Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”
This is not an anti-racist reading list, per se. It is a collection of books by Black writers that made me laugh, or cry, or think about the world in new and different ways, or all of the above, which is what books should do. I recommend them.
Note: links here are to the book’s publisher website, because (and yes, I am being That Person) Amazon is The Worst. So please don’t buy books there. Buy local! This list features Black-owned bookstores by state (or just order through Black Stone Bookstore in Ypsilanti, Mich). Bookshop is also a great clearinghouse for indie bookstores if you don’t already have a go-to.
1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing is a fascinating experiment in form—it follows two branches of a West African family tree through seven generations, starting with two half-sisters. One marries the British governor who runs Cape Coast Castle. The other is enslaved and held in the dungeons of the same structure. Hundreds of years later, their descendants meet at a party in San Francisco.
2. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Oh, this one will get you. This is a book about a young Black woman trying to figure out how she defines success for herself. It is also about her boyfriend and her boss who are both trying to be the Best White Person, a competition they are both losing. I read this book with friends, and at one specific point in the plot, two of us independently texted the third friend “oh NO.” (The audiobook for this is very good.)
3. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
This might be a cliché recommendation by now, but this is a very good book. (I have heard tell that the audiobook experience is superior to reading—it gives Trevor Noah a chance to show off his vocal talents—but I cannot personally confirm this.)
4. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
This is a hard book to read. It is stunning, in all senses of the word. Ward narrates one story of grief that is also five stories of the lives and deaths of Black men she grew up with in and around DeLisle, Mississippi. The blurbs on my paperback copy call it wild, raw, searing, and indispensable. They are right.
5. Feel Free by Zadie Smith
I am recommending this (sometimes extremely esoteric) essay collection largely on the prodigious merits of two pieces: 1. “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” a devastating thirteen paragraphs on the grief of climate change that changed how I think about the relationship between cultural values and environmental action, and “Joy.” But really, it is because I want all people to join my quest to read everything Zadie Smith has ever published, because it is all crushingly good.
6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I will also read anything this woman ever publishes.
7. Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
This is another case in which I would recommend the audiobook (this time, from personal experience). Based on interviews Hurston conducted in 1927 with Kossola, also known as Cudjoe Lewis, the last living survivor of the transatlantic slave trade, the book was finally broadly released in 2018. The opening of the 2018 release includes a discussion of the book’s origin story and allegations of plagiarism; the rest is Kossola’s story in his own words.
8. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne
Would I be a grad student if I did not recommend just one book from an academic press? (That is a rhetorical question.) This is, I promise, a relatively accessible read and raises lots of horrifying questions about how digital surveillance extends a long tradition of surveillance methods designed to limit the activities and movements of Black people and about the long afterlife of slavery in American policing (something we are all thinking hard about these days—or should be). Until I read this book, I knew nothing about lantern laws (invoked here) or the Book of Negroes. I am now very worried about facial recognition software, among other things.
9. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
I must credit Jon Gorter with persuading me to read this book (or, rather, listen to it). It’s just—a really lovely meditation on what family is and can be, on what it means to come to see yourself and your loved ones clearly and to make your peace with it, to accept what you are not, to understand what it means to be a part of communities you want to claim and the ones you can’t escape.
10. The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
“It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?”
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.