It is integral to seek out Black voices at any point in the year, and especially during Black History Month. In hopes of highlighting voices that are oftentimes wrongfully overlooked, The Michigan Daily Book Review came together to curate a list of some of our favorite Black-authored novels. Read ahead to find books to read for Black History Month and beyond.
— Meera Kumar, Book Beat Editor and Emilia Ferrante, Senior Arts Editor
“Memorial” by Bryan Washington
Called a “queer traumedy” by the author, “Memorial” by Bryan Washington centers on the dysfunctional relationship between two queer men of color. The protagonists, Mike and Benson, are in their 30s and lead unglamorous lives, struggling with weight and other insecurities. They spend most of the novel apart. When Mike finds out his estranged father has been terminally diagnosed with cancer, he jets out to Japan, leaving his partner Benson behind to receive and entertain Mike’s visiting mother. What follows is the gradual bonding of Mike’s traditional Japanese mother with Benson, an HIV-positive daycare teacher.
In Japan, Mike slowly acquaints himself with his difficult father. The novel is bursting with beautiful turns of phrase and quiet character development that builds to a satisfying climax. Honest to god, the novel made me cry — I didn’t know how much I needed middle-aged, unsexy queer sex until I got it. Washington, illustrating how family can both anchor and damage us well into adulthood, coaxes out tears of love and sympathy.
Daily Arts Writer Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Pet” by Akwaeke Emezi
“Pet” by Akwaeke Emezi is a bone-chilling YA fantasy that focuses on Jam, a Black trans teen in Lucille (a town that claims to be free of monsters), as she accidentally conjures the eponymous Pet, a “monster”-hunter from another universe. Emezi wrote the piece in response to the “mass gaslighting” they feel occurs with the intentional ignorance of many older people when younger generations worry about issues of injustice; at first glance, the title appears oversimplified, but as you settle into the novel, the metaphor takes on new meaning.
As Jam tries to investigate the presence of monsters, the adults in her life do everything to get her to ignore the surrounding evil — not because they don’t respect Jam’s perceptions of the world, but because they’re afraid of what they’ll have to admit to themselves should they listen to Jam. As we follow Jam’s interactions with Pet and her best friend Redemption in the 208-page novel, the tale settles into a rhythm that peaks in a graphic confrontation at the end — even though the book is for young adults, any reader will be able to enjoy this slightly terrifying work of speculative fiction.
Emezi’s body of work is dynamic, ranging from literary fiction to autobiography to (upcoming) romance; readers can consume more of Emezi’s complex, illustrative writing (made accessible for younger readers) in “Pet.” The novel was overlooked when it was released; for many reasons, it should be reconsidered as a work of YA genius that is sure to stay relevant for decades.
Books Beat Editor Meera Kumar can be reached at email@example.com.
“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite
“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite was published in 2018, and I haven’t stopped recommending it since. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the book revolves around three central characters: Korede, a nurse; Ayoola, her younger sister; and their mother. Ayoola is known for her beauty and is the preferred sister of the two. Though she is beloved in the community, Ayoola has impulsive murderous tendencies, as is revealed by the title. Korede is constantly forced to clean up her sister’s messes, both figuratively and literally. All of Ayoola’s boyfriends end up dead, yet she is continuously discounted as a suspect. Though Korede has tried to stop Ayoola from killing, it isn’t until Ayoola starts to hang around Korede’s coworker crush that Korede finally intervenes.
Though the novel’s primary focus is the relationship between Ayoola and Korede and Ayoola’s ceaseless murders, Braithwaite includes another storyline that focuses on their late father. As the story progresses, flashbacks about their father are revealed that leave the reader pondering the circumstances of his death and the role both Ayoola and Korede might have played in it.
Braithwaite’s expert pacing and crafty divulgence of family secrets make “My Sister, the Serial Killer” a quick, exciting read. The plot is gruesomely addicting, the characters impressively complex. Braithwaite tests each character and the reader by extension, begging us to question who we can trust and what information is true.
Managing Arts Editor Lillian Pearce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South” by Stephanie Jones-Rogers
“They Were Her Property” is an illuminating look into the active role that white women played in American slavery. Oftentimes, narratives around slavery focus solely on the harm of the white male slave owners while only giving negligible acknowledgment that white women were also part of the problem. Jones-Rogers pushes back on the idea that white women were bystanders and uses first-person narratives and legal documents to show that white women directly benefited from and engaged in the practice of slave labor.
Combining discussions of gender, race and economics, “They Were Her Property” revolutionized the way I think of myself and other white women. At the end of the book, Jones-Rogers talks about the ways in which white women’s personal investments in slavery pushed them to uphold systems of white supremacy and segregation in the South post-Civil War. By better understanding the ways in which white women have historically benefitted from the subjugation of Black people, we can better understand their role in other white supremacist movements following the Civil War and today.
Daily Arts Writer Isabella Kassa can be reached at email@example.com.
“Native Son” by Richard Wright
“Native Son” is a book I was required to read in high school but has stayed with me far past graduation. Written in the 1940s, it follows a young Black man, Bigger, living in poverty in Chicago who gets a job working for a rich white family. After an unfortunate situation causes Bigger to commit a major crime, he struggles to outsmart and outrun authorities and is quickly caught and thrown in jail. While in jail, Bigger has a long conversation with his lawyer where he grapples with his identity as a Black man.
This book is good because of its engaging plot, but great because it forces readers to understand themselves in the unfairness of Bigger’s situation and the system that is up against him. Wright never makes Bigger’s crime okay, but rather helps the reader realize that it was the forces out of Bigger’s control that led him to that point.
Daily Arts Writer Isabella Kassa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Bloodchild and Other Stories” by Octavia Butler
“Bloodchild,” the sole collection of science fiction stories written by Octavia Butler, is a glimpse into an imagination as beautifully vast and as wondrously terrifying as outer space itself.
With the briefest of cutting expositions, Butler’s stories evoke a murky dread as information is withheld from the reader until the precise arrival of a moment of horrible comprehension. A grim technological pessimist, Butler’s stories range from all-too-believable tales of pandemics set in her native California to fantastic space dramas, where humans uneasily coexist with alien creatures as distant from us as the insectoid Formics of “Ender’s Game.”
The first Black female sci-fi writer to rise to prominence by the early 1980s, Butler’s naivety and talent allowed her to transcend a field previously dominated by white men. Like Mae Jemison, the first Black female astronaut (who cites Butler as an influence), she was “naive and stubborn enough” to break into the field and endure rejection after rejection. Despite early struggles, at times living hand to mouth to support her writing, with “Bloodchild” (1984) Butler won the Nebula Award, science fiction’s grandest prize. Since then, with stories told through the eyes and experiences of Black female characters, Butler’s imaginative work has transformed the genre.
Butler’s stories are astonishing in their scope and disturbing in their power. Her grip over the reader is crushing; at the swift conclusion of each story, I incredulously re-read the preceding pages. Included after each story is a brief afterword by Butler, which proves nearly as intriguing as the story itself and provides a welcome wind-down. Yet despite these calming afterwords, I wouldn’t recommend “Bloodchild” for bedtime reading. However, if you’re looking for a brief, compelling read to celebrate Black History Month, “Bloodchild” will not disappoint.
Daily Arts Writer Sam Mathisson can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Design was updated to include all six books.