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Fantastic Fiction by African American Authors

11 novels we love by Colson Whitehead, Brit Bennett and more

spinner image book cover excerpts from nine black authors charmaine wilkerson colson  whitehead robert jones junior sadeqa johnson nathan harris walter mosley james mcbride terry mcmillan and brit bennett

What better way to celebrate Black History Month than by reading stories by some of today’s best African American authors? Below are 11 of our favorite novels released in the past few years. A few are humorous; some offer brilliant cultural commentary; all are smart and thought-provoking. Dive in and enjoy.

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The House of Eve

spinner image the house of eve book cover by sadeqa johnson
Simon & Schuster

by Sadeqa Johnson

In this absorbing new novel (a Reese’s Book Club Pick for February), the author of 2021’s award-winning The Yellow Wife focuses on the challenges of two young Black women in 1950s Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. 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 (2023). 

Every Man a King  

spinner image book cover of every man a king a king oliver novel by walter mosley
Mulholland Books

by Walter Mosley

This 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 (Feb. 21, 2023). 

Black Cake

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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.” And, eventually, after receiving the shock of their lives, they do. Hulu is already working on a TV series based on the book. (2022)

Harlem Shuffle

spinner image Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

The latest from Whitehead — recipient of two Pulitzers, for The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys — has a lighter tone than his previous weighty winners, but has racked up the kudos, including being named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the 2021 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 (the second book in a planned trilogy), comes out in July 2023. (2021)

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The Prophets

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G.P. Putnam's Sons

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. (2021)

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. 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. (2020)

 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 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 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. (2021)

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The Sweetness of Water

spinner image The Sweetness of Water

by Nathan Harris

If anyone ever had any doubts about the quality of Oprah’s book picks (we’re looking at you, Jonathan Franzen!), this debut novel, which she selected last year, 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, not to mention 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. (2021)

The Vanishing Half

spinner image The Vanishing Half book cover
Riverhead Books

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 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. HBO is now adapting it for a series. You can read our excerpt here. (2020)

It’s Not All Downhill From Here

by Terry McMillan

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

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 about a group of old friends in California. The focus is Loretha Curry, 68 (McMillan’s age at the time, too), 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 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. (2020)

Deacon King Kong

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Riverhead Books

by James McBride

This 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 received the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and was an Oprah book club pick. And good news for McBride’s fans: He has a new novel coming out this August, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. (2020)

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

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