October is Black History Month and prisons all over the country are celebrating it: with music and poetry events, displays, competitions and Big Reads. Here’s a small selection of Black writers and books to choose from. We’ve organised them by country so readers can focus on a particular interest or get a window on Black experience in different places and times.
Britain: A few of the novels – both classics and new work – that explore Black British experience:
Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie
Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other: – an exploration of Black British identity through the stories of twelve very different women
Andrea Levy, Small Island – the experience of Caribbean immigrants in post-World War II Britain, told through brilliant characters, both ‘slyly funny and passionately angry’.
Nadifa Mohamed, The Fortune Men (2021) – based on true events and set in 1952, it’s the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali immigrant to Cardiff’s Tiger Bay who is accused of the brutal murder of a local shopkeeper
Courttia Newland, The Scholar
Zadie Smith, White Teeth and Swing Time
2020 was the 50th anniversary of the arrival of hundreds of young West Indians in Southampton on the SS Empire Windrush. In Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation Colin Grant collects the memories of many of those people to create a brilliant oral history. If you’re looking for books to get a teenager reading and thinking, check out Malorie Blackman’s brilliant Noughts and Crosses series. It’s set in Albion, an alternative Britain where Blacks hold the power and call themselves ‘Crosses’ while the white ‘Noughts’ are poor and discriminated against. The most recent book, Endgame, includes a pandemic and a ‘Nought Lives Matter’ movement. Malorie’s fans include Stormzy, who made a guest appearance in the episode of Dr Who she wrote. His song ‘Superheroes’ includes the line: ‘I’m Malorie Blackman the way I sell books’.
For memoirs of growing up Black in Britain, see Lemn Sissay, My Name is Why, Derek Owusu, That Reminds Me and Caleb Femi, Poor. There’s lots of great Black British poetry too. Look out for work by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grace Nichols, Benjamin Zepaniah, Inua Ellams, Roger Robinson, Jay Bernard, Patience Agbabi, Raymond Antrobus and Jackie Kay.
For powerful discussions of race in Britain today, try Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race or the scathing and satirical Think Like a White Man by Dr Boule Whytelaw II, Professor of White People Studies (pseudonym of Nels Abbey). Or check out Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair for a fascinating perspective on Black history and experience.
In November 2020 the BBC broadcast Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a series of five films about London’s West Indian community. There’s also a DVD that your library may have.
United States: Classic Black American novels include Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
More recent African American books and writers to look out for: Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing, Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half, Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give, Jason Reynolds, Long Way Down.
Africa: There are more and more books being published or translated into English from all over Africa. Here’s a small selection of classics and new work. If your library doesn’t already stock them, ask if they can order them.
Kenya: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Devil on the Cross, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust
Liberia: Ahmadou Kourouma, Allah is Not Obliged
Nigeria: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, Ben Okri, The Famished Road, Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen, Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
Republic of Congo: Alain Mabanckou, Broken Glass
Sierra Leone: Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love
South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, Trevor Noah, Born a Crime
Uganda: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Manchester Happened
Zimbabwe: Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions, Petina Gappah, Rotten Row, Out of Darkness Shining Light
If your library is open, check out the black history shelves yourself. Or if your prison has a request and delivery service, ask for a writer or a sub-genre like the ones above. Or just put in a request for ‘a book celebrating black history.’ If you’ve read a good book recently send a review in no more than 100 words and mark it ‘Finding a Good Read’.
Calling book reviewers
If you’ve read a good book recently send a review in no more than 100 words and mark it ‘Finding a Good Read’. We’ll print the best ones.