Whether you’re still looking for a gift for a feminist friend, need some vacation reading material, or just want to understand what black feminism is all about, look no further.
Here’s my suggested list of Black Feminist Books to read (and read again).
My Personal Favorites (in no particular order):
Words of Fire Collection, edited by Beverly Guy-Scheftall
This compilation of black women’s writing throughout American history is aptly titled: It is fire. From Sojourner Truth to radical black feminist critiques in the late 20th century, there is no reason why every single person should not own and read this book. If you want a reader on black feminism, this should be your go-to.
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, edited by Alfeda Duster
Ida B. Wells was an intellectual, journalist, activist, freedom fighter, suffragist, and feminist—and yet, there is no label that quite describes what this woman was able to accomplish during her time. There are countless books on her, but her autobiography allows her to introduce herself and her experiences. In certain ways, this book serves as a time capsule that captures the development (and struggle) of black feminist thought at the beginning of the 20th century.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
A scholar and novelist, Hurston was an intellectual heavyweight. Like in her other work, she brings her academic training and research to bear in a beautiful, tragic novel that details a black woman’s coming-of-age in the South.
Most people would recommend The Bluest Eye or Beloved, which are also my other two Morrison favorites, but people rarely mention the fierce beauty and rigor of Sula as a tale about a woman who pursues her passions after growing up in a black town called “The Bottom.” Morrison’s writing is biting, but her tale of black motherhood, friendship, and family also conveys larger critiques of gentrification, militarism, heteropatriarchy, and monogamy.
If I could, I’d recommend everything ever written by this science fiction author, but I limited myself to these two particular favorites. As far as I know, Butler is the only writer in which all of her books are centered on a black female protagonist, almost effortlessly drawing the reader into a story that analyzes human frailty, power, greed, and corruption. If you’re into dystopic novels, Butler is your woman. Her focus and obsession through all of her stories is the inherent conflict in humanity’s ability to both empathize and brutalize. Using parasitic aliens, politics, and technology, she creates a world that you want to witness (even if you don’t want to ever actually live there).
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a brilliant writer, feminist activist, and lesbian. This collection of essays helps shape the most prevailing arguments in modern black feminism, particularly in response to the failure of white feminism in including and supporting women of color. She helps define racism, theorizes oppression, and explains the weaknesses of second-wave feminism in this easily understandable collection of speeches, letters, and essays.
Taste of Power by Elaine Brown
So you think you know everything about the Black Panther Party? Well, if you haven’t read this book, you don’t know enough. Brown provides an inside look at the gender politics of the Black Panther Party, bringing to light the issues of rape, domestic violence, and sexual labor that plagued the party. In offering up a critical lens to the party, she allows us to see the ways in which hypermasculinity and sexism became integral to black nationalist thought and ideology. This is one of those books you’ll pick up and never put down.
Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker
A sequel to Walker’s more famous The Color Purple, Temple of My Familiar is a much more expansive novel that covers transcendental thought, racism, capitalism, and globalization. Through myths and legends, she creates characters that connect the beginning of history to our relationships and societies now. It’s an epic novel and one that stays with you long after you finish.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson
If all you know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott is Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, then you need to read this book that tells the tale of the women who started it. As a key organizer of the boycott, Gibson Robinson provides deep insight into what it was to be a woman leader in the civil rights movement during a time when men took center stage.
Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins
This seminal book is one of the fundamental scholarly texts about the circulation, formation, and impact of black feminist theory. Collins discusses media representations of black women, their effect and impact on our ideas of black femininity and progress, and the significance of black women’s history of self-actualization and definition. If you want to understand black feminist thought and epistemology, there’s probably no better text.
For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
This brilliant 1970s choreopoem by novelist, poet, and playwright Ntozake Shange is a devastatingly stunning theatrical work that details the diverse range of experiences, feelings, and identities of black women in America. From abortion to suicide, domestic violence, and the fragility of love, Shange allows her characters to convey a vulnerability, optimism, and openness that black women are rarely granted the chance to express. With vivid lyrical and poetic qualities to its monologues, For Colored Girls stands out as a phenomenal work of art.
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
This tiny book set in Antigua is a treatise on colonialism, race, and gender that is utterly breathtaking—I literally found myself holding my breath during each paragraph. Not quite nonfiction, this text ponders the language, contours, and ideologies of colonialism as played out on geographies and histories of a small Caribbean island. It is, in one word, magnificent. Read this book. It’s short, but don’t let the size fool you—every sentence packs a very necessary punch.
Other Must Reads:
Here’s a list of other essential black feminist reading (as well as some on my to-do list!), many of them highly recommended by other scholars and friends.
All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies edited by Gloria Hull, et al
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell
The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara
Laboring Women by Jennifer Morgan
Black, White, and in Color by Hortense Spillers
Skin Trade by Ann duCille
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni by Nikki Giovanni
Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs.
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby
Killing the Black Body Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994 by Deborah Gray White
Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman by Michele Wallace
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
Some Of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays by June Jordan
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Demonic Grounds: Black Women and Cartographies of Struggle by Katherine McKittrick
The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie (of Black Girl Dangerous)
Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human by Alexander G Weheliye
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Sisters of the Yam: Black Women And Self-Recovery by bell hooks
Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay
The Black Woman: An Anthology by Toni Cade Bambara
Fires In The Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith
Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry
Weevils in the Wheat (OK, this is not just on black women, but it includes first-person accounts of slavery in Virginia. I read Henrietta King’s description of the abuse she suffered as a little girl living in slavery when I was 8 years old, and it changed everything I understood about the world.)
Khadijah Costley White is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.