It is a truth universally acknowledged that classic literature consists of older works once deemed the cream of the crop of English literature. These works are usually written by male authors and center on white characters or white narratives, enforcing traditional gender roles and heteronormative views.
I know what you’re thinking — surely classic literature isn’t as homogenous as I’m making it out to be, is it? We can’t forget about iconic female literary figures like Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Virginia Woolf, all of whom have cast echoes we still feel in present genres. And there are some voices of color sprinkled in there, like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin, who provide thoughtful and poignant contrast to the otherwise white European works.
Although these exceptions are incredibly important, and their significance cannot be understated, we can be honest with ourselves — classic literature is a straight white man’s game. But there is hope — as more older works enter the public domain, we see more and more retellings. These retellings recontextualize the old works to include largely ignored audiences — Black voices, Brown voices, queer voices, and more — to show that the world is bigger than the classics make it out to be.
Luckily, more and more authors are realizing they can use the foundations of older works to tell their own stories and represent their own communities. Below are just a few examples of Black authors reimagining classic works in Black voices for modern audiences. With these books, reading from a new perspective and paying homage to the classics go hand-in-hand.
Pride by Ibi Zoboi
In this modern YA retelling, Ibi Zoboi revamps Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Bushwick, Brooklyn, where Zuri contemplates her future as her beloved neighborhood experiences gentrification. Zuri has always been proud of where she came from and what makes her who she is. From her Brooklyn home and her chaotic but loving family to her Afro-Latino roots, she knows embracing all these parts of her is exactly what the world around her doesn’t want. But the comfort of her Brooklyn neighborhood is threatened by the arrival of the wealthy Darcy family. Her older sister Janae is soon smitten with Ainsley Darcy, but Zuri finds his brother Darius arrogant and judgemental. Zuri and Darius have to make nice as their siblings grow closer, which may result in a deeper understanding of each other and themselves.
Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood
This Ethiopian-inspired retelling of Jane Eyre follows a debtera named Andromeda. Debteras are exorcists hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye, but without a license, the chances of getting hired are incredibly slim. Dumped by her mentor before she can get her license, Andromeda is desperate to find a Patron, a rich person with connections who will vouch for her abilities. Out of options, Andromeda agrees to work for the wealthy and eccentric Magnus Rochester, even though his rude personality and all the debtera who had quit before her point to disaster. But Magnus is hiding something dark, and the longer she spends in his house, the more she’s certain everything will end in death. But Andromeda refuses to leave Magnus alone to deal with his curse himself.
A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney
Alice in Wonderland meets Buffy The Vampire Slayer in this urban fantasy trilogy. Our heroine is Alice, a Black nerd living in Atlanta who fights terrifying monsters known as Nightmares. But for all the weapons and magic she has on her side, Alice still has to deal with elements of real life, like an overprotective mom, a needy best friend, and schoolwork. But when Alice’s charming and mysterious mentor is poisoned, the only way to save him is by venturing into the unknown realms of Wonderland, the dark dream realm where Nightmares live.
(P.S. If you want to learn more about A Blade So Black and L.L. McKinney, check out Bookstr’s interview with the author herself here!)
Where the Rhythm Takes You by Sarah Dass
Persuasion takes a tropical vacation in this YA romance set in Tobago. 17-year-old Reyna has spent her whole life at Plumeria, her family’s beautiful seaside resort on the island of Tobago. But as more things start to change, the resort that was once the only place for Reina is becoming suffocating. In only two years, everything turned upside down–Reyna’s mother died, and her best friend, Aiden, left the island to pursue his dreams. But now Aiden is back, as one-third of the biggest music group on the scene and as a VIP guest at Plumeria. And Aiden isn’t alone — with him are the other members of his group, DJ Bacchanal, and two LA socialites. Now Reyna has to struggle to keep Plumeria afloat, hold onto her distancing friends, and deal with this sudden return of her past.
