We remain in a moment when many people are earnestly seeking to learn more about how Black people experience life in America. Also a moment when many of us who are Black are looking for inspiration and reminders of our rich heritage and the courage of our ancestors. There are many ways to do that, of course. One is reading memoirs written by 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 21 exceptional memoirs and non-fiction books written by top black authors to read right now to better understand the lived experiences of African Americans. 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 from a Black author right now?
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.
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.
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.
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. A Promised Land and 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.
21 Memoirs and Books Essential to Read Now by Top Black Authors
These 21 brilliant memoirs by African-Americans offer a kind of window into the experience 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.
1. The Pretty One by Keah Brown.
We begin our list of memoirs and non-fiction testimonials and books from Black authors with a woman’s story. An activist and author, Keah Brown rose to the spotlight with her creation of the hashtag #DisabledAndCute. Her memoir, The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love With Me, 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.
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2. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.
Jesmyn Ward’s 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped, 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.
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3. My Soul Looks Back 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 in My Soul Looks Back, 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.
BUY NOW: $10.29.
4. March: Book One by John Lewis.
On of the best memoirs written by a black American happens to be in graphic novel form. The late Civil Rights giant and icon Congressman John Lewis told his story in a trilogy of graphic novels. March: Book One covers Lewis’s childhood in Alabama, his first meeting with Martin Luther King Jr, and his motivation for joining the Nashville Student Movement against segregation. The illustrations offer a whole new way to see Lewis’s life.
BUY NOW: $8.25.
5. Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a raw and painful memoir, 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. And this book was the basis for a marvelous opera performed at the Metropolitan Opera in the fall of 2021.
BUY NOW: $9.29.
6. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock.
In Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, 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.
BUY NOW: $9.99.
7. Heavy by Kiese Laymon.
Heavy: An American Memoir is 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.
BUY NOW: $9.44.
8. 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. In her memoir, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, 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.
BUY NOW: $9.99.
9. More Than Enough 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. In More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say), she shares her own journey, as well as imparting wisdom from the many lessons she learned along the way.
BUY NOW: $14.71.
10. How we Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones.
Written in gorgeous, poetic vignettes, How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir, is many stories at once. It’s 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.
BUY NOW: $10.69
11. The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper.
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.
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12. When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele.
When They Call You a Terrorist is a memoir both of the Black Lives Matter movement and of its founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, an African American. 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.
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13. Real American 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.
BUY NOW: $12.95
14. The Yellow House 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 the award-winning memoir, The Yellow House, 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.
BUY NOW: $13.09.
15. Year of Yes 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, Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, 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.
BUY NOW: $10.28.
16. Notes from a Young Black Chef 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. Notes from a Young Black Chef is his story. 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.
BUY NOW: $9.89.
17. 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. In Negroland, 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.
BUY NOW: $14.33.
18. Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem by Daniel R. Day.
Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem is the memoir of a true New Yorker and breaker of barriers. 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.
BUY NOW: $12.99.
19. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey.
In 1985, when she was only nineteen years old, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey’s world was turned upside down. Her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. In Memorial Drive she explores and explains 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.
BUY NOW: $12.03.
20. Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir by Ashley C. Ford.
One of the most recently published books on our list of memoirs penned by Black African American authors is this brutally honest account. Somebody’s Daughter is a story of what it felt like growing up a poor Black girl in Indiana as a member of a family fragmented by incarceration. Ford had a fraught relationship growing up with her mother, and longed for a more supportive relationship with her father. But he spent her childhood in prison – and the crime he committed was always shrouded in mystery.
As rebellious teenager, Ford started a relationship with a boy her mother disapproved of. When she decided to end it, he assaulted her. The crime remained a secret until the day her grandmother unknowingly shared with Ford the reason her father is in prison. That sent her reeling. It set her off a new journey for a sense of self, and a meaningful place in her family. And in the world.
BUY NOW: $12.29.
21. No Name in the Street by James Baldwin.
We end this list of some of the best memoirs and non-fiction testimonials and books by Black or African American authors with a work by one of the greatest writers ever: James Baldwin. In No Name in the Street, a 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.
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Memoirs and non-fiction books by Top Black Authors to Read Now
What are the best memoirs and non-fiction books by top Black African American authors to read right now to understand their lived experiences? That’s our list of 21 memoirs by top Black authors that we highly recommend. What’s on your list, dear reader?