The purpose of Black History Month is to honor all Black Americans from every period of U.S. history and acknowledge the trauma they’ve gone through as a result of the dark legacy left behind by slavery. It is also a time to pay attention to their triumphs, and celebrate the contributions they’ve made — and are still making — to help us inch closer to a more just, empathetic world.
Lots of contributions have been made through storytelling. By sharing stories of slavery, the Jim Crow South, political awakenings, violence, beauty standards, motherhood and more, the following authors have made significant strides in helping Americans to reflect on what the Black experience looks like in America, as well as painting a spirited, vibrant picture of what it can look like in the future.
Join us in honoring Black History Month by checking out these 10 powerful novels written by Black women.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine
This book, published in 2021, is an extension of The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning “1619 Project” issue. It weaves together 18 essays that explore America’s legacy of slavery dating back to 1619, as well as 36 poems and works of fiction that highlight Black struggle, oppression and resistance over the course of our nation’s history. The book illuminates the glossed-over truth behind our nation’s origin story and its far-reaching effect on modern politics, music, diet, traffic, citizenship, capitalism, religion, and even democracy itself. The message of the book is clear: the legacy of slavery did not end with emancipation, but continues to shape contemporary American life.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was inspired to write her debut memoir after the assassination of her friend Dr. Martin Luther King, as a way of confronting the racism that has always loomed over her life. The 1969 memoir chronicles her childhood from age 3 through age 16, where she’s forced to reckon with a traumatic sexual assault and a perpetual feeling of displacement against the backdrop of racial tensions in the South. The story follows Angelou and her brother as they move back and forth between their grandmother’s and mother’s houses, and later follows her as she goes to California by herself, all while exploring her identity through literature, acts of kindness and resilience. Today, Angelou’s memoir remains one of the most widely read and taught books written by a Black woman.
Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks
In this classic study published in 1981, cultural critic bell hooks examines how Black women, from the 17th century to the present day, were and are oppressed by white men, black men and white women. Illustrating her analysis with moving personal accounts, Ain’t I a Woman is deeply critical of the racism inherent in the thought of many middle-class white feminists who have failed to address issues of race and class. While acknowledging the conflict of loyalty to race or sex is still a dilemma, hooks challenges the view that race and gender are two separate phenomena, insisting that the struggles to end racism and sexism are inextricably intertwined.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
In Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s debut novel, she tells the story of Pecola Breedlove — an 11-year-old Black girl in post-Great-Depression America where blonde, blue-eyed children receive endless love and adoration from grown-ups. She grows up being called ugly because of her dark skin and she prays for her eyes to turn blue, believing her whole world will be different and better if only she could have the blue eyes she equates to “whiteness.” Most chapters’ titles are extracts from the novel’s prologue, presenting a white family that may be contrasted with Pecola’s. The book, published in 1970, grapples with dark subjects of sexual assault and illusions of beauty that drive characters to insanity, shining a light on the deep-cutting consequences of prejudice that shape characters’ lives over generations.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Celie is a poor Black woman whose letters tell the story of 20 years of her life, beginning at age 14 when she is being abused and raped by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Eventually, Celie learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her. The rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, finally pushes her toward an awakening of her creative and loving self. This is a story of a Black woman with the odds against her, who reclaims hope for a better life. Published in 1982, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
When first published in 1937, this novel was generally dismissed by male reviewers because of its protagonist — a proud, independent Black woman — and was out of print for almost 30 years. Since its reissue in 1978, Their Eyes Were Watching God has become widely read and highly acclaimed. The novel tells the story of a Black woman named Janie Crawford and follows her through three marriages. Light-skinned, long-haired, dreamy as a child, Janie grows up expecting better treatment than she gets until she meets Tea Cake, a younger man who engages her heart and spirit in equal measure and gives her the chance to enjoy life without being a man’s mule or adornment. This novel — regarded as the first African-American work to describe the awakening of African-American women — prompted writer Alice Walker to say, “There is no book more important to me than this one.”
The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs
Berdis Baldwin, Alberta King and Louise Little were all born at the beginning of the 20th century and forced to contend with the prejudices of Jim Crow as Black women. These three women passed their knowledge to their children with the hope of helping them to survive in a society that would deny their humanity from the very beginning — but they never could have guessed at the time that their children would grow up to challenge that very society and push for change. In this book, the mothers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin receive long overdue credit for instilling resistance and a fundamental belief in the worth of Black people in their sons. These three women represent a piece of history left untold and this 2021 novel is regarded as a celebration of Black motherhood.
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story by Elaine Brown
This 1992 memoir by Elaine Brown details her experience as the first and only female leader of the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary, FBI-targeted national group which mobilized Black communities and white supporters across the country. She begins taking readers through her childhood in an impoverished neighborhood where she attended a predominantly white school, and her bohemian adolescence where she underwent a political awakening. Brown writes about her ascent to Panther leadership, her tumultuous relationship with activist Huey Newton, the male power rituals that would contribute to the group’s demise, and the scars that she both suffered and inflicted as a Black woman in that era’s paradigm-shifting clashes of sex and power.
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde is a celebrated writer, radical feminist and civil rights activist who left her mark on the world by dedicating her life and creative talent to pushing for equality for all. In this collection of fifteen essays and speeches written between 1976 and 1984, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and presents social difference as a vehicle for action and change. By reflecting Black struggle in her prose, she gives readers a message of resilience and hope. Sister Outsider stresses Lorde’s oft-stated theme of continuity, particularly of the geographical and intellectual link between Dahomey, Africa, and her emerging self. Through her essays and poems, she shows the reader how racial justice ties into all other social justice movements.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give chronicles the Black history we’re still living through — one where Black teenagers grow up with a fear of violence and a distrust of the institutions meant to protect them. The novel, published in 2017, is about 16-year-old Starr Carter who accepts a ride home from a party with childhood friend Khalil, only to watch police stop the car and shoot him before her eyes. Her uncle, a police officer, gets caught in the middle when she bravely testifies against the officer who shot Khalil. Starr, who lives in a mostly poor, mostly Black community and attends a mostly white private school, struggles to navigate between the two worlds as she is thrown into the spotlight amid the violence and protests that ensue.