10 Great Novels by African Americans

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Presented by Encarta

In his classic 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois called on black writers to create a new literary tradition that would celebrate the black experience. As if in direct response to this challenge, African American authors wrote some of the most powerful and innovative works of the 20th century. The following ten novels are just some of the gems in African American literature.

1. The Marrow of Tradition (1901), by Charles W. Chesnutt. One of the first novels to depict violent racial clashes, The Marrow of Tradition is based partly on the race riots that shook Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. It also explores the debilitating effects of racial segregation by dramatizing the aftermath of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case of 1896 that established “separate but equal” as the law of the land.

2. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), by James Weldon Johnson. This groundbreaking novel tells the story of a black artist who chooses to “pass” as white, a decision that ultimately compromises his artistic talents. Johnson first published the novel anonymously, and then republished it under his own name 15 years later, after he had become famous as a literary and political figure. Much to Johnson’s amusement and satisfaction, the book was initially received as a genuine autobiography rather than as a piece of creative fiction.

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3. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Zora Neale Hurston. Considered the first black feminist novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God tracks a Southern black woman’s search for her true identity. An anthropologist as well as a writer of fiction, Hurston delighted in describing the richness of black culture and folklore. She became a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, but then fell into obscurity. Her work was rediscovered by feminists in the 1970s, and she is now considered one of the central writers of the African American literary tradition.

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4. Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright. Native Son shocked readers when it was published, and it still has the capacity to shock today. Its main character, Bigger Thomas, is a young black man, hardened by racism and ignorance, who accidentally murders his white lover and is condemned to death. Despite his impending execution, the young man seems to get his first taste of freedom in the murder: For once in his alienated life, he has brought about an event to which others must respond. The most militant novel about American race relations of its time, Native Son became a huge bestseller, a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, and was dramatized on Broadway by Orson Welles.

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5. Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison. One of the most famous and influential American novels of all time, Invisible Man is a masterpiece of modern alienation and black consciousness. The story follows its unnamed black narrator from the American South to the North, from innocence to experience, from community to isolation. Invisible Man was immediately celebrated not only for its exploration into an African American psyche, but for its depiction of alienation and the lack of self-knowledge experienced by all people.

6. Mumbo Jumbo (1972), by Ishmael Reed. A satirical denunciation of Western culture, Mumbo Jumbo is a scathing and often hilarious critique of race relations, consumerism, mass media, imperialism, and all manner of other mumbo jumbo. The novel presents a counter-mythology, called HooDooism, that challenges the myth that Western culture must be valued at the expense of all other cultures. Blending folklore with contemporary politics, historical figures with fictional characters, Mumbo Jumbo is an idiosyncratic celebration of multiculturalism.

7. Dhalgren (1975), by Samuel Delany. One of the bestselling science-fiction novels of all time, Dhalgren is a sprawling exploration of gender, art, race, identity, and much more. After a mysterious catastrophe strikes Bellona, a fictional Midwestern American city, most of the population flees. But others migrate to the ravaged city, which becomes a kind of post-apocalyptic community for outcasts–the poor, youth gangs, deranged prophets, and other marginalized individuals. Dhalgren is the rare science-fiction novel that is acclaimed by sci-fi fans and literary critics alike.

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8. The Color Purple (1982), by Alice Walker. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award, The Color Purple brought Walker to international fame. The novel tells the story of Celie, a rural black woman in an abusive marriage, as she struggles to find her self-worth. The Color Purple is often praised for its distinctive narrative style, which is told entirely in the form of letters written by Celie and by her sister, Nettle, who lives in Africa. The Color Purple was adapted for film in 1985 by director Steven Spielberg.

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9. Beloved (1987), by Toni Morrison. Beloved was immediately hailed by critics as a major literary achievement, became a national bestseller, and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Set in rural Ohio shortly after the Civil War, Beloved focuses on a single family to describe the wrenching story of slavery and its aftermath. The narrative follows Sethe, a runaway slave who kills her daughter Beloved rather than have her grow up as a slave. Through the use of multiple timeframes and the ghostly reappearance of Beloved, the novel is a lyrical exploration of history, memory, race, and identity, among other themes.

10. Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), by Walter Mosley. Devil in a Blue Dress is the first published installment in a series of mystery novels that center on the same Los Angeles protagonist, a working-class African American detective named Easy Rawlins. Set in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s, the “Easy Rawlins Mysteries,” with their depth of character and thoroughly researched historical details, are often compared to the hard-boiled, atmospheric detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. A film version of Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington as Rawlins, was released in 1995.

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