10 Contemporary Black Writers to Celebrate On Library Lovers’ Day

In honor of Black History Month and the lesser known February 14 holiday Library Lovers’ Day, we are recommending 10 black authors you should check out, and we mean literally, today at your local branch of the Boston Public Library:


Jesmyn Ward

Born and raised in a small, rural community in Mississippi, Jesmyn Ward has long drawn from her upbringing for her work. A survivor of Hurricane Katrina, her second novel Salvage the Bones follows a poor black family in the ten days before, the day of, and the day after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011, much to Ward’s surprise. In 2011, Ward also finished her memoir The Men We Reaped, which details the early deaths of four young black men in her hometown, as well as her brother, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2000. Ward took up writing to honor her late brother and calls The Men We Reaped the hardest thing she’s ever written. Her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, about the inner workings of a family’s dynamics in a fictional Mississippi town, won the 2017 National Book Award in Fiction, named one of the top ten novels of the year by Time magazine, and was included President Obama’s list of the best books he read in 2017. Ward was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 2017 for her body of both fiction and non-fiction work. twitter-4-512 @jesmimi 

Hilton Als

Hilton Als is a writer and critic from New York City. He has recently received more attention for his theatrical reviews, especially since he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2017. However, he’s been writing longer works since 1996, such as The Women, a memoir that focuses on Als’ mother who raised him in Brooklyn, as well as his coming to terms with his ethnicity and sexuality. In 2003, his book of essays, White Girls, which combined fiction, non-fiction, and memoir to paint portraits of different white women, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hilton Als has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1994 and won a Guggenheim fellowship in 2000 for Creative Fellow. Als continues his writing today while teaching at Columbia University. 

Kwame Dawes

Often called the “busiest man in literature”, Kwame Dawes lives up to his nickname as a published poet, playwright, novelist, and editor. He also has performed as an actor and was the lead singer of the reggae band Ujamma. Born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, Dawes frequently returns to the Caribbean, as he did to document the HIV/AIDS epidemic in his childhood home. He won an Emmy in 2009 in the New Approaches to News & Documentary Programming: Arts, Lifestyle & Culture category for the culmination of his research project, livehopelove.com. Dawes is also the founding editor of both the South Carolina Poetry Prize and the African Poetry Book Fund (APBF), but still finds time to write his own work as well. City of Bones: A Testament, his 2017 book of poems, was highly lauded and landed on The Roots‘ 16 Best Books of the Year by Black Authors list; City of Bones was one of eight books Dawes celebrated the publication of (either as writer or editor) in 2016 and 2017.  twitter-4-512 @kwamedawes

Rachel Howzell Hall

Rachel Howell Hall has loved putting pen to paper since she was a child. “My first drafts are always longhand on legal pads,” Hall told NPR’s Morning Edition in 2014. Born, raised, and still based in Los Angeles, Hall rose to fame as a mystery writer in 2014 with publication of Land of Shadows, the first in a series of crime novels following Eloise “Lou” Norton, a fictional detective who is the only woman and only African-American person on her Los Angeles homicide unit. The New York Times has lauded the central character as “someone you want on your side” after the second installment, Skies of Ash, came out in 2015. The most recent book in the Detective Lou Norton series, City of Saviors, was published in August 2017 to much acclaim. twitter-4-512 @RachelHowzell 

Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine is a poet, playwright, and editor with five books of poetry, two plays, and many essays available for your consumption. Recipient of MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2016, Rankine’s 2014 book-length poem Citizen: An American Lyric has been featured in local book clubs recently in preparation for the production of her play The White Card. Running from February 24 through April 1, ArtsEmerson will present American Repertory Theater‘s production, directed by Diane Paulus. Additional suggested reading to prepare for this performance includes other Rankine works: Plot, her third collection of poetry; and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, a combination of essays and TV images, tied together with Rankine’s beautiful verse. 

