. May the reader, whether black, white, or of color, find themselves closer to their truth as they connect with this character. For it is only when we know ourselves fully that we can better understand another.
The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt
As protests continue to demonstrate the push for justice and equality, The Marrow of Tradition is a powerful ally in understanding the history behind America’s segregation and core beliefs surrounding protests.
The setting takes place in 1898’s Wilmington, North Carolina, during the race riots organized by white Democrats who desired to take power back from the African-American Republican party. The riot was violent, messy, and led to an aftermath of sorrow mixed with hope. The revolution continues today, and although many are tired, we will not fall to the call of sleep.
“There’s time enough, but none to spare.” —Charles W. Chesnutt
Chesnutt was an American author, essayist, political activist, and lawyer who, similar to the tale told in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, his skin color allowed him to pass as a white man. However, he worked this double-consciousness in a way that allowed for his authentic truth to show while taking bitter events to offer a better tomorrow.
Sula by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor who won the Pulitzer Prize for her well-known novel, Beloved.
“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”—Toni Morrison
Sula interweaves themes of motherhood, symbolism, and parallels between characters in a way that speaks to all readers—not just those of color. With a strong focus on feminine freedom, sisterhood, and friendship Morrison explores the idea of what it means to “leave it all behind.”
What do you have to gain when there is nothing to lose? In this story, Sula and her friend Nel are well-known in their town as eccentric and loose women. Under oath, they promise one another to live a life of freedom without a man. However, when Nel finds true love, their friendship takes many turns.
This novel explores the weight of expectation through societal norms, forces, and juxtaposition. Similar to The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man, we are poised with options when answering our authentic call. Morrison exquisitely paints a relatable story through the many factors African-American’s continue to face today.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Garnered as “required reading” by Toni Morrison, Coates bridges historical concepts and events with a blend of persoanl life experiences. Published in 2015, the novel offers a modern take recounting previous events that give a glimpse into present-day America.
Told as a story from father to son, written in the style of James Baldwin’s approach, Between the World and Me accounts Coates’ upbringing in Baltimore. Feelings of fear were his norm. Feeling uptight or “on guard” upon leaving his home was a daily experience. This is still true for many of our brothers and sisters in this country.
Between the World and Me is a more modern option in this list—yet just as potent. With a blend of personal experience and historical imprints, Coates speaks to today’s America.
Justice, love, and equality are all prevalent themes in our present cultural experience. Works of literature weave through story, characters, and symbolism as useful tools to work with when understanding a topic that might seem overwhelming. The connections readers make to the characters and stories in these books go beyond knowledge. The words expressed on these pages provide an everlasting fuel of hope, will, and determination to continually fight for our rights, freedom, and justice. This list is just a start. Keep asking questions and keep the conversation going through your own relationships and platforms. For more ways to support you can sign petitions, donate, and learn from additional resources here.