A flatlay of book covers

Unmissable classics. Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

It's fair to say books by Black female authors are underrepresented in the  literary canon, but that’s not because there haven’t been plenty of brilliant, vital and insightful books, poetry and polemics written by Black women over the centuries.

Stories of love and joy, struggle and perseverance abound in these innovative texts selected by members of the Penguin Press team, from heartbreaking memoir to giddy poetry to galvanising cries for revolution.

Women, Race & Class by Angela Y Davis (1981)

Angela Davis’s landmark study of civil rights and inequality was first published in 1981, but it remains acutely relevant today, capturing a dynamic that is still at work in many social justice movements. The book is an extraordinarily powerful, ranging analysis of how sexism, racism and classism have intersected from the antebellum era onward, particularly within civil rights movements. It encompasses Davis’ seminal critique of white feminism, as she lays bare how white women have tended to oppress and exclude women of colour in the name of political expediency, often for personal gain. But, while she thoroughly disabuses her reader of any notions of the saintliness of feminism’s traditional heroes, Davis celebrates unsung Black activists and revolutionaries like Ida B. Wells and Charlotte Woodward who successfully fought for emancipation, suffrage and equality, always choosing solidarity over opportunism. Davis writes with breathtaking eloquence and, 40 years on, her message is still too urgent to be ignored.
As chosen by Chloe Currens  

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Nella Larsen’s Passing is like a flowering tea bud. It is a taut, compact, compelling novella that follows Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – two light-skinned Black women who can pass for white. On a first read, the sheer propulsive force of Larsen’s storytelling carries the reader swiftly to its tragic, devastating conclusion. But with every re-read, the complex themes of Passing open up like a tea bud under hot water. I’ve never come away from the book without wondering where my thoughts should be turned – to Clare? to Irene? – and Larsen’s precise, impactful prose, flexing along every line, means my footing is always unsure (as it should be – there is no ‘moral’ to Passing, only a strong sense of compassion and exploration). Often described as a novel about race, Passing is also a novel about desire, gender, class, belonging and jealousy. To layer so many petals of meaning into one slim book is an utterly virtuoso act. I know if I re-read it again, and tried to rewrite this recommendation, I’d bring an entire other facet to it.

Chosen by Ka Bradley

Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta (1974)

Warm, funny and heart-breaking, Buchi Emecheta’s semi-autobiographical novel follows her orphaned protagonist Adah, from a precarious childhood in Lagos to her new life in London with her husband and growing family. While the trajectory is what she had always dreamed of, the reality of life as a West African immigrant in the Sixties is fraught with unexpected challenges – both within and outside the home. Determined to provide a better future for her children and pursue her dream of becoming a writer, Adah soon learns to navigate the daily injustices and unspoken social codes with increasing resourcefulness.

I love the way Adah’s narrative voice leaps off the page, at once naïve yet insightful, exposing the irrational and often cruel behaviour of those around her with wit and irony. Emecheta is a master storyteller and her extraordinary command of plot and pace had me on tenterhooks from the opening paragraphs to the final page.

Chosen by Josephine Greywoode

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole by Mary Seacole (1857)

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands is the remarkable life story of the pioneering 19th-century nurse, traveller and businesswoman. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Mary Seacole learned the art of medicine from her mother before travelling to various foreign countries (she saw herself as a ‘female Ulysses’) and embarking on several business ventures, including prospecting for gold. Around 50, she decided to offer her services as a nurse in the Crimean War, but was refused employment by Florence Nightingale’s recruiting team. Undeterred, this dauntless woman went to the war zone anyway. Once there, she set up a hotel and started caring for sick and wounded soldiers, before moving to England to write her memoirs. Her book is a wonderfully fresh and enjoyable account by an extraordinary woman who defied barriers of race and gender nearly 200 years ago.

Chosen by Jess Harrison

Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holliday (1956)

It is difficult to say that Lady Sings the Blues is a “beautiful” read as, although there is beauty in it, it is very much a story of pain, hardship and injustices in the name of racism, poverty and sexual violence. But the beauty to be found is in Ms Holiday’s voice; captured authentically on each page in all its complexity – shrewd, coarse, funny – we are brought inside the walls of her childhood homes, the smoke-filled jazz clubs and her prison cell. Although a short read it is not an easy one with the emotional impact of absorbing the tale of a life so exposed to such a relentless trauma resulting in deep exhalations and sober moments of reflection.

This book is not only a testament to Billie Holiday’s status in history as jazz great, and civil rights activist and indeed a first-hand account of her tragic decline but it also stands as an honour to the women of that era who sacrificed and fought for their right to have their voices heard.

Chosen by Aniké Wildman

The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara (1980)

In a small 1970s Black faith community of the American Deep South, we find Velma Henry, a one-time voracious political activist now jaded and in emotional crisis. When healer Minnie Ransom embraces Velma, she begins on a path of spiritual healing finding solace in community, self-love, and ancestral healing practices. 

Originally published in 1980, and edited by Toni Morrison, The Salt Eaters was hugely impactful in establishing the presence of Black women in American literature. This is a boldly optimistic, profound exploration of memory, the self, power and Black health as liberation.

Chosen by Aniké Wildman

The Essential June Jordan by June Jordan

Where to start with June Jordan? She was a love poet in the midst of the Black Arts Movement and the fight for civil rights and an uncompromising activist whose politics could not be disentangled from her art. An openly bisexual writer, Jordan was a keen observer and recorder of humanity (and its foibles), whose sense of humour and righteous anger infused everything she wrote.

Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich and Toni Morrison all loved her, both for her writing and for her own irrepressible personality. (The architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller was a fan, too: he and a young June Jordan once collaborated on a plan for the revitalization of the social and urban fabric of Harlem, sadly never realised.) And though Jordan was of her time, she was also ahead of it. The poems gathered in The Essential June Jordan explore gender, race, police brutality and global solidarity. She made these issues real, always lived and felt.

Jordan was a visionary who believed, as Rich put it, “that genuine, up-from-the-bottom revolution must include art, laughter, sensual pleasure, and the widest possible human referentiality”. Her poems are musical, driving, energising, at times angering, and at times just a lot of fun. Give them a try.

Chosen by Donald Futers

Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (1989)

Maryse Condé is one of the most extraordinary storytellers of our time. Her novels span continents and centuries, from a dazzling family saga set in an African kingdom (Segu) to the story of a West Indian woman accused of being a witch (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem) to a fascinating retelling of Wuthering Heights set in Cuba and Guadeloupe (Windward Heights). Every book she writes does something new, unexpected and enchanting. 

That is particularly true of Crossing the Mangrove, in which Condé  creates a mesmerizing patchwork narrative set in a village in Guadeloupe, told from multiple perspectives to explore the death of an outsider. It is a memorable story of an island community, paying tribute to oral storytelling traditions while also drawing on modernist techniques. First published in French in 1989, it was translated into English by her husband, Richard Philcox who talks about how they drew inspiration from Virginia Wolf’s Mrs Dalloway to make it come alive in English. Condé was awarded the alternative Nobel prize a few years ago and countless honours around the world. I envy the British readers who have yet to discover her rich universe – they’re in for a treat.

Chosen by Casiana Ionita

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