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Classic and Contemporary Fiction by African American Writers

Classics

Langston Hughes
The Return of Simple
This collection of short stories revolves around Hughes's character, Jesse B. Semple (a.k.a. Simple), introduced to readers in 1943 via his weekly column in the Chicago Defender newspaper. Dealing with themes that continue to be important in the African-American community, Simple offers a clarity of vision and his "armchair" philosophies from a bar in Harlem on everything from women to race riots to the difficulties of dealing with the police. Known for his command of poetic language, Hughes's stories are strongly written, timeless, and engaging.
 
Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God
This compelling story of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman living in a Florida town in the 1930's, has inspired many writers, sparking both controversy and praise. Janie Crawford has had three husbands and is believed to have killed one of them. Hurston weaves a wonderful tale as Janie explains her choices and stories to Phoeby, her best friend. Recently adapted by Oprah Winfrey as a television movie, Their Eyes Were Watching God offers insight into women's experiences.
 
Jean Toomer
Cane
In this collection of short stories and poetry, often referred to as a novel, Toomer offers an intense and unflinching examination of race in the South, as well as in Chicago and Washington D.C., in the early 1900's. Born in 1894 in Georgia, Toomer was multiracial and had a unique perspective on race relations. The stories and poetry included in Cane are both subtle and extremely powerful. When initially published, Toomer's work received tremendous and well-deserved critical acclaim.
 
Richard Wright
Uncle Tom's Children
Uncle Tom's Children, by Richard Wright tells the story of life in the Deep South from the Civil War to the 1930s. Each of the four powerful novellas explores four families' terrifying experiences with white oppression. With Wright's use of dialect, the reader is completely absorbed by the tragic plight of African Americans in the ante-bellum South.
 

Contemporary

James Baldwin
Another Country
When jazz musician Rufus Scott commits suicide, his community of friends attempts to come to terms with his death. Spanning Harlem, Greenwich Village, and France in the 1970's, Baldwin's novel offers a powerful and passionate exploration of community, interracial relationships, heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality.
 
James Baldwin
Giovanni's Room
In the post-World War II expatriate community of Paris, a young man wrestles with sexuality, society, and morality when he begins an affair with an Italian bartender. He then must make a choice between him and his fancee -- or whether he can or should make a choice at all.
 
Bebe Moore Campbell
What You Owe Me
Hosanna Clark struggled all her life after her business partner absconded with all the profits from their cosmetics company. Now Hosanna's daughter, Matriece, seeks to revenge past wrongs by going undercover in the cosmetics industry and working her way up to a position of power. The desire for justice, however, has a funny way of mutating when those who pursue it open themselves up to learning about the past.
 
Pearl Cleage
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day
Cleage found a way to write a lighthearted and romantic tale about a woman who has just learned that she is HIV positive and by the end of the novel is trying to save a community from the ravages of drug addiction. To deal with learning about her illness, Ava Johnson sells her business (it's tough to make it as a hair stylist once the clients know you're positive) and goes home to her sister, who lives in the small Michigan town where they grew up. Her sister is still grieving the recent loss of her husband to a lake accident but hasn't let that slow down her continued social work efforts for the struggling community. This tremendously hopeful novel revitalizes readers through its descriptions of the promising rebirth of a community.
 
Edwidge Danticat
The Farming of Bones
Danticat's prose is sensual and mesmerizing, drenched in color and heavy with shadow. A historical tale of black Haitian cane farmers on the precipice of social upheaval, unveiled in hypnotic juxtapostion: birth and demise, justice and cruelty, segregation and the humanity that binds us. Fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Alice Walker will want to reap the rewards of Danticat's challenging fiction.
 
Tananarive Due
My Soul to Keep
A tale of morality and immortality, excruciatingly suspenseful and impossible to put down, Tanarive Due's latest is a stunning Science Fiction/Fantasy tale. Mortal meets and marries Immortal triggering a rush of philosophical problems that you will struggle with solving, while being swept along by the critical mass of Jessica and David's lives. Both a dark fantasy and a gripping thriller about Jessica and David Wolde, this African American couple seem to be living the American dream. Can Jessica accept the truth about her husband before it's too late, or will his lengthy past destroy everything she cares about? Due is generous with details that will be treasured long after the book's been read.
 
Jamaica Kincaid
The Autobiography of My Mother
This somber, lyrical tale centers on Xuela Richardson, whose whole existence is defined by the death of her Carib mother when she was born. The effects of not having her mother's presence in her life and the lack of love and feelings of belonging from her half-Scot, half-African father, his second wife and family shape the course of Xuela's life. The novel explores themes of self, loneliness, defeat, and differences between those who have power and those who have become powerless.
 
