Beautifully written and deeply moving, these nine books explore race and identity. Tinged with each author’s personal experience, these stories are raw, visceral, and unapologetic.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into separate villages. They go on to face wildly different fates; Effia marrys an Englishman and lives out a life of comfort, while Esi is sold into slavery and shipped off to America. One vein follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of turmoil in Ghana as the Asante and Fante nations wrestle with colonization. The other vein follows Esi’s descendants through the plantations to the Civil War to the birth of Jazz and dope houses of Harlem.
2. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Zélie calls Orïsha home, and her home once hummed with magic. Burners could set things ablaze, Tiders could pull forward waves, and Reapers like her mother could summon souls. Everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a tyrannical king, maji were killed, orphaning Zélie and leaving her people in darkness. Determined to bring back magic and tear apart the monarchy, Zélie enlists the help of a rogue princess. Together, they must defeat the crown prince, who is battling to eradicate magic for good. Danger lurks at every corner, but Zélie slowly learns what truly threatens her triumph. Already losing control of her powers, Zélie finds herself growing feelings for her enemy.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Tracey and Aimee dream of being dancers. However, only Tracey has the talent to succeed. Aimee is the observer, full of ideas and talented in another way. As the two friends grow older, they have a falling out, never to speak again. Tracey earns herself a few gigs as a dancer but eventually falls into poverty. Aimee becomes an assistant to a famous singer, traveling the world and learning what it feels like to live a lavish life. Empowered, Aimee travels to a small West African nation hoping to lift a village out of destitution. Through the pair, we explore how dance can and can’t transcend racial barriers.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
At thirteen years old, Jojo struggles to understand what it means to “be a man.” In his short life, he has had four key figures to study. Among them, his black grandfather Pop predominates. But there are other men who blur Jojo’s understanding: his absent white father, Michael, soon to be released from prison; his absent white grandfather, Joseph, who doesn’t acknowledge him; and the tales of his uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is a troubled woman too preoccupied battling her own demons. When Michael regains his freedom, Leonie packs the kids in a car and drives them north to a penitentiary in Mississippi. There, the ghost of a dead thirteen-year-old inmate teaches Jojo about fathers, sons, legacies, violence, and love.
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Dr. Nzinga’s runs a clinic where anyone can get their lips thinned, their skin bleached, and their nose narrowed. You can even opt for a complete demelanization to unburden yourself the societal price of being black. When the opportunity presents, a father is faced with a choice to erase half of his biracial son Nigel’s identity. The pressure grows as violence swarms their home, a near-future Southern city. All the while, Nigel’s black birthmark grows larger and larger by the day.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Eccentric and withdrawn, Aster isn’t phased when people call her an “ogre” and a “freak.” She lives in the slums of HSS Matilda, a space vessel as segregated as the antebellum South. The vessel carries the last of humanity to the Promised Land they’ve been searching for 325 years. The ship’s leaders police and dehumanize dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Meanwhile, Aster navigates the ship’s horrors looking for a way off. When she learns that there’s a connection between her mother’s suicide and the ship’s ailing Sovereign, Aster realizes she may prevail if she’s willing to fight for it.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
When Boy Novak turns twenty, she finds herself yearning for a new life. In what turns out to be a serendipitous twist, she lands in the town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. It’s there she meets Aruto Whitman, craftsmen, widower and father of a young girl named Snow. To Boy, Snow is the mild-mannered endearing girl Boy never was. Soon after, Boy gives birth to Snow’s sister Bird. Bird is dark-skinned, exposing the Whitmans to be light-skinned African-Americans posing as white. A divide forms between Boy, Snow, and Bird forcing them to question unspoken power of the mirror.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
In this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, we follow the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, as she tries to escape her shackles. She’s approached by a another slave, Caesar, and they hatch a plan to head north. Things go awry when Cora is forced to kill a white man trying to capture her as Ridgeway, a slave catcher, is hot on their trail. What follows is a harrowing tale, ripe with bravery and tragedy, as the pair set out to tread the Underground Railroad.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Saul and Saachi pray for a child, and they’re blessed with a baby girl named Ada. Ada grows into a mercurial and fractured child. Eventually, Ada moves to America for college where she is one day assaulted. The trauma causes the different selves inside her to manifest. Her alters, Asughara and Saint Vincent begin to take control of her mind as she slowly fades away. Spiraling out of control, Ada’s life begins to fall into danger and darkness.
Featured Image Via Edward Elgar Publishing