Books About Race & Being Black in America

The publishing industry has been on a roll lately. The number of great books by Black writers or about Black issues have been at an all-time high. Let’s keep that going by reading some of the gems we’ve listed here. 

Some are new voices, some old, and there are a few you may never have heard of before. We encourage everyone – readers and nonreaders alike – to give these a chance. 

Black Pacific Northwest Authors: 

Ijeoma Oluo – “So You Want to Talk About Race” 

This Nigerian-American living in Seattle has written for The Guardian, Jezebel, The Stranger, Medium, and The Establishment. In this book – her first – she takes the reader through race relations with clear explanations of the ways American society is set up to empower white people, particularly men. Oluo does take a little bit of the sting out of the conversation, but never to the detriment of the people of color who have had a hard life under white rule. 

Samiya Bashir – “Field Theories”

Bashir is a Portland poet, a creative writing teacher at Reed College, and someone who can combine literature with physics. From her webpage:Field Theories wends its way through quantum mechanics, chicken wings and Newports, love and a shoulder’s chill, melding blackbody theory (idealized perfect absorption, as opposed to the whitebody’s idealized reflection) with real live Black bodies.” 

Mitchell S. Jackson – “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family”, “The Residue Years” 

Raised in Portland, Mitchell saw the way racism and drugs infiltrated his home in surprising ways. His combination of literary, religious, and slang languages makes his writing sing a song of American history that too many want to ignore. 

Heidi W. Durrow – “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky”

Another writer who grew up in Portland, Durrow’s debut is not only a New York Times best seller, but is a PEN/Bellwether prize winner. Following the trials of a girl who is sent to live with her grandmother after a family tragedy, this book shows the reader what it’s like to live in a predominantly Black neighborhood as somewhat of an outsider. 

Esi Edugyan – “Washington Black” 

This Canadian novelist – British Columbia, so still PNW – takes the reader back to follow a young slave who escapes his master with the master’s brother. Follow this duo from Barbados to the Arctic, through Canada and England and Morocco. Then check out another of this brilliant writer’s books – “The Second Life of Samuel Tyne”, “Half-Blood Blues”, and “Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home.” 

Renee Watson – “Piecing Me Together”

Watson is known for finding the perfect intersection between race and childhood. In this novel, the reader meets Jade, a teenager in Portland struggling with a mostly white school that insists on labeling her “at risk.” And if you like this book, Watson has six others for you to find and love – “Love is a Revolution”, “Some Places More Than Others”, “Watch Us Rise”, “Betty Before X”, “This Side of Home”, and “What Momma Left Me.” 

Nastashia Minto – “Naked: The rhythm and groove of it. The depth and length of it.” 

Portland transplant by way of Georgia, Minto takes to the page and strips herself of who she used to be. In this memoir, she looks at family and faith, race and sexuality, abuse and love. And she comes out the other side ready to take others through the process.  

Nisi Shawl – “Everfair”, “Filter House”, “New Suns”

Nisi Shawl is a name known well in the circles of speculative fiction. Her novel “Everfair” asks what the world would be like if the people of Africa developed steam power first, following the people who come to the safe haven created to protect others from mistreatment. 

Shawl is the editor of the anthology “New Suns” – a collection of speculative short stories by writers of color, focusing on that experience of otherness and marginalization.

Charles Johnson – “Middle Passage” 

Newly freed slave, Rutherford Calhoun, is desperate to escape creditors and one very determined marriage-minded lady. So, he gets onboard a slave ship leaving New Orleans, never realizing that he will forever be changed by his time with the slaves being transported. University of Washington professor emeritus Charles Johnson has written this tale with comedy and heart. 

If you like this book by Johnson, take a look for him in a bookstore catalogue. His genius has spread across many pages. 

Colleen J. McElroy – “Queen of the Ebony Isles”

“He’s only a smart-ass when he’s home” begins Lothar’s Wife by Colleen J. McElroy – and I beg you all to click that link and read the rest of it. McElroy’s poetry is smart and beautiful, pulling together a sense of clarity, longing, otherness, and the occasional lesson learned from a smart mother. 

Non-Pacific Northwest Authors of Note: 

Angie Thomas – “The Hate U Give” 

This story begins with something Tupac Shakur said concerning the meaning behind the term “Thug Life” – The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody. Angie Thomas looks at the idea of this and sees how hate given comes back on us as a society. 

