This guest post is from Afrika Owes, a Fulbright alumna who is also a poet, a writer, a thinker, a talker, a reader, a believer, a goal digga and a glo’ getta. She promotes Black women’s empowerment and strives to pass knowledge and life lessons to my peers. Check out more gems from her at http://www.AfrikaKnowes.com.
I was born on Jan 7th, 1994 (Happy belated Kobe year to me!) during one of the craziest blizzards in NYC. This date is also the born date of one of my fave authors and one who did it for the culture: Zora Neale Hurston. As a gift to myself, Zora and the world, I created a list of 24 books that impacted me, and I decided to share this list as my first blog post.
I could get lost in a world of books, and growing up, books were my friends. Whether it was Harry Potter, or the urban novels sold on 125th and exchanged during middle school lunch hours between thirteen-year-old girls, reading was my escape and nirvana. When my middle school would restock the library, my peers and I read YA “light urban” books like the Bluford high and Sharon G. Flake collections. We wanted to read books about us, for us, and by us. On the further end of the urban fiction genre, books like Hoodrat, Harlem Girl Lost, and The Coldest Winter Ever were banned in my middle school. But we still traded them and read them, hiding their covers behind bigger hardcover fantasy books with images of colorful dragons and vampires (side note: Y’all let us read Twilight but not The Coldest Winter Ever and that’s crazy cuz Twilight is basically about sex and gangs and Harry Potter is HIGH KEY about gangs, it’s just the protagonists are white. Anyway, I digress).
Behind the colorful covers, we were engaged in our own fantasy stories: Black Knights from Brooklyn, Rapunzel with the inches from the projects, and Cinderella fighting off her hatin’ ass step-family hoping not to lose a Jordan or Louboutin. In essence, these genres were the same: they were made with provocative prose and relatable characters. Except in our stories, our dragons were the police and our heroes often died or were imprisoned. I understand our teachers wanted us to read challenging books, and plots that were deeper than just the stereotypical stories about drug dealers and ride or die women, but there are challenging books written by Black authors. Why weren’t those books given as options?
Instead of giving us The Odyssey why not The Bluest Eye? They’d take away our Urban novel and give us a book by a White author that had the Pulitzer prize seal. And sure, they were probably good books, but the message the teacher sent was: White novels are more advanced. Plus, we were reading our realities through Urban novels. Banning Urban books was like banning our beings as Black kids growing up in the ‘hood. It furthered the notion that we have to be one or the other: ghetto or nerdy. I often felt like, can’t I like multiple genres? I love science fiction, and I equally as much enjoy books about the ‘hood, making it out, and staying alive. Science fiction was an escape to a world where race didn’t matter. Urban fiction was a mirror that reminded me why race does matter and why telling our stories matter. Both genres aided in my escape from reality and helped me as a writer and as a young Black woman coming into my identity.
Books have been part of my journey, from attending an all-Black middle school, all-white high school, Riker’s Island, College, then as a teacher in South Africa. In each stage of my life, books were treated like gold; a valuable entity traded, collected, and appreciated amongst people of color. Below you will find the 24 books that have shaped or influenced me as a 24-year-old woman and have helped me become a better human overall.
This list is for 15-25 year old, young adult, know it all, but wanna know more Black women AND Black men. Now, I take books as seriously as I take a spades game. This list reflects a combination of books; some are my absolute favorite, top shelf books that never leave the house to be borrowed by a friend who will never return it. There are scholarly books, but not an overwhelming amount because I understand that everyone doesn’t want to feel like they’re taking a class when they read. Others are books I really liked, but aren’t my favorites; but, their stories and messages will impact the audience I am aiming to reach. There are books for the soul. Books for the mind. Books for the heart. Books for laughter, joy, and happiness. Books to help you get yo’ shit together. Books that make you go “mm. Damn.” Books that educate, empower & entertain.
If it were up to me, I’d have a list of 50 books divided into subcategories, but ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat (but I could make time if y’all really wanted to make it happen). I tried not to include all of my personal top choices, so just because you don’t see the Harry Potter series doesn’t mean I’m not a diehard Gryffindor fan; it just didn’t fit the theme. Additionally, most of these books are written by Black authors, but there are a few written by white authors that added insight into the world and helped me on my personal growth journey. But, at the end of the day, like Issa Rae I’m rooting for everyone who’s Black.
What is my favorite genre? I love anything Black: Black science fiction (shoutouts to Octavia Butler!), biographies and autobiographies of Black women, YA fiction, Urban fiction, self-help, history, sociology, and graphic novels. My book tastes represent my intersectional identities at its finest.
