Classic Black Authors Everyone Should Read
In celebration of Black History Month the classics team have chosen to cast a spotlight on some of our favourite texts written by Black authors. These phenomenal authors, writing in times of segregation, oppression and discrimination, created massively influential and important literary works which have continued to have a visceral impact on readers. Here are some examples from these extraordinary writers that everyone should experience reading.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
In 1988, Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, Beloved, and in 1993, she became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In her Nobel Lecture, Morrison said: “I believe that one of the principle ways in which we acquire, hold and digest information is via narrative”, highlighting the power of stories and their ability to shape and expand the way in which we understand the world and the people around us.
Beloved was inspired by a real African-American woman from the mid-1800s named Margaret Garner. Garner escaped slavery in 1856, but when her family faced recapture she killed her own daughter in an attempt to save her from a life of enslavement. Sethe, the main character in Morrison’s novel, also kills her baby daughter to save her from slavery, and has the word “Beloved” engraved on the baby’s headstone. Years later, a mysterious young woman calling herself Beloved arrives at Sethe’s house, appearing to be the physical embodiment of the daughter she killed. Beloved’s arrival causes tension and forces the characters in the novel to confront the suffering, pain and guilt of the past.
The novel’s very sobering dedication reads “Sixty Million and more”, honouring and remembering the horrifying number of Black people who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade, as well the immeasurable number of people who have suffered and been impacted because of it.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Born in London to Jamaican parents, Andrea Levy is one of the greatest British writers of her generation, and a vitally important cultural voice. Her writing explores the experiences of British Jamaicans, and their racial, cultural, national, and class identities. As the daughter of someone who had travelled to the UK on the HMT Empire Windrush, Levy’s personal connection to her writing is reflected in the authenticity and specificity of her work.
Levy’s fourth, and best-known, novel, Small Island, was a great critical success and became a hugely influential novel in English literature. She explored post-WWII England, including the Windrush generation and Caribbean perspectives in her depiction of the war, and creating space for Black British voices within the national narrative. In doing so, she curated and contributed to what she called the ‘shared history’ of Black and white experiences in the UK.
She won three awards for the novel, and it was commissioned both for television and for the stage. The National Theatre’s run of Small Island premiered last year, and was one of the productions broadcasted as part of the National Theatre At Home project over national lockdown, reaching an even wider audience.
Levy died in 2019, and her work remains a key part of English literature: a vital British literary voice, a revolutionary force in fiction, and one that everyone should read.
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
Sam Selvon has been referred to as “the father of black writing” in Britain, being one of the first and most influential fiction authors to give voice to the experiences of the Windrush generation in the post-war period. Born in Trinidad, Selvon moved to England in 1950 and The Lonely Londoners (1956) is perhaps his most commercially successful and celebrated novel.
Selvon chose to write The Lonely Londoners in a creolised dialect, framing London through Caribbean vernacular to centre and reaffirm the authenticity of West Indian and Caribbean migrant’s experiences living in London during the 1950s. Episodic in form, the novel’s narrative feels quite fragmentary; following the movement of Moses, a “veteran Londoner” from Trinidad, and the other “boys”, most of whom have migrated to London from various Caribbean Islands. Through these different characters Selvon presents snapshots of the kaleidoscopic experience of Caribbean migrants in post-war Britain.
There are moments of humour and a real sense of community in this novel which warm your heart as a reader. Yet, equally, Selvon does not shy away from reflecting the harsh realities experienced by his characters, and by extension, Black migrants living in Britain who faced racial discrimination, social marginalisation and economic inequality. The Lonely Londoners is just one fantastic example of why Sam Selvon has received such critical acclaim, and if you haven’t read any of his work yet this novel is a great place to start.