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The Memoirs by Top Black Authors You Need to Read Now

memoirs by top black authors

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a moment when many people are earnestly seeking to learn more about how black people experience life in America. And there are several ways to do that effectively. One is reading a broad selection of memoirs written by eloquent and honest black writers. Empathy and knowledge can help build bridges. And understanding can begin – or be further deepened – by listening to stories. Our correspondent Abbie Martin Greenbaum has gathered a list of 20 exceptional memoirs written by top black authors to read right now to better understand Black Lives Matter and the African-American experience. We’ve all added in some of our favorites. Making time to immerse yourself in one or more of these is an excellent way to support brilliant writers. And to hurry along the change that we all so urgently hope for.

why read a memoir about the African-American experience?

Memoirs walk a unique line between fiction and non-fiction: while they tell true stories, they adopt the form of narrative, conveying information in a way that is more intimate and emotional than if it were a text of fact alone.  

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That makes them ideal reads for a moment when we want to deeply understand and empathize with a person, a group of people, a community, a nation.

memoirs by top black authors

Riveting memoirs by top black authors.

Which made us think about the most riveting and insightful memoirs we’ve read by black authors. And which ones we’d recommend to a friend who wants to go on a journey of learning, listening and perhaps understanding more deeply what it’s really like to be an African-American.

Of course, by the way, there’s no one answer to that. There are as many experiences as there are black people in America. And yet, some authors best capture bits of the essential elements of the African-American experience in way that any human being can relate to

memoirs by top black authors

What are some of the most moving memoirs by top black authors?

There are plenty of best-selling memoirs penned by leading black authors that you’ve probably already read – you’ve certainly heard of them. Black Boy by Richard Wright. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. Becoming by Michelle Obama. Just to name a few.

But there’s a world of other memoirs by brilliant black writers that we also all need to know: books to read and reflect on, to absorb. And to emerge afterward a little smarter. A little more sympathetic.

The Memoirs by Top Black Authors You Need to Read Now

These 20 brilliant memoirs by African-Americans offer a kind of window into the experiences of black people living in the United States. They are all quite different, telling the tales of twenty markedly different lives and families. And yet all of them touch on what it means to be black in a society so deeply entrenched in racism and injustice. One that is striving, for the most part, to be better.

Some of the best memoirs by black authors to read right now to better understand the African-American experience.

Some of the best memoirs by black authors to read right now to better understand the African-American experience. Courtesy Photos.


The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love With Me by Keah Brown. An activist and author, Keah Brown rose to the spotlight with her creation of the hashtag  #DisabledAndCute. Her memoir is a snapshot of her life as a Black woman with cerebral palsy in America. The title refers to her relationship with her twin sister, who is able-bodied and was often called ‘The Pretty One.’ Brown’s book offers a personal lens on the intersection of disability and race. It’s a crucial topic that is too often overlooked.  


Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward. Jesmyn Ward’s 2013 memoir is a gut-wrenching look at the lives of five young Black men. The writer lost all of them over a period of five years. In looking at the deaths of her brother and her friends, Ward unpacks the way systemic inequality led each of these men to die too young, telling her own story alongside theirs.


My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir by Jessica B. Harris. Having run in the same circles as friends James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison, Harris has some incredible stories to tell. And here she tells them, giving the reader a glimpse of a joyful 1970’s New York. You’ll take a trip through Harris’s own illustrious career, the parties she attended, and her relationship with Sam Floyd. It’s a book of rich memories, capturing Harris’s unbelievable life so far.

memoirs from top blalck writers you need to read now

Some of the best memoirs from top black writers. Courtesy Photos. 


March: Book One by John Lewis. In honor of the recent death of politician, Civil Rights giant and icon Congressman John Lewis, you may find this a perfect time to check out the first in his trilogy of graphic novel memoirs. This volume covers Lewis’s growing up in Alabama, his meeting with Martin Luther King Jr, and his joining the Nashville Student Movement against segregation. The illustrations offer a whole new way to see Lewis’s life in print.

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Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow. This raw and painful memoir is an account of the author’s childhood in Louisiana, a time marked both by his close relationship with his mother, and by the sexual abuse he endured. It is an in-depth reckoning with trauma and with harm, something that Blow was forced to grapple with when he eventually left home for university. Now an influential columnist for the editorial page of the New York Times, Blow’s voice is a vital one in the ongoing discussion about race and politics in America.


Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock. Writer, filmmaker, and activist Janet Mock tells her own story in her first published book, a memoir about her experiences growing up as a Black, transgender woman. She details her early childhood, her transitioning as a high school student in Honolulu, and her eventual move to New York City. The book is about identity in all its forms, and is succeeded by a sequel, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, about Mock as a young adult.

memoirs from top blalck writers you need to read now

Some of the memoirs from top black writers to read right now. Courtesy Photos.


Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon. A deep dive into Laymon’s life in Jackson, Mississippi, his memoir takes on the brutal task of confronting the secrets and lies he grew up believing – fed to him both by his family, and his country. He weaves his own experiences with eating disorders, with gambling, and with other people into a broader meditation on being a Black man in the United States.

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The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae. Everyone knows Issa Rae from her starring career in film and in her hit show Insecure. And in her memoir, you get to hear her singularly funny (and awkward) voice regaling you with the story of her own life, and her career. If you enjoy the reading, the book was later adapted into a comedy web series that has the same irresistible tone.