Bernice McFadden
The Warmest December
Heart wrenching and hopeful, McFadden, author of the bestselling book Sugar, tells the story of one family's battle with alcoholism and abuse through a daughter's visits to her dying father. Kenzie Lowe's father, Hyman Lowe, scarred her childhood with constant emotional and physical abuse that resulted from his alcoholism. Kenzie, almost against her will, begins to visit him as he lays in a coma dying from liver disease. Through those visits, she is able to confront his alcoholism and abuse, her mother's complacency, and her own struggles with alcohol. McFadden's strongly written novel offers us an honest confrontation of the complexities of addiction and love.
 
Terry McMillan
Waiting to Exhale
Four thirty-something women living very different lives yet still connected by their strong and long-time friendship offer each other support, encouragement, and hope during transitions. Each of them faces different challenges: acknowledging the failure of a marriage, letting go of a hopeless love affair, learning to trust, and accepting the unexpected. Knowing they can count on each other helps these women to fulfill their dreams and take control of their lives.
 
Toni Morrison
Beloved
This haunting novel, written in Morrison's achingly beautiful prose, takes place in rural Ohio just after the Civil War. Having endured much of the horror of slavery, Sethe is determined to and does escape. Rather than subject her two-year-old daughter to the horros of that life when captured, Sethe kills her. Her guilt and despair have taken their toll on her remaining children and on her relationships. As she begins to heal, her daughter's ghost appears, disturbing the household and the community.
 
Z.Z. Packer
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Winner of a 2004 Alex Award from Young Adult Librarians as a book for adults that will appeal to young adults, Packer's short stories are incredibly compelling. Beginning with an intriguing story of the racial and political turmoil of Brownie camp, Packer's stories cover a breadth and depth of material so vast that they offer something for everyone.
 
Delores Phillips
The Darkest Child
Tangy Mae's mother is so fair she could pass for white. She could, anyway, until she started having babies, each one darker than she. Tangy Mae's the darkest -- and the brightest -- of them all. All their lives, Rozelle's taught her children to "honor thy mother": honor her when she's beating them, honor her when she's forcing them to work in despicable ways to earn her money, and honor her more than they honor themselves. Tangy has a chance to get an education and maybe even go to college. But with the burdgeoning civil rights movement making the town of Pakersfield a war zone, and Tangy's mother making their home into a war zone perhaps even more horrible, will Tangy ever really have a chance to succeed? An incredibly moving and intense tale of discrimination and familial relationships, The Darkest Child is a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
 
Alice Walker
The Temple of My Familiar
The multi-generational and multicultural story of Fanny, Suwelo, Arveyda, and Carlotta's growing acceptance and understanding of themselves, their diverse ethnicities, and their interconnectedness, The Temple of My Familiar weaves a tapestry of stories from Central and South America, the United States, and Africa from ancient times to the current day. Through the stories of elders, who include Miss Lissie and Mr. Hal and Celie and Shug (of Color Purple fame), and the stories of the four main characters, Walker's magically real tale mesmerizes and surprises throughout.
 
Colson Whitehead
The Intuitionist
Structured as a pulp/noir detective novel regarding the implications of a vertical society, the meaning of history, and the concept of race in the United States, Whitehead's novel is a riveting portrayal of the politics and power plays of elevator inspectors in New York City in the early Civil Rights era. Lila Mae is the first Black female elevator inspector in the history of verticality, and she is an intuitionist, directly contrasting the status quo empiricist bent of the overwhelmingly white male elevator inspector profession. Her record as an inspector is spotless until the fall of Number Eleven in the building housing the Mayor's office, which seems to be politically motivated. In her efforts to clear her name, Lila Mae enters into the suspenseful underbelly of New York politics and undertakes a philosophical examination of the history of intuitionism.
 
Al Young
Seduction By Light
Former jazz singer and actress, Mamie Franklin works as a domestic for a Beverly Hills movie mogul, serves friends and the occasional stranger as a psychic, and takes care of her lover, Burley Cole, after he suffers a stroke. With grace and wit, Mamie survives and thrives, even after being with Burley as he dies. His death brings her closer to the mysticism and spirits that she has interacted with throughout her life. As she begins to deal with her grief, Mamie is caught in an earthquake that leads to her story airing across the nation. Left with nothing, Mamie realizes that she, in fact, has everything.
 

Updated:08/06/2009