Left to right, Top row: Random House / HENRY HOLT AND CO. / G.P. PUTNAM'S SONS. Middle row: KNOPF / LITTLE, BROWN AND COMPANY / Scribner. 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 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.
by Charmaine Wilkerson
I loved this book, which just came out Feb. 1. A family’s complicated history begins to emerge after the death of matriarch Eleanor Bennett. When her two adult children, Byron and Benny (a woman), 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)
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 (NBCC’s winners will be announced next month). 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. Whitehead recently suggested that a sequel was on the way: “Don’t be sad!” he tweeted to fans who didn’t want the book to end, “he’ll be back in 2023!” (2021)
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)
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 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)
by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Another finalist for both the Kirkus Prize and the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Awards (and, just announced, 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)
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’s just been named a long-list finalist for Britain’s prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize, recognizing books by authors 39 and younger. (2021)
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The Vanishing Half
by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half was on the best-seller 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.
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 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 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. (2020)
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.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 8, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information and books.