From the moment authors of African descent put history to paper, they were expected to write with a single goal in mind – the battle for freedom. Former slaves used the feather to represent the terror of the Middle Passage and the cruelty of the sociopathic master. They recounted harrowing escapes and how they learned to read and write, sometimes by tricking a white man into teaching them, and others by exchanging something of value. For black authors, blood and ink were to be used in the fight against slavery.
Later, during the Harlem Renaissance, African American intellectuals believed that producing a body of literature was one of the few ways in which African Americans could prove they had the intellectual capacity to be citizens in full share. Additionally, the work must be written in a way that the mainstream society would accept as worthy. Therefore, Countee Cullen modeled his poems on Keats. Claude McKay used the sonnet form to write his famous poem “If We Must Die.” When writers strayed, they were criticized like Langston Hughes, who improvised until his poems sounded like jazz, or ostracized like Zora Neale Hurston, who traveled south to record African-American lived experiences and folklore. American.
Even long after the civil rights movement, if you were an African-American author, your real was to produce work that broke stereotypes, evoked racial pride, or added ammunition to the fight. It’s a miracle that anyone could write the stories they wanted to tell.
Unfortunately, some of these expectations still exist today.
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That’s why it’s important to celebrate authors who shed expectations and produce work on their own terms. The seven authors listed below do. Some of the novels and short stories listed here have injustice at their core. Others are wild roller coasters with flawed characters that readers love. A few are simply there to entertain you or distract you from your worries on a hot summer afternoon. All deserve your attention.
“Jubilee” (1966) by Margaret Walker
Jubilee extends the slave narrative by telling the story of Vyry, a former slave who must find her way in a racist America after emancipation. Based on the life of Walker’s great-grandmother, it is rich with elements of a full life, including unimaginable suffering as well as great joy and silent triumph.
“The Street” (1946) by Ann Petry
This work is one that faded into the background several times before being rediscovered, most recently in 2019. The story begins on a cold November day on 116th Street in Harlem. Lutie Johnson, a single mother living in a dilapidated building across the street, wants nothing more than to escape poverty, sexism and racism to find a safe place to raise her son. But she spends most of the novel dodging the claws of men who think they deserve her just because they want her, and a snake-eyed neighborhood lady who wants to exploit Lutie’s beauty. The story ends with an inevitable ending that makes for a great detective story as well as an engrossing read.
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“They Can’t Take Your Name” (2021) by Robert Justice
Set in an African-American community in Denver, “Name” uses crime fiction to shed light on wrongful convictions. The book recalls the improvised prose of Langston Hughes and the distinctive voice of Ralph Ellison. The story immerses the reader in the battle of two desperate people who race against time to save another wrongfully convicted African American from certain death. This is a book that will entertain you as much as it will make you think.
“Blacktop Wasteland” (2020) by SA Cosby
Much has been said about this award-winning mystery novel, but it’s still not enough. On the surface, it’s one last heist story told by Bug, a mechanic with a failing auto shop. He needs the money to take care of the people he cares about the most – his mother and family who are barely getting by. Set in a small southern town, the heist is certainly central to the narrative. But the book can also be seen as a commentary on how those pushed to the wall by poverty and racism sometimes take matters into their own hands. Fasten your seat belt when taking this one.
“Broken Places” (2018) and the series The Chicago Mystery by Tracy Clark
Award-winning author Tracy Clark tells the story of Cass Raines, a former Chicago cop who is shot in a police shootout caused by her fame-seeking colleague. Now a private detective, Cass solves crimes in “Broken Places” with the help of a nun, an ex-con, and a thief. He’s a strong, no-nonsense character that readers will instantly love following his adventures in all of the books in this series.
“These Toxic Things” (2021) by Rachel Howzell Hall
In this tale we meet Mickie Lambert, a young woman who pioneered the art of turning memories into digital images so they could be enjoyed by descendants long after the owner’s death. But the joy takes on a whole new meaning when Mickie finds herself transforming items from a gift shop owner who committed suicide. What she collects digitally are not just innocuous memories, but memento mori that will test her resolve and threaten her life. Readers will see Grandma’s Butterfly Pin in an entirely new way after completing this crime fiction thriller.
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Little story “Neighbors” (2020), and the anthology of short stories “Love and other Criminal Behavior” (2020) by Nikki Dolson
I heard at a conference that Nikki Dolson is one of the best detective novel writers working today. His new “Neighbors” (Vautrin, 2020), anthologized in “The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2021”, certainly proves it. In “Neighbors,” Dolson develops two fully drawn characters whose worldviews are diametrically opposed and fascinating in the way they shatter expectations. She’s proof that African-American writers (and characters) can play more than one note.
The above list is just a small sample of the myriad of work that African American authors have done in the past and are doing today, especially in the world of crime fiction. There are compelling stories of social justice, yes; but also stories of love, despair, friendship, grief and triumph.
As Toni Morrison wrote in the preface to “The Black Book”:
…and I am everything
I have always liked: the wine of Scuppernong, the nice baptisms in
Silent water, dream books and number games. I am the sound of my own voice singing “Sangaree”. I’m ring-shouts, and blues, ragtime and gospels…
For more works by various authors, please consult the Criminal Writers of Color Website.
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More stories about various authors and their books: