Off the Page: 5 Books About Black Women

In honor of Black History Month, and in celebration of amazing literature, I decided that I would write an article outlining some of my favorite writing featuring black women. Since many phenomenal artists are overlooked due to their race and gender (looking at you, 2017 Grammys), I figured an article about black women in literature was a good idea. The trouble is, it made me realize how woefully few books I have read that feature protagonists or authors who are women of color. It’s not that I go out of my way to find writing from the white, male perspective (believe me, I’ve had enough of that). It’s more due to my previous education which centered on “classic” literature that excluded minority voices and the overwhelming racial bias in publishing houses. Still, it has made me more aware of which perspectives I have ignored by reading books primarily by and about white Americans. It has also made me realize why I enjoy literature by racial minorities so much. Whether it’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I find that books written by “the other” are more authentic to my own experience of American life and offer new insight on our culture. The books I have listed below have certainly made me more aware of the challenges and triumphs in the lives of black women, and I hope to learn more as I seek to diversify my reading. Hopefully, you’ll find something that piques your interest, too.

 

1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Despite going to what I considered a socially liberal school, this novel was the first one I read for high school by a black, female author. It also became my favorite book I read in school. The book follows a girl named Jamie as she seeks love and prosperity in an all-black town in Florida. After just reading the first chapter, I was in love. Hurston’s use of flowery, yet apt descriptions of her characters and settings as well as her use of ebonics struck me as innovative and beautiful. In contrast to previous coming-of-age books I had read, this book focused on the way America socializes women of color to be obedient to the whims of a stacked system and how discovering one’s own desires and identity is made more difficult because of that. The book also features wonderful quotes about womanhood such as, “She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”

 

2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Immortal Life is a non-fiction book about the black woman whose cervical cells were taken from her and then used for cancer research without her permission. Her cells ended up contributing to many medical breakthroughs, yet neither she nor her family were given monetary compensation or even told what had happened. As someone who normally shies away from nonfiction, I still found this to be a fascinating read that encompasses everything from history to science to family drama. Apparently, Oprah is creating a TV movie adaption of this book with Renee Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta herself, so there’s another reason to read this soon.

 

3. Passing by Nella Larson

I had the opportunity to read this book last semester when I took Writing the Mind (shout out to Professor Matz), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Another Harlem Renaissance book, Passing follows the lives of two women in New York in the 1920s who can “pass” as white despite being black due to their light skin color. Passing tackles the issue of “loyalty” to one’s race and also comments on the superficiality of class. It’s a short, beautifully written book with an exciting twist at the end that sparked a full debate in my class. Prepare for Gatsby-level drama.

 

4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

“The birdlike gestures are worn away to a mere picking and plucking her way between the tire rims and the sunflowers, between Coke bottles and milkweed, among all the waste and beauty of the world—which is what she herself was. All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us.”

The whole book is that beautiful. I promise.

 

5. Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sabrina Fulton

I have not had a chance to read this one yet, but I have been anticipating its release for a while. Among the many black mothers who have been outspoken since the shooting of their sons, Sabrina Fulton may be one of the most publicly recognizable. She has done dozens of interviews since her son’s tragic death at the hands of George Zimmerman five years ago, and she has appeared in such high-profile projects like Beyoncé’s Lemonade. This book will not only provide a personal testament to an all too common tragedy, but will preserve Trayvon’s memory in the hopes of enacting change.

 

If you read any of these books or have your own suggestions, let me know in the comments!

Image credits: Feature, 1, 2, 3