Five Classic Books Written by Black American Women

Are you hoping to read more classics this year? Here are some suggestions for Black History month, specifically from women!

I wanted to highlight classics that we don’t hear about as much so that you can read from diverse perspectives. I think it’s important to read from a variety of sources.

These five classics are from Black American women and cover various genres, from memoirs/autobiographies to poetry and fiction. All of these are older classics, having been written before the year 1900.

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Five classic books from Black American Women

This is a list of five older classics from Black American authors to read for Black History Month:

  1. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley (1773)
    First professional Black American woman poet in America
  2. The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (written around 1853-1861)
    Only novel by a fugitive slave woman, however the manuscript was not published until 2002
  3. Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)
    This was long considered the first novel published by a Black American woman in North America, but The Bondwoman’s Narrative may have been written a few years earlier.
  4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)
    Autobiography of a fugitive slave
  5. Iola Leroy by Frances Watkins Harper (1892)
    One of the first novels published by a Black American woman

I’ve listed them started from the oldest to the most recent. Keep reading to find out more about each one.

1. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

by Phillis Wheatley

  • Year Published: 1773
  • Language: English
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, classics, poetry, challenging, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    First professional Black American woman poet in America

Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa, but was kidnapped and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston when she was seven or eight. In addition to her domestic obligations, the Wheatley family did provide her with an extensive education and encouraged her to pursue writing. However, she was not emancipated/manumitted (set free) from the family until after she published her book of poetry.

Phillis Wheatley was the first Black American woman to publish poetry, and considered the first to make a living from her writing. Despite having to be interviewed by 18 prominent men in Boston to prove that she wrote her own poetry, no one in the Americas was willing to publish her poetry. She was finally able to publish this collection of poetry in London in 1773.

Despite international recognition, she was unable to find anyone to publish any further volumes of poetry. She was able to publish some poetry in pamphlets and newspapers, but only in limited amounts. Unfortunately, she ended up dying in abject poverty, with many of her poems lost to history.

Read more about Phillis Wheatley here.

Summary (from Goodreads):

This moving collection of poems by Phillis Wheatley is intended to inspire Christians and tribute various believers who had recently been deceased. Published in 1773, this collection brings together many of Wheatley’s finest writings addressed to figures of the day. She writes evocative verse to academic establishments, military officers and even the King of England, with other verses discussing various subjects in verse form, offering condolences and verse commemorating recent events, or the death of a recent loved one.

Recognized as one of the first black poets to be widely appreciated in the Western world, Phillis Wheatley was a devoted Christian whose talent with the English language impressed and awed her peers. Wheatley took plenty of influence from past works of poetry, such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Several of the poems in this collection mention or allude to such masterpieces, the voracious absorption of which helped Phillis Wheatley to learn and hone her creative abilities.


2. The Bondwoman’s Narrative

by Hannah Crafts

  • Written around 1853-1861
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    Only novel by a fugitive slave woman, however the manuscript was not published until 2002

The Bondwoman’s Narrative wasn’t published until 2002. The manuscript was bought by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001, who then researched, verified, and authenticated the source of the manuscript. Based on his research, he was able to confirm it was written by a Black woman (and fugitive slave) before 1861.

In order to identify the author of this manuscript, extensive efforts were needed by historians. They were finally able to identify Hannah Bond (Hannah Craft was her pen name) as the author. She was enslaved by the Wheeler family in North Carolina until she was able to escape in 1857 and settle in New Jersey.

Summary (from Storygraph):

Possibly the first novel written by a black woman slave, this work is both a historically important literary event and a gripping autobiographical story in its own right.

When her master is betrothed to a woman who conceals a tragic secret, Hannah Crafts, a young slave on a wealthy North Carolina plantation, runs away in a bid for her freedom up North. Pursued by slave hunters, imprisoned by a mysterious and cruel captor, held by sympathetic strangers, and forced to serve a demanding new mistress, she finally makes her way to freedom in New Jersey. Her compelling story provides a fascinating view of American life in the mid-1800s and the literary conventions of the time. Written in the 1850’s by a runaway slave, THE BONDSWOMAN’S NARRATIVE is a provocative literary landmark and a significant historical event that will captivate a diverse audience.


3. Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black

by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)

  • Year Published: 1859
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, historical, dark, emotional, hopeful, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    This was long considered the first novel published by a Black American woman in North America, but The Bondwoman’s Narrative may have been written a few years earlier.

An autobiographical novel written by a free person of colour in New Hampshire.

Harriet E. Wilson was the first Black American to publish a novel on the North American continent. It was published anonymously in Boston, Massachusetts in 1859.

Harriet was orphaned as a young child, and forced into indentured servitude until the age of 18. Indentured servitude was a common way to deal with orphans, as they were provided necessities (food, boarding, etc.) in return for their labour. After she turned 18, she worked as a seamstress, housekeeper, and even a lecturer for the Spiritualist circles. She often struggled to make a living, and there’s no evidence she wrote anything else for publication.

