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Fantastic Fiction by African American Authors

13 novels we love by James McBride, Jesmyn Ward and more


spinner image left to right top to bottom book cover excerpts from nine black authors tananarive due colson  whitehead robert jones junior sadeqa johnson jesmyn ward walter mosley james mcbridge terry mcmillan brit bennett
LEFT TO RIGHT, TOP ROW: S&S/Saga Press / HENRY HOLT AND CO. / G.P. PUTNAM'S SONS. MIDDLE ROW: SIMON & SCHUSTER / Scribner / MULHOLLAND BOOKS. BOTTOM ROW: Riverhead Books / BALLANTINE BOOKS / RIVERHEAD BOOKS

What better way to celebrate Black History Month than by reading stories by some of today’s best African American authors? Below are 13 of our favorite novels released in the past several years. A few are humorous; some offer brilliant cultural commentary; all are smart and thought-provoking. Dive in and enjoy.

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Let Us Descend

spinner image the book cover for let us descend by jesmyn ward
Scribner

by Jesmyn Ward 

A two-time National Book Award winner (for 2017’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and 2011’s Salvage the Bones), Ward takes us inside the mind of Annis, a young woman — enslaved by the white man who fathered her — who is separated from her mother and the woman she loves and forced to travel from the Carolinas to a new enslaver in Louisiana. Annis is strengthened by stories of her warrior ancestors as she struggles to retain her sense of self through the pain and terror of her grueling journey. The novel was a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, presented annually by the American Library Association.

spinner image The Reformatory book cover
S&S/Saga Press

The Reformatory

by Tananarive Due

This truly scary story arrived just in time for Halloween last year. Described by Library Journal as “a masterpiece,” it’s about a boy in Jim Crow-era (1950) Florida who’s sent to a frightening, haunted reform school. Due told Publishers Weekly that she spoke with many survivors of such punishing schools to inform her novel, and she dedicates it to “Robert Stephens, my great-uncle who died at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, in 1937. He was fifteen years old.”​

spinner image book cover for heaven and earth grocery store by james mcbride
Riverhead Books

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

by James McBride

A 2023 bestseller from the author of 2013’s National Book Award winner The Good Lord Bird, McBride’s latest is set in the 1920s and ’30s in the fictionalized neighborhood of Chicken Hill, Pennsylvania, where Jewish and Black Americans live side by side. When a skeleton is found at the bottom of a well, the investigation that follows reopens wounds and uncovers a long-held secret. It’s a murder mystery, of sorts, but also a warmhearted portrait of a community described with humor and compassion. Barnes & Noble chose it as its Book of the Year, and it was one of Barack Obama’s favorites of 2023.

spinner image The House of Eve book cover
Simon & Schuster

The House of Eve 

by Sadeqa Johnson

In this absorbing 2023 novel (a Reese’s Book Club pick), the author of 2021’s award-winning Yellow Wife focuses on the challenges of two young Black women in 1950s Philadelphia and Washington. Working-class Eleanor from Ohio falls in love with a wealthy Howard University student and struggles to be accepted into his elite world; and Ruby, from Philly, hopes to be the first in her family to go to college, but a taboo affair jeopardizes that dream. 

spinner image Every Man A King book cover
Mulholland Books

Every Man a King 

by Walter Mosley

This 2023 sequel to 2018’s Down the River Unto the Sea, from the Edgar Award–winning author known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series, again features unflappable investigator Joe King Oliver. Accepting a dangerous assignment from billionaire Roger Ferris to determine the guilt of a white nationalist jailed for murder (Ferris thinks the guy’s been set up), King looks for answers from the alleged perpetrator’s friends and enemies, each with an ax to grind. 

Black Cake

spinner image Black Cake book cover
Random House

by Charmaine Wilkerson

A family’s complicated history begins to emerge after the death of matriarch Eleanor Bennett. When her two adult children, Byron and his sister, Benny, who’ve been estranged for years, travel to California upon her passing, Eleanor’s lawyer hands them an audio recording in which their Caribbean-born mother spins a remarkable story about a young swimmer named Covey and a tragic incident that changed the course of her life and the lives of others. She also tells her children she has baked a traditional Caribbean black cake, now in the freezer, and “I want you to sit down together and share the cake when the time is right. You’ll know when.” Eventually, after receiving the shock of their lives, they do. A TV series based on the book is streaming on Hulu. ​

spinner image Harlem Shuffle
HENRY HOLT AND CO.

Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

The first in a planned trilogy from Whitehead — recipient of two Pulitzers, for The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys — has a lighter tone than his previous weighty winners, but it racked up the kudos when it came out in 2021, including being named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Awards. The story is set in the late ’50s and early ’60s in New York City, where cash-strapped Ray Carney — the son of a crook — runs a struggling furniture store on Harlem’s 125th Street. Though he’s trying his darndest to be an upstanding family man (he’s “only slightly bent when it [comes] to being crooked”), Carney is lured into a criminal underworld by his cousin Freddie, who wants help fencing stolen loot after a planned heist. The sequel, Crook Manifesto, came out last July and is another wild romp, with Carney again trying (and failing) to stay legit in crime-ridden 1970s New York.​

spinner image The Prophets book cover
G.P. Putnam's Sons

The Prophets

by Robert Jones Jr.

This debut novel 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.

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Transcendent Kingdom

by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi, a wonderful Ghanaian 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 this novel is Gifty, a PhD 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. 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.

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My Monticello

by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Another finalist for both the Kirkus Prize and the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Awards (and on the long list for the 2022 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction), this debut collection of short stories that Colson Whitehead called “electrifying” tackles issues of racial identity and racism in different settings and contexts. The titular novella features two modern-day descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, a woman and her grandmother, who join a group of Charlottesville, Virginia, neighbors seeking refuge at Monticello to hide from violence fomented at a Unite the Right rally. In “Control Negro,” a story that was included in The Best American Short Stories 2018, a university professor distances himself from his son from birth — an experiment to see how his son might develop if he grows up unaware of his Black father. The audiobook is read by a full cast, including the actors LeVar Burton and Aja Naomi King.

spinner image The Sweetness of Water
SCRIBNER

The Sweetness of Water

by Nathan Harris

If anyone ever had any doubts about the quality of Oprah’s book picks, this debut novel, which she selected in 2021, will dispel them. It’s a moving, beautifully written story set in the American South just after the Civil War, when enslaved people have been emancipated but are still shackled in many ways by racism, as well as their traumatic pasts. The book’s focus is on a good-hearted older white man, George, who hires two freed brothers to help him farm his land. He and his family draw close to the pair, but the townspeople don’t look kindly on the arrangement. Tensions build to a near-apocalyptic climax, and a kind of justice is finally served. It was a finalist for Britain’s prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize, recognizing books by authors 39 and younger.

spinner image The Vanishing Half book cover
Riverhead Books

The Vanishing Half

by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half was on the bestseller list for ages, and 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, 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. HBO is adapting it for a series. You can read our excerpt here.

spinner image It's Not All Downhill from Here book cover
Ballantine Books

It’s Not All Downhill From Here

by Terry McMillan

It’s like the characters from McMillan’s 1992 paean to female friendship, Waiting to Exhale, are all grown up — in their late 60s and beyond — in this warm, witty novel about a group of old friends in California. The focus is Loretha Curry, 68 (McMillan’s age, too, when the book came out in 2020), whose life is running along predictably as she manages her beauty-supply company, when her husband dies suddenly. Her world is upended by this and other twists in her life, yet she 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.​

Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 8, 2021. It has been updated to reflect new information. 

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