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is the author of seven full-length works, six novels and one book of essays called The Colossus of New York that reflect on the city he calls home. Whitehead’s most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Carnegie Medal in Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2017. About a young slave named Cora on a cotton plantation and her terrifying escape and journey north towards freedom, The Underground Railroad was lauded by President Obama and The New York Times as must-read recreation of pre-Civil War horrors faced by the African-American community. Whitehead, a graduate of Harvard University, received the MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2002 after writing his two debut novels while working at The Village Voice. The success of The Underground Railroad has Whitehead touring the country for engagements through October, which gives you plenty of time to catch up on his work before he publishes his next great American novel! twitter-4-512 @colsonwhitehead 

Nnedi Okorafor

For those of you who prefer sci-fi series or want more fantasy in your life, Nnedi Okorafor is the author for you. Born to Nigerian parents in America, Okorafor is known for weaving in African culture into the predominantly white sci-fi/fantasy genre. The Night Masquerade, the third book in her most recent trilogy, the Binti Series, came out in January to much critical acclaim. The previous books in the trilogy were praised in reviews on NPR and in USA Today and The Chicago Tribune. Okorafor was drawn to writing after a complication in a surgery to fuse her spine and alleviate her scoliosis left her paralyzed from the waist down. Once an athlete, she was now confined to scribbling short stories in the margins of the science fiction books she read. She regained her ability to walk with a cane in college while taking a creative writing course—her first novel was in the works by the time the course ended. Okorafor’s writing for both children and adults uses the lens of fantasy storytelling to dig into social issues around race, gender inequity, and political violence. Most recently, Okorafor helmed the latest Black Panther comic, Long Live the King, which started releasing issues in December. She also has an HBO deal in the works with the creators of Game of the Thrones to develop an Afrofuturistic show to follow in the footsteps of the immensely popular Game Of  Thrones, which will conclude in 2019.  twitter-4-512 @nnedi 

Beverly Jenkins

If you want to celebrate both Library Lovers’ and Valentines’ Day, Beverly Jenkins’ romance novels are for you. Jenkins has reached “super stardom” in the romance genre, according to the Detroit Free Press. She published her first novel, Night Song in 1994 and became a pioneer of a multicultural romance movement to diversify a traditionally white genre. Since then, Jenkins has written over 40 contemporary and historical romance novels, including her newest, Tempest, about a black couple in the American Wild West. Released in January, Tempest has garnered praise from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. In 2017, Jenkins was awarded the Romance Writers of North America Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award for her body of work, which is definitely worth a perusal by all hopeless romantics looking for a good read.
twitter-4-512 @authorMsBev 

Mat Johnson

For the more visually stimulated, Mat Johnson is a great choice this Library Lovers’ Day. Named the first James Baldwin Fellow by the United States Artists in 2007, Johnson is a fiction writer who works in both prose and comics format. His most recent work, a 10th anniversary re-release of Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, is a graphic novel, a fictional retelling of the black journalists who went south to investigate lynchings in the early 20th century. Johnson gained attention in 2015 for his semi-autobiographical Loving Day, which he called his “coming out as a mulatto.” Loving Day takes place in Johnson’s childhood neighborhood, Germantown in Philadelphia, where Johnson was born to an African-American mother and an Irish Catholic father. Loving Day‘s title refers to the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that ended all bans on interracial marriage in the U.S. on June 12, 1967. Johnson’s works are known to investigate racial identity with compassion and biting humor and a scope that is epic and mythical, as well as extremely personal.  twitter-4-512 @mat_johnson 

John Edgar Wideman

John Edgar Wideman, though in his golden years, is still producing cutting-edge work, particularly with his memoirs. His most recent book, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, works to uncover the truth of the lost father of Emmett Till, who was executed by the U.S. Army for rape and murder ten years after his son’s brutal murder. Published in 2016, Writing to Save a Life is both a personal exploration and a public monument to a fallen Civil Rights leader. An author of over 20 books, Wideman held the MacArthur Fellowship from 1993 to 1998, after becoming the first person to win the International PEN/Faulkner Award twice: once in 1984 for Sent for You Yesterday; and again in 1990, Philadelphia Fire, perhaps his most famous book. Wideman’s next work, a collection of short stories called American Histories, is due out on March 20. 

For more books related to the black experience, history, and heritage check out Black Is…  a curated book list published by the Boston Public Library every year.


Audery Seraphin is the Membership and Capacity Building Manager at ArtsBoston. She is a member of the Front Porch Arts Collective and a proud graduate of the Theatre Studies program at Emerson College.       twitter-4-512 @audreyseraphin

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