Cover of Black Women Writers at Work

Bonus Post: Books for Black History Month

We get a bonus day in February this year, which seems as good a day as any to share a bonus post from The Wingback. I’ve put together a quick list of a half-dozen titles by Black authors that immediately spring to mind as favorites. You can find all of these books (plus a few more) in my BHM shop on I’ll get a wee commission if you buy books through the link.

Black Women Writers at Work, Claudia Tate, ed.

This is less a “how-to” kind of craft book with tips and tricks and more of a “how it’s done” kind of book. Tate interviewed fourteen literary stars of the mid- to late-twentieth century about how the words get from their minds to the paper and from the paper to the printed page. The authors talk about their practices, their theoretical frameworks, their aims in writing prose and poetry. You could pick at least one book from any one of these women and not go wrong: Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou. It’s unreal the collection of people in this book. It was first published in 1983, which means that Tate interviewed Alice Walker before she won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Color Purple that year. Haymarket Books reissued Black Women Writers at Work in 2023 after decades of it being inexplicably out of print.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

A dizzying, kaleidoscopic novel that swirls around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, called the Singer in this book. It is multi-voiced, immersive, spanning decades and continents … I don’t know how James got his arms around so much material, but it is a stunner of a book. Set aside a chunk of time in your real or imagined wingback chair to really read this one.

Citizen, Claudia Rankine

I started to read this poem, or book of poetry, or book-length work of poesy, when I was catsitting for a friend. I liked to hang out with her weird fluffy cat, and this slender volume was on the living room bookshelf. I hadn’t read it, and figured I’d knock it off the to-read list while scratching the cat’s armpits (he likes that). This was a mind-changing book for me; Rankine’s sharp clarity made me examine the racist, sexist, classist, waters I was swimming in with a new attention. There’s a reason this book always makes these kinds of lists.

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Another mind-changer for me, and again, not because it was new information but because Gyasi’s narrative style and the moment that I read it, I think in early 2017, hit just right. This novel hammered home for me how the Atlantic slave trade continues to affect all Americans.

The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

I read this book for a literature course I took as part of my master’s degree last summer, and I could not stop thinking about the main character, Lila Mae. It’s a slippery business to diagnose fictional characters when they are not explicitly written with a diagnosis in mind, but fellow adult autistic women will likely find a lot of similarities with Lila Mae. I wrote a term paper on the mythical power of the business suit and its use in this novel. I have enough notes and thoughts to write another on the use of working-class uniforms in the book. Dare me.

The Trees, Percival Everett

If I tell you that a satirical modern murder mystery that centers on the killing of Emmett Till is both poignant and funny, you probably won’t believe me. But it’s Percival Everett, and you can trust him as an author every time. I think about the final line of this novel at least twice a month.