As far as debut novels go, Thomas’s is what every writer aims for. This book turned film brings the reality of living in a poor Black neighborhood to life through the eyes of Starr Carter – a smart and talented Black girl who finds herself on the wrong side of a policeman’s gun. The nightmares people felt when watching George Floyd die is somehow captured in this truly remarkable book.  

Look for Thomas’s other books – “On the Come Up” and “Concrete Rose.” This lady knows how to tell a story. 

Emmanuel Acho – “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” 

Americans need to face the systemic racism we live in. But how can we if we don’t recognize the problem? Enter Emmanuel Acho – former linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles and current host of a series of videos that aim to get people talking about what’s important and what needs to change.  

Acho took these conversations from video to the page in this book. Beginning with a question asked about race in America, Acho goes carefully through it and finds a way to remind white people that we sometimes probably already know the answer by looking at issues historically, uncomfortably, and transformatively. 

Toni Morrison – “Sula”, “Song of Solomon”, “The Bluest Eye“, “Beloved” 

If you haven’t read a book by the utterly amazing Toni Morrison, then go out and get one now!  

My favorite is “Sula”, because I love the way she juxtaposed two girls who were changed in very different ways through the same incident. This woman gave a Nobel lecture about storytelling, so you know she knows how to do it. The world lost this incomparable genius of a woman; go out and find out why you need to be saddened by that.  

Maya Angelou – “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

“You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies – ” another incomparable Black woman in literature, Maya Angelou brought soul into poetry like these first two lines from her poem Still I Rise. And like above, I strongly encourage everyone to click on that link and read the rest of that poem.  

When she read for newly minted President Bill Clinton, she was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration since Robert Frost in 1961 – and not lying here, Angelou was much better. So, pick up the book and learn why that caged bird sings. 

Amanda Gorman – “The Hill We Climb”, “Change Sings” 

The newest and youngest inaugural poet Amanda Gorman blew away the nation as she told us about a “skinny black girl, descended from slaves” who stood before America and amazed. We strongly encourage everyone to read the words of this young woman. She has an important future ahead of her. 

Alyssa Cole – “When No One Is Watching”

What happens when gentrification goes too far? That’s the premise of this thriller, where a new crop of condos might mean something scarier than new neighbors. 

Nathan McCall – “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America” 

An important and visceral memoir about how a young Black man went from being a smart kid in a close family to packing a gun and beginning a life in crime. The true story of a man who makes it through prison and out the other side. 

Commentary Concerning Black America: 

Robin J. DiAngelo – “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” 

This book has been called vital, necessary, and beautiful. What’s most important about it is that it helps white people see racism as something we’ve grown up with, something that is practiced. DiAngelo makes people realize that, while what they may have done is racist, those actions don’t have to define them. This is an important book that offers in-depth exploration on how white fragility develops, and what can be done to combat it. 

Check out this Yes! article for more on this topic. 

Beverly Daniel Tatum – “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race” 

This book addresses the issue of self-segregation that happens in racially mixed schools, and how to talk to kids about this issue. 

Charles Mills – “The Racial Contract”

A great place to begin your education on race relations in America, Mills shows how what we’ve always called a “social contract” is most likely a racial one. 


Michael C. Dawson – “Black Visions: Roots of Contemporary African American Ideology” 

According to The Write of Your L!fe, “This is likely one of the most comprehensive accounts of the relationship between black political thought and black political behavior. The essays cover a wide range of topics and include writings from Frederick Douglass to Ice Cube.” 

Angela Y. Davis – “Woman, Race & Class”, “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle” 

Dr. Davis spoke recently at Oregon State University. Now, it’s time to read what she has to say as well. “Women, Race & Class” is a way to deeply explore the intersectionality of the women’s liberation movement from the point of view of a Black woman in it.  

Audre Lorde – “Sister Outsider”, “The Cancer Journals” 

“The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children.” This first stanza of Power by Audre Lorde takes a woman’s breath away for its honesty. Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches will do the same.  

If you don’t feel up for a speech, read “The Cancer Journals.” This book will ring true to every woman who has been through that moment of fear about losing a breast to a bunch of cells that just won’t stop growing. 

If we’ve missed one of your favorite writers or books, please comment on our Facebook. We’re up to learn more and willing to make another list. 

By Sally K Lehman