Some scholars believe that this novel didn’t get much support from abolitionists because it didn’t follow the typical slave narrative and showed that even in the free north Blacks were still oppressed and suffered from racism.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Our Nig is the tale of a mixed-race girl, Frado, abandoned by her white mother after the death of the child’s black father. Frado becomes the servant of the Bellmonts, a lower-middle-class white family in the free North, while slavery is still legal in the South, and suffers numerous abuses in their household. Frado’s story is a tragic one; having left the Bellmonts, she eventually marries a black fugitive slave, who later abandons her.


4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

  • Year Published: 1861
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, classics, gender, history, memoir, race, dark, emotional, sad, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    Autobiography of a fugitive slave

An autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, who was both a mother and a fugitive slave. Harriet published the autobiography under the pseudonym Linda Brent.

The book covers Harriet’s life both as a slave and how she gained freedom for herself and her children. Harriet discusses gender-related issues for women slaves, as they faced sexual abuse and tremendous obstacles when taking care of their children, including the constant threat of them being sold away.

Harriet also directly appealed to white women to truly comprehend the horrors of slavery and support all women based on a uniting sisterhood. The book is considered a feminist text as it highlights the sexual abuse that was used as a tool of the white patriarchy, shows women supporting other women despite a difference in race and class, and brought the topic of sexual abuse of slaves into public discussions of slavery.

Summary (from Storygraph & Goodreads):

The true story of an individual’s struggle for self-identity, self-preservation, and freedom, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains among the few extant slave narratives written by a woman. This autobiographical account chronicles the remarkable odyssey of Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) whose dauntless spirit and faith carried her from a life of servitude and degradation in North Carolina to liberty and reunion with her children in the North.

Written and published in 1861 after Jacobs’ harrowing escape from a vile and predatory master, the memoir delivers a powerful and unflinching portrayal of the abuses and hypocrisy of the master-slave relationship. Jacobs writes frankly of the horrors she suffered as a slave, her eventual escape after several unsuccessful attempts, and her seven years in self-imposed exile, hiding in a coffin-like “garret” attached to her grandmother’s porch.

A rare firsthand account of a courageous woman’s determination and endurance, this inspirational story also represents a valuable historical record of the continuing battle for freedom and the preservation of family.


5. Iola Leroy (Or, Shadows Uplifted)

by Frances Watkins Harper

  • Year Published: 1892
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, historical, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    One of the first novels published by an Black American woman

Frances Watkins Harper was one of the first Black woman to publish a book in the USA. She also had significant literary success. Her second book of poems, “Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects” in 1854, was considered a commercial success. She also published a short story, “The Two Offers”, in the The Anglo-African Newspaper, making history as the first short story published by a Black woman.

She was born free in Baltimore, Maryland in 1825 when Maryland was still a slave state. Both her parents died when she was three, and she was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle. Her uncle was a civil rights activist and abolitionist, having a huge impact on Frances’ life and work.

In addition to her writing, Frances was an American abolitionist, suffragist, activist, and public lecturer. She took an intersectional approach to her activism, looking at both African American civil rights and women’s rights.

Iola Leroy was published in 1892 when Frances was 67. In the novel, Frances dealt with many of the serious social issues of the time, including women’s education, passing as a mixed-race individual, reconstruction, abolition and more.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A landmark account of the African American experience during the Civil War and its aftermath.

First published in 1892, this stirring novel by the great writer and activist Frances Harper tells the story of the young daughter of a wealthy Mississippi planter who travels to the North to attend school, only to be sold into slavery in the South when it is discovered that she has Negro blood. After she is freed by the Union army, she works to reunify her family and embrace her heritage, committing herself to improving the conditions for blacks in America.

Through her fascinating characters-including Iola’s brother, who fights at the front in a colored regiment-Harper weaves a vibrant and provocative chronicle of the Civil War and its consequences through African American eyes in this critical contribution to the nation’s literature.


Final thoughts

I personally think it’s important to read from different time periods, just as it’s important to read from different countries. History is part of who we are as the human race, it has shaped us into who we are now.

But too often the literature promoted from those eras are only from certain perspectives (think old white men, and sometimes old white women). It makes sense that those were the individuals valued as literary contributors. They were typically the ones who were respected and resonated with individuals who held socioeconomic and political power (those of similar demographics).

Reading, writing, and literature were considered elite and superfluous for most individuals, and thus access was restricted. But the restricted access makes these works of art from other perspectives so much more valuable. These written works were produced against all odds and have still survived!

It makes me so sad to think of all the incredible works of art that were lost to history because people didn’t have access to time, resources, or education to develop and refine their skills. Or even just those that were written but never shared or preserved due to limited social or literary support, like the many poems of Phillis Wheatley that never got published.

Anyways, all that to say, these perspectives are incredibly valuable and I believe that reading classics should include a wide range of perspectives.

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