These classic novels by black authors explore the African-American experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from pre-Civil War through Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance era through the Great Depression and World War II. Add these fiction classics of African-American literature to your reading list!
Do you know what thrills me about classic literature? There is always, always more to find.
For years I wanted to search for a type of classic I knew must exist but was frustratingly obscure: classic novels written by and about African Americans. As a rule, it seems that when it comes to classic African-American literature, most readers are more familiar with autobiographies, nonfiction essays, and poetry by black authors. But I wanted to find the best novels written by African-American authors in the last two hundred years.
So I got to work. And after the dozens of titles I eventually came up with, it seemed odd that I had to do such much “detective work” to find them in the first place!
Why, if we in fact have so many examples of African-American classics, aren’t these novels better known?
Well, we casual readers can perhaps help move these novels out of the obscurity of academia by reading them, and talking about them, and sharing them with other bookworms. I hope the following book list will serve as a useful introduction to classic African-American novels. The authors here drew on the Western canon of literature that goes back thousands of years, and added their own stories to it.
In the end, I had to drastically narrow my list down for the sake of time and scope. I picked the following books for their historical significance, variety, and what I think Tea and Ink readers specifically would enjoy.
Quick note: The Harlem Renaissance which I mention in this post was a cultural awakening in the 1920s and 30s of African-American music, scholarship, literature, art, and stage performance centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City (but not limited to that locale).
2022 Classics Reading Challenge
If you’re following along with our 2022 Classics Reading Challenge (and it’s never too late to join!), June’s theme is “a classic by an African-American author.” Any of the following books would be a great fit for the category! Some may also fit within other categories; for instance, Passing would be a good fit for January, and The Living Is Easy would be a good pick for August.
African-American Classic Novels of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Note: I kept this list to books that are at least fifty years old, because these are the ones that are not as well known! There are many great modern classics by black authors, but that’s perhaps a topic for another post.
Clotel, or The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown, 1853
Clotel has the distinction of being the first novel published by an African-American. Brown, an American abolitionist who had escaped slavery as a young man, published Clotel while he was living in London. Brown was also an historian; Clotel is an historical fiction novel set in the early 1800s, and the title character is the mixed-race daughter of Thomas Jefferson. There are actually multiple character arcs described in the novel: in addition to Clotel, there’s her sister Althesa and mother Currer. After Jefferson dies the women are separated, facing various trials and adventures.
Brown weaves fictional narrative with primary source material, using newspaper articles, eye-witness accounts, and poetry to create a picture of life for enslaved black people in the 1800s, and to call for sympathy and action on the part of abolitionists. It was his only novel.
Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson, published 1859
Published in Boston in 1859, Our Nig is often cited as the first African-American novel published in the United States. Wilson was born a free person of color, but after being orphaned at a young age she served as an indentured servant at a farm until she turned eighteen. Years later, married and widowed, she wrote Our Nig anonymously to help support her young son. Unfortunately, the book did not sell well; this is possibly due to the fact that it criticizes treatment of black people in the North, so abolitionists chose not to publicize it. Wilson’s son passed away shortly after the book’s publication, and Our Nig slipped into obscurity until it was rediscovered in 1982.
Based on what historians know of Harriet Wilson’s life, Our Nig seems to be highly autobiographical. In the story, a poor white woman takes her daughter Frado (of mixed race) to the home of a local white family, promising to return later in the day. But the mother never returns, and Frado must adjust to a new life of working and growing up with her new “family.” She finds friends and allies in some of the household, and tyrants in others.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, 2002
The story behind The Bondwoman’s Narrative is absolutely fascinating. Probably written somewhere between 1853 and 1861, the manuscript of The Bondwoman’s Narrative was never published until 2002, after meticulous historical research and authentication by Harvard professor Henry Gates. Craft’s real name was Hannah Bond; she was an enslaved black woman who escaped from the Wheeler plantation in North Carolina and settled in New Jersey.
