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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)