Contemporary Black Voices

There’s a lot of great African American writing out there these days, waiting for you to discover it. Thanks to blogs like For Harriet and White Readers Meet Black Authors, it’s easy to keep up with new–and new-to-you–authors and titles. Your friendly neighborhood librarians are, of course, another great outlet for keeping up with Black literature, fiction, poetry, and memoir. Here are a few recent titles to consider.

Photo from Louis Cameron's African American Flag Project - click through to see more images.

Photo from Louis Cameron’s African American Flag Project – click through to see more images.

residueThe Residue Years, Mitchell S. Jackson. Her name is Grace, and she desperately needs some. His name is Champ, and he desperately wants to be one. They are mother and son, recovering addict and drug dealer, dancing in different ways to the same tune. Set in Portland, the story begins with Grace graduating from rehab and struggling to find a job, pay the bills, and renew her relationships with her children. Champ spends his drug earnings lavishly on his mother, trying to help her achieve a better life, but Grace feels wrong about taking it. Champ, for his part, doesn’t always feel good about earning it, but with the costs of living and a baby on the way, it’s the fastest, easiest path to success…right up to the point where it isn’t. A sobering look at how hard it can be to break destructive patterns, even when you want to.

The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men, Ernessa T. CarterThursday has never been interested in awesomedating any guy longer than a month, but lately she’s been having these strange dreams about accepting a stranger’s proposal in–of all places–a farmers’ market. The dating guide she borrows from a husband-hunting friend becomes her go-to source of advice, supported by the loving–and sometimes blunt–input from her group of girlfriends. Although the story revolves around Thursday’s complicated search for true love, her friends Sharita, Risa, and Tammy are also having their own struggles. But at least they can all count on each other to stay grounded about what’s important. Keep a box of tissues handy on the way to the happy ending, then cry for joy when the power of love and friendship carry the day. Solid chick-lit with some gritty themes.

birdThe Good Lord Bird , James McBride. In the aftermath of a church fire, an unusual manuscript is discovered in a lock box: the narrative of former slave Henry Shackleford who, through a series of both comedic and not-so-funny mishaps, finds himself a) fighting in abolitionist John Brown’s army, and b) spending a large portion of his life pretending to be a girl. Fans of historical fiction will find much to love here, as Shackleford’s fly-on-the-wall adventures–related with dry, dead-pan delivery–take him all over the country, meeting the likes of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, culminating in a front-row seat at Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  McBride does an amazing job capturing what historical events must have looked and felt like to the common people of the time, and his 2013 National Book Award for the adventure is well-deserved.

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward. Novelist Ward (Salvage the Bones) turns from fiction to memoir with an exploration of her reapedhometown, DeLisle Mississippi. Five men important to her, including her brother Joshua, died between 2000 and 2004. While the surface causes varied, the underlying reason was horrifyingly simple: hopelessness brought on by feeling trapped in their circumstances. Ward pulls no punches in examining the experience of being both poor and Black in the contemporary South, the lack of work (any work, much less meaningful work), the forced choice between staying home and repeating old patterns or getting away and “making it” but being unable to spend your life surrounded by the people you love best. Beginning with her own family’s roots, then spiraling out into the many stories that make up DeLisle’s closely-knit Black community, Ward weaves a ferocious tapestry of love, loss, and, ultimately, her choice to live in spite of the dying.

mcmillanWho Asked You?, Terry McMillan. Betty Jean’s worked hard all her life, and retirement is only six years away. However, the double-whammy of her husband’s unexpected illness and her daughter’s disappearance means that Betty Jean has a sick man to care for and two grandchildren to raise. Her sisters have strong opinions on how she should handle these plot twists, but Betty Jean is determined to do what she thinks is right, no matter what. Told by a colorful cast of characters in alternating chapters, Who Asked You? is a large-hearted look at one woman’s life as perceived by her family, friends, and neighbors. McMillan (Waiting to ExhaleHow Stella Got Her Groove Back) leaves  no stone unturned with her candid and funny take on growing older and weathering the unexpected, and readers who enjoy stories about family ties will root for Betty Jean and her kin as they learn to love each other better.

Your turn: what African American titles and authors have you been reading lately?

Leigh Anne


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6 responses to “Contemporary Black Voices

  1. Thanks for a really nice post. Two recent black-authored books that I really loved are: NW (Zadie Smith’s latest) and Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Ayana Mathis). Both are excellent reads and highly recommended.

    I’ve been reading (or planning to read) some of the seminal black “consciousness-raising” books that were important to me and other members of the Baby Boom generation (for my blog: The Books That Mattered: Literature that Shaped the Baby Boom Generation.)

    I’ve recently written about Soul on Ice ( — and in upcoming posts plan on writing about The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Boy, Invisible Man, Manchild in the Promised Land. These books really spoke to me when I was back in HS and college and trying to get a handle on the whole black/white thing.

    • Thank you so much for reading, and for your thoughtful comment, as well as to the link to your own writing! I’m working through a few lists of seminal writing myself, so I’m definitely interested in seeing your take on classic texts.

      Leigh Anne

  2. I’m currently reading Salvage the Bones – holy smokes, the language in this one is like poetry.

    Also, Perfect Peace, by Daniel Black, is a fantastic examination of gender identity (Youngest of seven boys, Perfect was raised as a girl until his 8th birthday and spends the rest of his life struggling with the fallout).

  3. I read this awhile ago but its gritty and realistic story of the daughter of a drug lord drew me right in and didn’t let go: The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah

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