Do you ever marvel at the enchantment of classic literature? These hidden gems in African-American novels deserve recognition. Join me in illuminating these forgotten masterpieces and becoming torchbearers for their brilliance.
Of course, if you are an old man, you can continue reading, provided you have a copy of wholesale reading glasses.
African-American Classic Novels of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
Clotel, or The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown, 1853
Clotel, a groundbreaking masterpiece, bears the distinction of being the inaugural novel published by an African-American author. William Wells Brown, an American abolitionist who had once escaped the clutches of slavery, penned this historical fiction epic set in the early 1800s. Its eponymous protagonist, Clotel, the mixed-race daughter of Thomas Jefferson, embarks on a tumultuous journey, weaving an intricate tapestry of narratives that intertwine with the trials and tribulations of enslaved black people in the 1800s.
Brown’s narrative prowess amalgamates fiction with primary source materials, employing newspaper articles, eye-witness accounts, and poetry to construct a vivid portrayal of life in that turbulent era. His plea for empathy and action on behalf of abolitionists echoes through the annals of time, making “Clotel” an enduring testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson, published in 1859
In the annals of African-American literature, “Our Nig” stands as a historic milestone, often hailed as the first African-American novel published in the United States. Harriet E. Wilson, born a free person of color, composed this literary masterpiece as an anonymous endeavor, driven by the ardent desire to support her young son following the tragic loss of her husband. However, the book’s muted reception can be attributed to its critical examination of the treatment of black individuals in the North, a subject too contentious for the abolitionists of the time to endorse.
Drawing heavily from her own life, Wilson’s narrative unfurls the tale of Frado, a young girl of mixed race, left abandoned by her mother in a foreign household. The story navigates the treacherous waters of a new life, rife with challenges, alliances, and tyranny.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, 2002
“The Bondwoman’s Narrative” unveils a riveting saga of a young black woman, Hannah Bond, who penned her story between 1853 and 1861, although it remained unpublished until the meticulous research and authentication efforts of Harvard professor Henry Gates bore fruit in 2002. A fugitive slave, Craft, assumed the name Hannah Bond after escaping from the Wheeler plantation in North Carolina to seek refuge in New Jersey.
Craft’s insatiable appetite for literature, nurtured by her role as a lady’s maid in the plantation house, is palpable in her novel. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Brontë, Scott, Walpole, Stowe, Dickens, and Shakespeare, she weaves a captivating narrative, replete with gothic elements—family secrets, insanity, daring escapes, and shadowy forests. Notably, “The Bondwoman’s Narrative” is the sole known novel authored by a fugitive slave, rendering it an unparalleled gem in African-American literature.
The Garies and Their Friends by Frank J. Webb, 1857
Intricately interwoven with the antebellum era, “The Garies and Their Friends” casts a spotlight on the Garie family. This white plantation owner, Clarence, his common-law mulatto wife, Emily, and their children embark on a journey from the South to Philadelphia, driven by concerns for their offspring’s future. Set against the backdrop of a racially charged North, their lives intersect with the Ellis family, working-class free blacks who extend a helping hand. However, the discrimination they encounter and the eruption of nefarious plots result in physical violence, plunging the narrative into a tumultuous abyss.
If your literary cravings lean toward Victorian-era novels, “The Garies and Their Friends” promises to be a compelling choice. Infused with plot twists and an unconventional premise, this literary endeavor is further enriched by the fascinating tidbit that its author, Frank J. Webb, was the grandson of none other than Aaron Burr.
Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1892
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an influential orator, poet, and essayist, blazed a trail through the annals of African-American history. Born a free black woman in Maryland, her life took a precarious turn as she became entangled in a web of laws that threatened her freedom. Forced to seek refuge with the family of William Still, a key figure in the Underground Railroad, Harper published three serialized novels before bestowing upon the world “Iola Leroy” in 1892.
This remarkable novel unfolds against the tumultuous backdrop of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. It chronicles the odyssey of Iola Leroy and her family, tracing their lives across plantations, Union Army camps, and bustling cities. A medley of somberness, humor, and coziness permeates the narrative, reminiscent of literary classics such as the Elsie Dinsmore series. While not without its imperfections, “Iola Leroy” invites readers into a wonderfully immersive journey, offering a nuanced portrayal of race, society, and their profound implications.
Contending Forces by Pauline Hopkins, 1900
Pauline Hopkins, a prodigious writer hailing from Maine, emerged onto the literary stage as a young girl, winning an essay contest in high school. Her literary prowess manifested itself across an array of genres—short stories, nonfiction essays, musical plays, and four novels. Her insatiable appetite for experimentation gave rise to novels such as “Hagar’s Daughter,” a gothic sensation novel infused with elements of detective fiction, and “Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest,” reminiscent of the western genre.