In North Carolina, Craft had worked in the plantation house as a lady’s maid, where she was an avid reader of the Wheeler’s extensive library. She read Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and multiple works by Dickens and Shakespeare. (In fact, the parallels to Dickens’s Bleak House, published in 1853, help to date the writing of The Bondwoman’s Narrative.)
All these literary works make their way into Craft’s novel, which is an exciting story laced with gothic elements like family secrets, insanity, daring escapes, and gloomy forests. Although the novel parallels Craft’s own life (the heroine Hannah longs to escape from her plantation), it is clearly not an autobiography. This makes The Bondwoman’s Narrative unprecedented in African-American literature–while there are a number of existing slave narratives, Craft’s book is the only known novel written by a fugitive slave.
The Garies and Their Friends by Frank J. Webb, 1857
This antebellum novel centers around the Garie family, made up of white plantation owner Clarence, his common-law mulatto wife Emily, and their two children. Concerned for their children’s future, they leave their home in Georgia and relocate to Philadelphia. In the North, their lives intersect with the Ellis family, working-class free blacks who help the Garies settle in to their new neighborhood. Despite their new friends, the Garies are also surprised at the discrimination they encounter, and face physical violence when a nefarious plot stirs up rioting in the city. As the novel progresses, the narrative shifts to follow the lives of the younger generation of Garie and Ellis children.
If you’re a fan of Victorian-era novels but want something off the beaten path, you’ll love this one with its plot twists and unusual premise. A bit of fascinating background to note: Frank J. Webb was the grandson of Aaron Burr! The Garies was his only novel, but he also wrote poetry, essays, and two novellas which are collected in this volume.
Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1892
Over the course of her long life, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper became influential as a traveling speaker, poet, and essayist who championed the causes of abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage. A free black woman born in Maryland, she was later unable to return to her home state due to a law that would allow her to be imprisoned and sold into slavery. Instead, Harper found a temporary home with the family of William Still (father of the Underground Railroad). In the realm of fiction, Harper published three serialized novels before Iola Leroy came out in book form in 1892.
The novel opens during the Civil War and ends about a decade into the Reconstruction era. It follows the fortunes of mixed-race Iola Leroy and her family, as well as their friends on the plantations, in the Union Army, and in the cities they visit as they attempt to re-gather their family in the wake of the war.
Iola Leroy is a novel that manages to be somber, humorous, and cozy by turns. The tone and style reminded me of the Elsie Dinsmore series, with a Margaret Hale-type heroine in Iola. The novel has its faults: sometimes the dialogue is too-obviously a medium for arguing a viewpoint. Sometimes there are narrative flaws, like when a character casually mentions that he lost his arm, although the reader has known the character for multiple chapters without this important trait described. The plantation dialect might be a barrier for some, but I think most readers will get the hang of it quickly.
The storytelling is simple, yet Iola Leroy is a wonderfully immersive story with a nuanced portrayal of blacks, whites, and the effects of racism.
Contending Forces by Pauline Hopkins, 1900
Born in Maine in 1859 and raised in Boston, Hopkins was still a little girl when the Civil War ended. With the encouragement of winning an essay contest in high school, she grew to be a prolific and versatile writer, authoring numerous short stories, nonfiction essays, a musical play, and four novels. She often borrowed from other writers, and loved experimenting with different genres: her novel Hagar’s Daughter is a gothic sensation novel with detective fiction elements, Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest is reminiscent of a western, and Of One Blood is an adventure and “lost world” novel. (These three books were originally serialized in a magazine, and are collected in this volume.)
Contending Forces is a historical romance novel set before and after the Civil War. It tells the inter-generational story of a mixed-race family who face obstacles as they seek to make their way in the world and find true love. Hopkins wrote the novel for the purpose of racial uplift for her people, with both black and white audiences in mind. She says in the introduction: “[I]t is the simple, homely tale, unassumingly told, which cements the bond of brotherhood among all classes and all complexions. Fiction is of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs — religious, political and social. It is a record of growth and development from generation to generation.”
