What better way to celebrate Black History Month than by reading stories by some of today's best African-American authors? Below are some of our favorite works of recent fiction. A few are humorous; some offer brilliant cultural commentary; all are smart and thought-provoking. Dive in and enjoy.
The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead faced sky-high expectations for this novel in 2019 because he'd already won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for 2016's The Underground Railroad. No worries: He won another Pulitzer for this story. Gripping and beautifully written, it features a promising teen named Elwood Curtis who is mistaken for a criminal and sent to the Nickel Academy, a boys reform school in Florida in the early 1960s. He suffers some wild injustices, racial and otherwise, deep in the corrupt heart of the Jim Crow South. (Nickel is based on a real reform school from that era.)
by Robert Jones Jr.
This debut novel (and likely award magnet), released last month, is a love story about two enslaved men, Isaiah and Samuel, whose devotion to each other leads to trouble on a brutally run Mississippi plantation. Voices of their African ancestors are woven throughout the book, Toni Morrison-style, with a complex mix of characters, including an older enslaved man, Amos, who embraces the plantation owner's Christianity and becomes a preacher. This draws attention to what's viewed as a sinful kind of love between the two men, and the tension builds toward an inevitably violent reckoning.
by Yaa Gyasi
Gyasi, a wonderful Ghanian American writer who received acclaim for her 2016 debut, Homegoing, writes a deeply moving story about a family who immigrated to Alabama from Ghana (as Gyasi's did). The focus of her 2020 novel is Gifty, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford studying reward-seeking behavior in mice, for reasons that soon become clear: Her brother, a star basketball player in high school, died of a drug overdose after a post-injury prescription for OxyContin led to opioid addiction. Her mother has been devastated ever since. Now devoted to understanding the physiology of addiction, Gifty wrestles with the seeming incompatibility between her Christian upbringing and the fact-based world of science. (When a friend tells her, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” Gifty brusquely responds, “Opiates are the opiates of the masses.") It's a cerebral, absorbing novel with uncommon depth.
by Walter Mosley
The winner of a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, Mosley proves that his gritty genius shows no signs of ending. In his new book, released this month, he returns to his favorite character, Easy Rawlins, an unlicensed African American private detective who'll stop at nothing to solve a case. But this new one is a mind-bender: A young Vietnam War veteran, still shell-shocked, claims he stabbed a man who was abusing a woman. But the soldier was knocked out, and when he came to, both the man and the woman had vanished. Did this really happen, or is it his PTSD talking? And if it did happen, where in the world are they? Mosley has his finger on the pulse of racial and cultural issues of the late ‘60s, and the book is sure to make readers ponder just how much has and hasn't changed today.
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Red at the Bone
by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson, a poet and novelist, is best known for her autobiographical novel in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, the 2014 National Book Award winner for Young People's Literature. Her slim 2019 novel for adults, Red at the Bone, is written in prose, but the language is so lyrical it often reads like poetry. It begins with 16-year-old Melody at her coming-of-age ceremony, held in her grandparents’ Brooklyn home. The story then dips back into her parents’ and grandparents’ pasts, including Melody's unplanned conception, exploring the many choices (and lack of them) that have led to this moment.
The Water Dancer
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The first novel from the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me is — no surprise for Coates’ readers — beautifully written and rich with historical detail. The title character in this 2019 story is a slave named Hiram Walker, who was bestowed with a mysterious power as a child when his mother was sold and taken away from their Virginia plantation. After a near-death drowning incident when he is a teenager, he resolves to flee and dedicates himself to the Underground, a group working covertly to liberate enslaved people. It's an imaginative and complex story and an especially vivid depiction of slavery's devastating psychological toll.
The Vanishing Half
by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half is still on the best seller list, months after its release last summer. No wonder: It's excellent — a thought-provoking story about identical twins Desiree and Stella and, decades later, their daughters. Light-skinned African Americans, the sisters flee their tiny Southern town as teenagers in the 1950s and end up taking very different paths. Stella marries a white man and has a daughter, keeping her roots hidden from her new family and leaving Desiree bewildered and heartbroken. Each of the complex characters is affected differently by the long-ago lie that magnifies the folly of fixating on black-and-white labels. You can read our excerpt here.
It's Not All Downhill From Here
by Terry McMillan
It's like the characters from McMillan's 1995 paean to female friendship, Waiting to Exhale, are all grown up — in their late 60s and beyond — in this warm, witty novel, released last year, about a group of old friends in California. The focus is Loretha Curry, 68 (McMillan's age, too), whose life is running along predictably as she manages her beauty-supply company in California when her husband dies suddenly. Her world is upended by this and other twists in her life, yet she still refuses to believe “It's all downhill from here,” as one pessimistic pal puts it. “If that's how you see it,” Loretha responds, “that's what you get.” Read our excerpt here.
Deacon King Kong
This 2020 novel by the author of The Good Lord Bird (which was turned into a Showtime miniseries starring Ethan Hawke) is full of compassion and the kind of quirky humor that makes McBride's books unique. Set in 1969, it centers on the title character, an often-intoxicated widower known as Sportcoat, who walks into a Brooklyn housing project's courtyard, pulls out a gun and shoots the ear off the area drug dealer. McBride, who was raised in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing projects, goes on to reveal why Sportcoat did such a foolhardy thing and how its reverberations spread outward to affect a colorful mix of characters. Now being adapted for TV, the novel has just received the American Library Association's Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and is Oprah's latest book club pick.
Christina Ianzito writes about health, travel, and entertainment for AARP. Previously she was contributing writer at The Washington Post and other publications. She is the recipient of a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.