If writing is how I find myself and self-reflect, reading is where I see myself and forgive myself by understanding the lives of others, learning new subjects, and keeping my imagination active.
If you have specific requests for more books from different genres, do not hesitate to contact me. If there are any books you want to add, comment below! Let’s debate, put me on. Let’s make this an interactive list if need be. I’m here for the virtual book exchange.
P.S. These are NOT ranked. I’m not about that beef. They are in alphabetical order.
I didn’t learn history until my 7th-grade teacher gave me an excerpt from this book (shoutouts to Worokya). In High school, only the AP history students read this book, which I thought was crazy. The hierarchy of knowledge is real. This book unlearned me and learned me. It’s a reminder that “if you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know where you’re going,” and that even when you think you know the truth, always be on an endless pursuit to learn, unlearn, relearn, then teach.
A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown
This is a dense book that reminded me why and how Black women strive through adversity. It’s a sad tale, a funny tale, and one that encouraged me when I was struggling in jail. It serves as a reminder that it’s never about the fall, ALWAYS about the come up.
As I read this book, this book read my life. bell hooks describes love in a way that I never thought of and encouraged me to begin learning about my traumas and definitions of love, hurt, relationships, and marriage. This is a great stepping stone book to begin an inward journey of healing trauma and understanding your emotions as a young adult.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda inspires me as a writer, eloquently interchanging high-level vocab with relateable dialogue and detailed imagery. I read Americanah during my 20-year old summer and fell in love with Africa all over again. This book is a great insight into the young adult life of “American Africans.” Plus I’m a sucker for a cheesy love story.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
This is a book I read every year. Because each time, a different section or chapter impacts me. I first read this book in an all black middle school. Then, in an all-white high school. Then, it was the first book I read in jail. Malcolm’s thoughts were ahead of his time and I relate to his story of redemption, reflection, and religion as impactful pillars in his life. As an ignorant child, analyzing Malcolm’s thoughts was burdensome. As an adult, enjoying his story and learning how there are bits of Malcolm in me, inspires me to push my boundaries and constantly seek to rise from the ashes, and educate.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
If you can, listen to this on Audiobook. Trevor is hilarious and his stories give a gist of life growing up in apartheid South Africa as a mixed-race man. For those interested in learning about apartheid through a modern lens, this book will inform you and help you connect through the similarities between Black Americans and Black South Africans.
The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah
Bonus: Midnight series and A Deeper Love Inside are prequels and sequels, respectively
I remember sneak-reading this book as a 12-year-old, fascinated by the words and story. As I got older I aspired to be Winter. Then I despised her. Then I made peace with the Winter inside of me, and the growth of my mindset. This story is a timeless classic that I see myself, and so many young Black women in, between every word and line. This is one of my all-time favorite books, and will forever touch my spirit as a reminder to embrace all aspects of my identity but always strive to be more.
Gather in My Name by Maya Angelou
Bonus: I know why the caged bird sings is the prequel to this 2nd of 7 autobiographical novels
If you have me on social media, you know I LOVE this book. Mama Maya was a chef, a teen mom, a sex worker, a side chick, a writer, a dancer, a sister, and a daughter. She was young and dumb. I read this book while in SA, and it helped me slow down and breathe. It reminded me that the greats had lives too, made mistakes too, and were young and dumb too.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I tried to use one book per author, but Half of a Yellow Sun is a phenomenal read. It provided me with insight on the Nigerian civil war, while maintaining itself as a fiction novel. It’s not the stereotypical Africa portrayal either: the main characters are wealthy, educated, independent women.
The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
Although this is a YA novel, THUG, is an excellent modern-day book for teens growing up in the “no indictment for police” era. As an adult reading this book, I enjoyed relating to the main character’s dual world; attending prep school while living in the hood of New Orleans.
Kindred by Octavia E Butler
Anything Black Science fiction is yes for me, dawg. I finished Kindred as an 8th grader on a science trip, and again as a first year in college. There’s time travelling, slavery, and an interracial relationship. It’s dope. It’s deep. It’s weird. I love it!