The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chestnutt, 1900
Chestnutt drew on the theme of race politics among Saxons, Normans, and Jews in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe as inspiration for The House Behind the Cedars. The novel explores the shifting social fabric in the post-Civil War Carolinas, dealing with issues of intermarriage, passing, and class relations.
Charles Chestnutt himself was “seven-eighths white” but identified as black, and pursued careers in teaching and law as well as writing. He was well-respected as an author, especially for his short stories. (As a fun aside: he was a guest at Mark Twain’s 70th birthday party!) A number of his writings are collected in this Library of American edition.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, 1912
Despite the title, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is, in fact, a novel, although Johnson did thread experiences from his own life into the story. We’re never given the name of the narrator. He’s simply a man who is going to let the reader in on the “great secret” of his life–that he is black. He describes his realization of this fact as a young boy, his life among the various class strata in the black community, and a stint in Paris. While back in the States pursuing his passion for ragtime music, he witnesses a horrific event and decides to alter the way he presents his identity to the world, becoming the “ex-colored man,” and for the rest of the novel passing as white.
Johnson drafted the book while he was serving as a diplomat in Nicaragua under Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. He initially published the book anonymously so as not to damage his career, but took ownership for the novel in 1927 as the Harlem Renaissance was flourishing. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is his only novel, but Johnson also published books of poetry, a real autobiography, and two nonfiction books, as well as compiling anthologies of African-American poems and spirituals. Several of his works are combined in this volume.
There is Confusion by Jessie Redmon Fauset, 1924
Set in Philadelphia and New York, There is Confusion is a “novel of manners” that centers around three childhood friends as they grow up and follow their ambitions as young African-American adults. Beautiful Maggie hopes to escape her middle-class background by marrying up, Joanna is a talented dancer bent on success, and Peter hopes to use his cleverness to become a surgeon (and marry Joanna).
Jessie Redmon Fauset was already known as the literary editor of The Crisis, helping to promote emerging Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes. Publication of her debut novel There is Confusion added to her reputation, prompting one critic to call Fauset “the potential Jane Austen of Negro literature.” Her subsequent novels were Plum Bun, The Chinaberry Tree, and Comedy, American Style.
Passing by Nella Larsen, 1929
Passing recounts the reunion in adulthood of two childhood friends who have taken very different paths in life. Both women are light skinned, and Clare has used this trait to pass as a white woman, marrying a wealthy–yet bigoted–white man without revealing her background. Irene, the protagonist of the story, has also carefully constructed a life for herself, but chose to identify as black and is married to a black doctor. As the two women rekindle an uncertain friendship, it becomes increasingly clear that the worlds they’ve created for themselves are more fragile than they’d like to admit.
Although not a detective novel, Passing reminds me of the way Agatha Christie writes some of her characters. The reader gets intimate access to Irene’s thoughts and internal reactions, yet at the end of the novel we still don’t completely know her…she’s holding things back from us. Larsen (as does Christie in these setups) seems to “play fair” with the reader by providing such phycological intimacy, but this also acts as a smokescreen to mask even deeper motivations and thoughts.
In addition to Passing, Larsen published the novel Quicksand in 1928. This earlier novel is more autobiographical; like Larsen, the heroine of Quicksand has a Danish mother and a West Indian father, and the book explores both racial and cross-cultural relations.
Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, 1930
Langston Hughes is probably the most-recognized poet of the Harlem Renaissance, but not many people know that he also wrote a novel! Not Without Laughter is a coming-of-age novel about an African-American boy named Sandy growing up in a small, predominantly white Kansas town. We meet Sandy’s family, too, who love each other but don’t always get along. But one thing they all want is for Sandy to succeed.
The novel’s scenes take place in homes and churches, barber shops, carnivals, pool halls and dance halls, where Sandy accumulates lessons about discrimination and forgiveness, hard work and sacrifice, and that “no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter.”
The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher, 1932
Wimsey Club members, you’ll like this! Arguably the first detective novel by an African-American author, The Conjure-Man Dies combines the style of Golden Age mystery fiction with Harlem flare. Featuring an all-black cast, the story opens with the death of Frimbo, an African man practicing as a physic, who is found murdered at his conjuring table. The last six people who met with Frimbo before his death become the prime suspects, and Detective Perry Dart and Dr. John Archer team up to investigate the increasingly odd crime.
