Five Modern Classics Written by Black Americans

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

I wanted to highlight classics that we don’t hear about as much so that you can read from diverse perspectives. Some of these may be new to you, and some might not.

These five classics are from Black Americans from a variety of genres. All of these are more modern classics, having been written between the years of 1920-1960.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Five books from Black Americans

Here’s a list of five books with Black American authors, for more Black History Month reading suggestions.

Modern Classics

  1. Cane by Jean Toomer (1923)
  2. Passing by Nella Larson (1929)
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  4. The Street by Ann Petry (1946)
  5. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

Keep reading to find out more about each one.

1. Cane

by Jean Toomer

  • Year Published: 1923
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, short stories, challenging, reflective, slow-paced
  • 100 years since it’s been published!
  • Importance:
    From the Harlem Renaissance

Summary (from Goodreads):

A literary masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is a powerful work of innovative fiction evoking black life in the South. The sketches, poems, and stories of black rural and urban life that make up Cane  are rich in imagery. Visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and flame permeate the Southern landscape: the Northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. Impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic, the pieces are redolent of nature and Africa, with sensuous appeals to eye and ear.


2. Passing

by Nella Larson

  • Year Published: 1929
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, literary, emotional, reflective, tense, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    Focuses on mixed-race individuals and racial passing (such as passing as white)

Summary (edited from Goodreads):

Nella Larsen’s fascinating exploration of race and identity.

Irene Redfield is a Black woman living an affluent, comfortable life with her husband and children in the thriving neighborhood of Harlem in the 1920s. When she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare Kendry, who is similarly light-skinned, Irene discovers that Clare has been passing for a white woman after severing ties to her past–even hiding the truth from her racist husband.

Clare finds herself drawn to Irene’s sense of ease and security with her Black identity and longs for the community (and, increasingly, the woman) she lost. Irene is both riveted and repulsed by Clare and her dangerous secret, as Clare begins to insert herself–and her deception–into every part of Irene’s stable existence. First published in 1929, Larsen’s brilliant examination of the various ways in which we all seek to “pass,” is as timely as ever.


3. Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

  • Year Published: 1937
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, historical, literary, emotional, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    A classic of the Harlem Renaissance

Summary (from Goodreads):

Fair and long-legged, independent and articulate, Janie Crawford sets out to be her own person—no mean feat for a black woman in the ’30s. Janie’s quest for identity takes her through three marriages and into a journey back to her roots.


4. The Street

by Ann Petry

  • Year Published: 1946
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, literary, challenging, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    The first novel by an Black American woman to sell more than a million copies

Summary (from Goodreads):

The Street tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry’s first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.


5. A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

  • Year Published: 1959
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, play, emotional, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    The first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award

Summary (from Storygraph):

First produced in 1959, A Raisin in the Sun was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and hailed as a watershed in American drama. Not only a pioneering work by an African-American playwright—Lorraine Hansberry’s play was also a radically new representation of black life, resolutely authentic, fiercely unsentimental, and unflinching in its vision of what happens to people whose dreams are constantly deferred.

In her portrait of an embattled Chicago family, Hansberry anticipated issues that range from generational clashes to the civil rights and women’s movements. She also posed the essential questions—about identity, justice, and moral responsibility—at the heart of these great struggles. The result is an American classic.

You can read an excerpt from the play here.


Final thoughts

As cliche as it may be, Black History is not only for the month of February. I would encourage you to intentionally seek out authors from diverse backgrounds, including Black Americans and other Black individuals from around the world.

This is just a small list, but as you intentionally pursue a diverse reading list, you’ll find more and more books to read. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, so just start small by picking out a few books to incorporate throughout the year.

Personally, I think the most important part is to be intentional about who and what you’re reading. Take time to notice what you’ve read recently and see who the authors and characters are. Then start to incorporate other perspectives to broaden your reading experience.

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