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6 Books By Black Authors To Put On Your Summer Reading List

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” - James Baldwin

It's summertime, the beaches are open, and you know what that means: it's time to build your summer reading list.

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, a lot of great anti-racist reading lists have come out — like this one from the New York Times — and as a result, some of those books have become so popular that they're sold out in bookstores across the country. But there have also been some thoughtful discussions about the limitations of those anti-racist reading lists, including on a recent episode of NPR's podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. Nonfiction books like Ibram X. Kendi's bestseller "How to Be an Antiracist" are indeed great resources for learning about how to become anti-racist through critical self-reflection and understanding the social and political structures that perpetuate systemic racial inequality.

But it's also important to make room on your bookshelf for works of fiction by black authors, which offer authentic, lived-in depictions of black lives that focus on their characters' humanity. The James Baldwin quote above illustrates why books are so powerful, particularly books from diverse points of view: they put you into the mind and experiences of someone else, and give you greater empathy and insight into the human condition.

So, we're going to help you with your summer reading list by recommending novels by black authors. All of these books were either nominated or selected for One Book, One San Diego, and are all powerful, absorbing reads that will not only introduce you to influential black voices — they'll keep you entertained and turning pages on your beach blanket or hammock all summer long.

Photo credit: Penguin Random House

The book cover for the paperback edition of 'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi, published May 2, 2017.

'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi

Nominated 2017

Ghana, 18th century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other.

One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

"Homegoing" follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem.

Yaa Gyasi's extraordinary novel illuminates slavery's troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed — and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.


Photo credit: Scribner

The book cover for the 'Sing, Unburied, Sing' by Jesmyn Ward, published September 5, 2017.

'Sing, Unburied, Sing' by Jesmyn Ward

Nominated 2018

Jojo is 13 years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn't lack in fathers to study, chief among them his black grandfather, Pop — but also his absent white father, Michael, who is in prison; his absent white grandfather, Big Joseph, who won't acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given.

His mother, Leonie, wants to be a better mother but can't put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children's father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another 13 year old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.


Photo credit: Penguin Random House

The book cover for the paperback edition of 'The Mothers' by Brit Bennett, published October 10, 2017.

'The Mothers' by Brit Bennett

Nominated 2017 and 2018

Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California — Oceanside, to be specific — Brit Bennett's mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition.

Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, 17-year-old beauty takes up with the local pastor's son.

They are young; it's not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance — and the subsequent cover-up — will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth.

Brit Bennett's brand new book, "The Vanishing Half," debuted this month and just topped the New York Times Bestseller List.


Photo credit: Penguin Random House

The book cover for the paperback edition of 'Behold the Dreamers' by Imbolo Mbue, published June 26, 2017.

'Behold the Dreamers' by Imbolo Mbue

Nominated 2018

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for his family. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty — and Jende is eager to please.

Clark's wife, Cindy, even offers Jende's wife Neni temporary work at the Edwards' summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers' facades. When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende's job — even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.


Photo credit: Penguin Random House

The book cover for the paperback edition of 'Washington Black' by Esi Edugyan, published April 9, 2019.

'Washington Black' by Esi Edugyan

Nominated 2019

Eleven-year-old George Washington Black — or Wash — a field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is initially terrified when he is chosen as the manservant of his master’s brother.

To his surprise, however, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist.

Soon Wash is initiated into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky, where even a boy born in chains may embrace a life of dignity and meaning, and where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human.


Photo credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The book cover for the paperback edition of 'The Crossover' by Kwame Alexander, published March 5, 2019.

'The Crossover' by Kwame Alexander

One Book for Teens selection, 2019

"With a bolt of lightning on my kicks ... The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering," announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell.

He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court.

But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he's got mad beats, too, that tell his family's story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander.

Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story's heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.


One Book, One San Diego is our region's premiere literary program, presented in partnership between KPBS and over 80 public libraries, service organizations and educational institutions. Now in its 13th year, the purpose is to bring our community closer together through the shared experience of reading and discussing the same book. If you want to get updates and be the first to hear about the 2020 selections later this summer, sign up for the One Book, One San Diego email list.

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