Unfortunately for the reading public, Rudolph Fisher passed away before he was able to write any further Dart-Archer novels, although the pair does make one other appearance in the short story “John Archer’s Nose.” Fisher wrote numerous short stories as well as the 1928 novel The Walls of Jericho.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
Although probably one of the most widely-beloved and known of the Harlem Renaissance-era authors, very few of Hurston’s stories are actually set in Harlem. Instead, Hurston was a literary regionalist, setting most of her fiction in her native Florida. Their Eyes Were Watching God was Hurston’s second novel (and by then she was already established as short story writer and poet). It follows the tumultuous story of Janie Crawford, who wants more from life but doesn’t always know how to get it. The novel is set in the landscape of Florida, with a memorable climax during a hurricane in the Everglades.
Hurston’s other novels are Jonah’s Gourd Vine; Moses, Man of the Mountain; and Seraph on the Suwannee. They are collected in this volume, along with some of her short stories.
The Street by Ann Petry, 1946
The Street is about Lutie Johnson’s pursuit of the American dream, in spite of the deck being stacked against her. Lutie is a black, single mother raising her son Bub in tenement housing in the heart of Harlem. She believes that with thrift and hard work, she can make a better life for her and Bub.
Unfortunately for Lutie, her story is not a Horatio Alger “strive and succeed” plot. Disillusionment closes in as Lutie encounters the predatory vice and violence of 116th Street everywhere she turns.
Part social realism and part literary thriller, The Street was a buzzy bestseller upon its release, quickly setting a record as the first book by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies.
Petry published two other novels after her debut The Street: Country Place and The Narrows, as well as a middle-grade biography of Harriet Tubman, the middle-grade novel Tituba of Salem Village, and several short stories.
The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, 1948
Against the backdrop of World War I, Cleo Judson is fighting battles of her own making on the homefront. As a working class maid and transplant from the South, she’s determined to integrate herself among Boston’s elite black social class. And she’ll lie and scheme and manipulate to do it. Not satisfied with micromanaging her own life, she’s controls the lives of her three sisters, too, convincing them and their children to move in with her–minus their husbands.
If you’re looking for a novel with a black anti-heroine, read The Living is Easy. Cleo’s not likeable, straight up. But Dorothy West’s novel is a fascinating social satire of the black upper-class during the Great War era. With a resurgence of interest in the novel after its reprinting in 1982, West completed a second novel–The Wedding–which she published in 1995 at the age of eighty-five.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 1952
The unnamed black protagonist of Invisible Man begins his story by stating “I am an invisible man….because people refuse to see me.” The story is his quest to define himself in a society that wants to prescribe how he should behave. As he travels from the South to New York, he encounters various ideologies among both black people and white, but finds them all lacking.
Inspired by the tragic antiheroes of Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, and Crime and Punishment, as well as T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, Ellison created a powerful portrait of an individual vs. society. The book was a critical and financial success, winning the National Book Award and establishing Ellison’s literary reputation, despite the fact that he would never publish another novel during his lifetime. (I cover his posthumously-published novel in my post on unfinished classics.)
Jubilee by Margaret Walker, 1966
A sweeping historical saga that’s been called “the Black Gone with the Wind,” Jubilee follows heroine Vyry Brown from the years before, during, and after the Civil War. Vyry is the daughter of a white plantation owner and his enslaved black mistress. Unacknowledged by her father, Vyry experiences childhood as a slave on the plantation and in the “Big House.” The narrative takes us through her growing up and falling in love as she seeks to build a life after the war ends, drawing on her strength of character and faith in God.
Margaret Walker based Jubilee on the life of her great-grandmother. She began researching and writing the book when she was nineteen, and worked on it intermittently for the next three decades, finally having it published as part of her doctoral dissertation for the University of Iowa.
What are your favourite classic novels by black authors? What intrigues you from this list?