The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson
Another history book, written in 1933, but STILL relateable. No matter how much history changes, it remains the same. For all those who want a stepping stone to “wokeness” this a great book written by a Black author. I suggest engaging with texts of the time written by intellectuals like Dubois, Garvey, and Booker T. Washington, and comparing their arguments You will find their analysis of Black Americans in White America in the 1930s scarily mirrors the reality of Black Americans today.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
One of my best friends gifted this to me for my 23rd birthday. It was an excellent gift because I love Issa, and her book is very relateable. It’s funny, awkward, and written in essay-style so you do not need to read it chronologically. It’s not traumatic, or violent, it’s middle class, awkward funny, and millennial. It’s for Black girls.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
If you’ve watched 13th, this is the book the documentary is based on. It’s a dense read; it’s sociology, political science, economics, and psychology in one book. If you find yourself arguing with folk about the state of Blacks today, read this beef to up your knowledge and arguments. This book ignited a fire for me, and “woke me up” so to speak. Although my mother had a copy of this book growing up, I did not read it until my sophomore year in college. And since, I have been dedicated to criminal and social justice as a focus for my career.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
This book has changed the way I look at myself. None of my actions are just actions. They are habits, formed from thoughts and cues. This a great book to read for the New Year or if you are trying to figure out what’s holding you back from changing your bad habits. It’s a self-help book that reads like a sociology text and provides a formula for changing and breaking habits. It’s a self-help book that backs itself up, in my opinion. If you’re into self-analysis, socio-psychology, and studying yourself like a science, this is for you. Warning: you will start observing everyone and everything as habitual creatures, and may or may not start pointing out these habits.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki
My mother forced me to read this book growing up. I had NO dad so what did a rich or poor dad have to do with me? Again, as I aged and gain some wisdom, I re-read this book and took notes. This book is a great preamble to learning about financial literacy and tips and tricks you may not know. I encourage you to follow this book with more research on topics such as: investing, credit card debt, and property ownership.
Salt., by Nayyirah Waheed
As a poet, I instantly loved this book, because it shook me in so few words. Waheed’s poems inspire me, and like sleeping salts, help wake me up with a burst of inspiration when I need to write a poem or essay. A very quick read, it’s a poem book that speaks to the inner depths of your soul and leaves you stuck, thinking for a few seconds, on double meanings and metaphors.
Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden
I suffered from low self-esteem for a very long time. I found this book one day in a random box of books in my college library, and I never put it down. I think every young man and woman should read this book. No matter if you are confident, insecure, happy or unhappy, this book is a great measurement of one’s self. It’s another preamble book to discovering where your traumas and identities are rooted, and thus, may help you move forward or seek help to heal. Here’s a preview of the 6 pillars here.
The Skin I’m in by Sharon G. Flake
A middle school teacher gave this book to me as a present. The main character deals with accepting her skin color and identity, dealing with being teased, and fitting in. Although my skin tone different, this book was the first that helped me find myself in a text. Geared towards teens, this book still hits home and reminds me that Blackness is skin deep. It’s the first book I read that helped me love myself at a young age. When I re-read it recently, I cried and appreciated my growth into loving and appreciating myself.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson
This is a recent read that I really enjoy, but I’ll be honest, I sometimes hate the casual language used by Manson. Despite my finicky preference, this a great modern day millennial read on shedding some anxieties and living a life of selectively giving a fuck. If you can’t afford the book, read Manson’s Blog . I initially read Manson’s blog and would stay on his website, procrastinating for hours. It was there that I found out about his book and was impressed with his content. It’s a self-help book that reads like a casual blog and is a great stepping stone to self-analysis and awareness.
Think and Grow Rich: A Guide to Success for Black Americans by Dennis Kimbro & Napoleon Hill
This is like Rich, Dad, Poor Dad for Black folk. For those who are business inclined, hustle minded, and always looking for a come up, this book will benefit you. The stories about African-American entrepreneurs is inspiring and extremely motivational. Even if you are not looking to start a business, this is a great book as a source of motivation and inspiration.
When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost by Joan Morgan
As a scholar, I disagree with some analyses in this text, but as a Black woman, I appreciate this modern and unique voice on Black feminism and hip-hop. Here’s the line that got me: “The keys that unlock the riches of contemporary black female identity lie not in choosing Latifah over Lil’ Kim, or even Foxy Brown over Salt-N-Pepa. They lie at the magical intersection where those contrary voices meet—the juncture where truth is no longer black and white but subtle, intriguing shades of gray.” And I’m ALL about living in the shades of gray. If you love hip-hop, if you analyze hip-hop and society, if you recently had a Cardi versus Nicki debate, this is for you.
Who am I Without Him? by Sharon G. Flake
I read this in high school and felt each short story touch my soul. I’m a lover and high key a relationship person. While this is geared for a younger audience, listening to these stories or reading them again, help me understand how and why we let love change our lives. It’s great to re-read this if you are journeying down your past and want to analyze or compare old relationships to new ones. Or, if you want to just read for fun and assess how far you’ve come in the dating scene.
Between the world & Me by Tah-nehisi Coates
This is How You Lose Her By Junot Diaz
White Lines By Tracy Brown
Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I Write What I like by Steve Biko
Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm
What Becomes of the Broken Hearted by E Lynn Harris