No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts
Less of an overt retelling and more of a story with a clear guided influence, Stephanie Powell Watts’ debut novel has echoes of The Great Gatsby throughout its entirety. JJ Ferguson has returned to his home in Pinewood, North Carolina, and finds the place and its people just as changed by time as he. With factories in decline and the consequences of Jim Crow still permeating, the people of Pinewood struggle to achieve their American Dreams. While JJ hopes to woo his high school sweetheart, Ava, he must reconcile that Ava has her own struggles, like pregnancy difficulties, an emotionally distant husband, and a meddling and grieving mother. JJ’s return is an unsettling reminder of how far everyone else is from what they want and forces them to consider what they’ll do to achieve their dreams.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi uses the classic fairytale Snow White to tell a story about race, beauty, and family, dashed with magical realism. In 1953, Boy Novak moves to a small town in Massachusetts looking for beauty, the opposite of the life she leaves behind in New York. In her search, she finds and marries a widower, Arturo Whitman, and becomes stepmother to Arturo’s daughter, Snow. Boy’s search for beauty takes a darker turn into an aesthetic obsession with the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird. Bird’s arrival reveals that the Whitmans are actually light-skinned African-Americans and not the white family Boy assumed them to be. Estranged, Boy, Snow, and Bird develop a complicated curiosity about each other, the images they present to the world, and the power of the mirror that keeps them all captive.
James by Percival Everett
This upcoming novel dives into one of the lesser-explored perspectives of the classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This reimagining puts the enslaved Jim center stage as he hides on Jackson Island to create a plan to escape his upcoming sale and to stay with his wife and daughter. The same island holds Huck Finn, who has faked his death to escape his recently returned violent father. The meeting between Jim and Huck Finn signifies the appearance of details from the original Mark Twain tale — namely storms, floods, death, and treasure — but Everett uses these bits of the familiar to explore Jim’s agency, intelligence, compassion, and depth as a character.
Look for this book when it hits shelves on March 19th, 2024, or preorder now!
John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
Although he didn’t originate from a novel, John Henry is a well-known American folk hero who has been the center of numerous plays, songs, and books. According to legend, John Henry was an African-American freedman who died from exhaustion after he competed against a steam-powered rock drill and won. In John Henry Days, a freelance journalist travels to West Virginia to cover a postage stamp unveiled at the first John Henry Days festival over a century after John Henry’s death. The novel follows multiple threads, twining together a Black journalist on a junketeering mission, the point when American legend becomes American pop culture, and the history of the legendary Black man who pulls them together.
Destroyer by Victor LaValle
Destroyer is a modern sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, following the descendants of Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster to the point where the two lines meet again. In the 18th century, when Shelley’s novel was set, all Frankenstein’s monster wanted was companionship and acceptance. By 2017, when LaValle’s story starts, the monster has given up on finding peace. Once The Creature, he is now The Destroyer with the singular goal of eliminating humans from the planet. The Destroyer finds a willing accomplice in Dr. Baker, a descendant of Frankenstein who lost her son in an encounter with the police. Two scientists initially believe they’re brought in to protect Dr. Baker from The Destroyer, but it quickly becomes clear that they have to protect the world from the combined force of The Destroyer and Dr. Baker’s wrath.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
In this YA Arthurian fantasy, a grieving teenage girl finds herself entangled in the doings of a secret magic society. 16-year-old Bree, still mourning the loss of her mother, is hoping that a prestigious residential program at UNC-Chapel Hill will be just the distraction she needs. But Bree’s hopes for normalcy are dashed when she witnesses a magical attack on her first night at school. This attack will reveal a hidden world full of magic, mages, and “Legendborn” students, descendants of the members of King Arthur’s court who possess magical powers to fight invading creatures. The more Bree learns about this secret world and the society that runs it, the more she realizes that this world holds the answer to her mother’s death.
Masquerade by O.O. Sangoyomi
Loosely based on the myth of Persephone, O.O. Sangoyomi’s upcoming debut takes place in a world inspired by 15th-century West Africa. As the town of Timbuktu is conquered by a warrior kind of Yorùbáland, the lives of Òdòdó’ and the women in her blacksmith guild go from bad to worse. When the warrior king decides he must have Òdòdó’ as his wife, she is unwillingly whisked away from her home to the highest level of society. After a life spent under someone’s control, this sudden gain of power is enticing. With tensions between rival states growing and enemies revealing themselves, Òdòdó’ must move the king’s court in her favor to survive or die trying.
Look for this book when it hits shelves on July 2nd, 2024, or preorder now!
If want more fresh reads, check out these anticipated releases from Black authors here.
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