More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) by Elaine Welteroth. The first Black woman to hold the role of Editor-in-Chief at Teen Vogue, Welteroth is a critical voice in media and in fashion. For everyone who remembers the magazine’s revelatory switch to a more political bent, Welteroth is the one to thank. Here she shares her own journey, as well as imparting wisdom from the many lessons she learned along the way.

Some of the best memoirs by black authors to read right now to better understand the African-American experience. Courtesy Photos.


How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir by Saeed Jones. Written in gorgeous, poetic vignettes, Jones tells many stories at once: the story of his relationships with those around him, the story of a journey across America, and the story of his life, growing up as a gay, Black man in the South. Like all great memoirs, it works on multiple levels, revealing both of Jones himself, and of these topics on a grander scale.

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The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir by Michele Harper. Released just a few weeks ago, The Beauty in Breaking is an exceptional memoir detailing Harper’s experiences as an ER physician, and her path towards healing from personal trauma. She writes about her patients, both the ways in which she can see systemic disenfranchisement in each of them, and the ways in which each of them taught her something about what it means to recover.


When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele. This is a memoir both of the Black Lives Matter movement, and of its founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Growing up in Los Angeles, she witnessed firsthand the violence Black people in America experience at the hands of both law enforcement and the criminal justice system. And after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, she knew she had to do something to change it.

memoirs from top blalck writers you need to read now

Riveting memoirs of the African-American experience. Courtesy Photos.


Real American: A Memoir by Julie Lythcott-Haims. From the author of How to Raise an Adult, Real American is a striking memoir on the subject of self-esteem and acceptance. The child of an African American father and a white, British mother, Lythcott-Haims was subject to many “micro-aggressions” which can have, as she shows here, an impact that is in no way small. Through the story of her own life and adolescence, she demonstrates the ways in which racism can have insidious effects on a person’s sense of self-worth.

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The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom. In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East. In this award-winning memoir, we learn the story of one house and the role it played over nearly a century in the life of a sprawling, loving black family. Published years after Hurricane Katrina, it keeps the necessary focus on the many parts of NOLA that were wrecked by the storm and never really recovered.


Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. We all know Shonda Rhimes’ work. As one of television’s most esteemed creators, her shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) have defined so much of pop culture as we know it over the last fifteen years. Her memoir offers a chance to get to know the woman behind the words, who defines herself as an introvert, and who chronicles here a hilarious, heartfelt account of her attempt to become a little braver.

memoirs from top blalck writers you need to read now

Some of the best memoirs to better understand the Black Lives Matter movement. Courtesy Photos.


Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi. By the time he was twenty-seven years old, Kwame Onwuachi (winner of the 2019 James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year) had opened—and closed—one of the most talked about restaurants in America. Growing up in the Bronx, he gave in to the temptation of easy money on the streets. It was through food that he broke out of this dangerous downward spiral. Working as a chef on board a Deepwater Horizon cleanup ship; training in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the country; even appearing as a contestant on Top Chef. This story of trying, failing, and rising to try again speaks to everyone, but it will have particular resonance for those wondering how anyone bears up under the burden of race in America and finds a way to shine.

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Negroland: A Memoir by Margot Jefferson. Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 into upper-crust black Chicago, the daughter of a socialite and a pediatrician. She details what it was like to be a member of the black elite. It’s a world of exclusive sororities, fraternities, networks, and clubs. A world in which skin color and hair texture were relentlessly evaluated alongside scholarly and professional achievements. Covering many of the experiences detailed in Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham, this is a searing account of how wealth, class and race can combine into a damaging and toxic stew.


Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem by Daniel R. Day. Dapper Dan pioneered high-end streetwear in the 1980s, remixing classic luxury-brand logos into his own innovative, glamorous designs. An irrepressible spirit, Day’s life story demonstrates the trials of a black entrepreneur. The difficulties of building a fashion business. And how to have a second professional act (or even a third one) if you work hard enough and stand your ground.  Clothier and stylist to celebrities like Mike Tyson, LL Cool J Diddy, Naomi Campbell and Jay-Z, Day is a survivor. A CEO, a hustler and an enduring icon. And a hugely entertaining raconteur who makes the ride sound thrilling.

Some of the best memoirs by black authors to read right now to better understand the African-American experience. Courtesy Photos.


Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. In 1985, when she was only nineteen years old, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey’s world was turned upside down. That was when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Now, she is exploring and explaining the way in which this trauma shaped the artist she has become. Moving through her mother’s history in the deeply segregated South and through her own girlhood as a “child of miscegenation” in Mississippi, she plumbs the depths of sudden loss and absence. And offers a piercing glimpse of the enduring ripple effects of white racism and domestic abuse in America.


No Name in the Street by James Baldwin. It seems fitting to end this list of some of the best memoirs to deepen our understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement with a work by one of the greatest writers ever: James Baldwin. In this history/memoir published in 1972, Baldwin recounts in vivid detail his Harlem childhood. And the anguish of events later in his life that scorched him with pain and anguish, like the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. We follow the writer’s  sojourns in Europe and in Hollywood. And his courageous journey to the American South to confront a violent America face-to-face at the height of the Civil Rights movement. There may be no better voice to bring the experience of racism in America into sharp view.

Memoirs by Top Black Authors to Read Now

What are the best memoirs to read to understand the African-American experience and Black Lives Matter? That’s our list of 20 memoirs by top black authors in America that we highly recommend. What’s on your list?

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Abbie Martin Greenbaum grew up in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn, where she drinks a lot of coffee and matches roommates together for a living. At Oberlin College, she studied English and Cinema. Which are still two of her favorite things, along with dessert and musical theater. She believes in magic.

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