7 thrilling books by Black authors you need to read now

From the moment that African descent writers wrote stories, they were expected to write with one goal in mind – the struggle for freedom. Former slaves used the quill to represent the horror of the middle passage and the cruelty of the sociopathic master. They told of harrowing escapes and how they learned to read and write, sometimes by getting a white man to teach them and others by bartering something valuable. For black writers, both blood and ink should be used in the fight against slavery.

Later, during the Harlem Renaissance, African American intellectuals believed that producing a corpus of literature was one of the few ways that African Americans could prove they had the intellectual ability for full citizenship. In addition, the work must be written in such a way that the ruling society would recognize it as worthy. As a result, Countee Cullen modeled his poetry after Keats. Claude McKay used the sonnet form to write his famous poem If We Must Die.” When writers went astray, they were criticized like Langston Hughes, who improvised until his poetry felt like jazz, or ostracized like Zora Neale Hurston, who traveled south to chronicle African American life experiences and folklore.

Even well beyond the civil rights movement, if you were an African American author, yours real Their job was to produce work that shattered stereotypes, invoked racial pride, or added ammunition to the fight. It’s a wonder anyone was able to write the stories they wanted to tell.

Unfortunately, some of those expectations still exist today.

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That’s why it’s important to celebrate authors who shed expectations and produce work on their own terms. The seven authors listed below do. Some of the novels and short stories listed here have injustice at their core. Others are wild rollercoaster rides with flawed characters that readers love. Some are just there to chat or take your mind off your worries on a hot summer afternoon. They all deserve your attention.

Jubilee (1966) directed by Margaret Walker

Jubilee expands on the slave narrative by telling the story of Vyry, a former slave navigating a racist America after her emancipation. Based on the life of Walker’s great-grandmother, it is rich in elements of a fulfilling life, including unimaginable sorrow, great joy, and quiet triumph.

“The Road” (1946) by Ann Petry

This work has repeatedly faded into the background before being rediscovered, most recently in 2019. The story begins on a cold November day on 116th Street in Harlem. Lutie Johnson, a single mother living in a derelict building on the street, wants nothing more than to escape poverty, sexism and racism to find a safe place to raise her son. But she spends most of the novel dodging the clutches of men who think they deserve her just because they desire her, and a snake-eyed neighborhood madam who wants to take advantage of Lutie’s beauty. The story culminates in an inevitable ending that makes it both a fine piece of mystery and an engaging read.

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“They Can’t Take Your Name” (2021) directed by Robert Justice

Set in an African American community in Denver, “Name” uses crime fiction to explore false convictions. The book evokes the improv prose of Langston Hughes and the distinctive voice of Ralph Ellison. The narrative immerses the reader in the struggle of two desperate people as they race against time to save another wrongly convicted African American man from certain death. It is a book that will be both entertaining and thought provoking.

Blacktop Wasteland (2020) directed by SA Cosby

Much has been said about this award-winning crime thriller, but it’s still not enough. On the surface, it’s a final heist story told by Bug, a mechanic with a failed car dealership. He needs money to take care of the people he cares about the most – his mother and family who are barely making ends meet. Set in a small southern town, the heist is certainly central to the narrative. But the book can also be seen as a commentary on how those pushed against the wall by poverty and racism sometimes take matters into their own hands. Buckle up when you pick this one up.

Broken Places (2018) and the Chicago Mystery series by Tracy Clark

Award-winning author Tracy Clark tells the story of Cass Raines, a former Chicago cop who was shot in a police shooting caused by her fame-seeking co-worker. Now a private investigator, Cass solves crimes in Broken Places with the help of a nun, an ex-con and a thief. She’s a strong, no-nonsense character that readers will instantly fall in love with as they follow her adventures throughout the books in this series.

These Toxic Things (2021) directed by Rachel Howzell Hall

In this story we meet Mickie Lambert, a young woman who pioneered the art of converting memorabilia into digital images so that they can be enjoyed by descendants long after the owner’s death. But joy takes on a whole new meaning when Mickie transforms items owned by a curio shop owner who is believed to have committed suicide. What she digitally collects aren’t just harmless memorabilia, but memento mori that test her resolve and threaten her life. Readers will see Grandma’s Butterfly Needle in a whole new way after completing this crime thriller.

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Short story “Neighbors” (2020) and the short story anthology Love and other Criminal Behavior (2020) by Nikki Dolson

I heard at a conference that Nikki Dolson is one of the best contemporary crime writers. Her short story “Neighbors” (Vautrin, 2020), collected in The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2021 certainly proves it. In Neighbors, Dolson develops two fleshed-out characters whose worldviews are diametrically opposed and who are intriguing because they shatter expectations. She’s proof that African American writers (and characters) can play more than one note.

The above list is just a sampling of the myriad of work that African American writers have done and are doing today, particularly in the crime fiction world. There are compelling social justice stories, yes; but also stories of love, despair, friendship, heartbreak and triumph.

As Toni Morrison wrote in the foreword to The Black Book:

…And I am all the things

I’ve always loved: Scuppernong wine, cool baptisms in

Still water, dream books and number games. I am the sound of my own voice singing “Sangaree”. I’m ring shouts and blues, ragtime and gospels…

For more work by various authors, visit the Crime Writers of Color website.

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More stories about various authors and their books:

https://www.salon.com/2022/06/19/7-thrilling-books-by-black-authors-you-need-to-read-now/ 7 thrilling books by Black authors you need to read now


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