“Contending Forces,” a historical romance set before and after the Civil War, weaves an intergenerational saga, spotlighting a mixed-race family surmounting formidable obstacles in their quest for love and prosperity. Hopkins wrote this novel with the noble purpose of advancing the cause of racial uplift, envisioning it as a bridge that would unite people from all walks of life, transcending the boundaries of class and complexion.
The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chestnutt, 1900
Inspired by the themes of race politics interwoven with Saxons, Normans, and Jews in Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” Charles W. Chestnutt embarked on a literary odyssey that gave birth to “The House Behind the Cedars.” Set against the post-Civil War landscape of the Carolinas, this novel delves into the intricacies of intermarriage, passing, and class relations.
Charles Chestnutt, who identified as black despite his seven-eighths white heritage, etched his name into the annals of literary history. With a career spanning teaching, law, and writing, he was held in high esteem as an author, particularly for his mastery of the short story genre. A curious anecdote—the author graced Mark Twain’s 70th birthday party as a guest!
“The House Behind the Cedars” stands as a testament to Chestnutt’s literary prowess, encapsulating a tumultuous epoch in American history with eloquence and insight.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, 1912
Despite its title, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” unfurls as a novel, veiling the identity of its unnamed narrator. This enigmatic protagonist, concealed behind the cloak of invisibility, beckons readers to uncover the “great secret” of his life—that he is, in fact, black. His narrative unfolds as a tapestry of self-realization, tracing his journey from childhood revelations to a complex adulthood. The man’s life traverses various strata within the black community, as well as a sojourn in Paris.
James Weldon Johnson, while drafting this profound work, served as a diplomat in Nicaragua during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Initially, he published the book anonymously to safeguard his career, later claiming ownership in 1927, during the flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance. Although “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” stands as his sole novel, Johnson’s literary legacy extends beyond this masterpiece, encompassing volumes of poetry, a genuine autobiography, two nonfiction works, and anthologies celebrating African-American poems and spirituals.
Intriguingly, this novel beckons readers to explore the intricacies of identity, a timeless enigma that resonates deeply in our ever-evolving society.
There is Confusion by Jessie Redmon Fauset, 1924
Set against the vibrant urban backdrop of Philadelphia and New York, “There is Confusion” emerges as a quintessential “novel of manners.” Its narrative orbits around three childhood friends, voyaging into adulthood with ambitions as young African-American adults. The captivating trio, comprised of the beautiful Maggie, the talented dancer Joanna, and the clever aspiring surgeon Peter, embarks on distinct pathways toward self-fulfillment.
Jessie Redmon Fauset, renowned as the literary editor of “The Crisis,” a publication instrumental in promoting emerging Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes, fortifies her reputation with the publication of her debut novel, “There is Confusion.” Critics have even ventured to call her “the potential Jane Austen of Negro literature.” The novel, initially published to critical acclaim, serves as a testament to Fauset’s narrative finesse.
“Passing” by Nella Larsen, 1929
“Passing” unfolds as a riveting tale of two childhood friends, Clare and Irene, whose lives have ventured down vastly disparate paths. Both women are light-skinned, but Clare has harnessed this feature to pass as white, marrying a wealthy yet bigoted white man without disclosing her true background. Irene, the story’s protagonist, has opted to identify as black, residing in matrimony with a black doctor. The serendipitous reunion of these two women sparks an uncertain rekindling of their friendship, unveiling the fragility of the lives they have constructed.
Though “Passing” is not a conventional detective novel, it resonates with echoes of Agatha Christie’s character development, offering readers an intimate glimpse into Irene’s psyche. The enigmatic veneer of the narrative conceals deeper motivations and thoughts, much like the intricate layers within a Christie mystery.
Nella Larsen’s literary repertoire extends to her earlier novel, “Quicksand” (1928), which mirrors her own life as a woman of Danish and West Indian heritage, weaving a tapestry of racial and cross-cultural exploration.
Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, 1930
Langston Hughes, celebrated as one of the most recognizable poets of the Harlem Renaissance, dons the mantle of a novelist in “Not Without Laughter.” This coming-of-age narrative beckons readers into the life of Sandy, an African-American boy navigating the challenges of growing up in a predominantly white Kansas town. Within the bosom of his family, Sandy encounters a symphony of love, discord, and aspirations, all coalescing to nurture his dreams.
The novel’s stage is set within homes, churches, barber shops, carnivals, pool halls, and dance halls. Sandy’s journey through life imparts invaluable lessons—lessons on discrimination, forgiveness, hard work, and sacrifice. It reverberates with the poignant realization that, “no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter.”
Langston Hughes’ foray into the realm of the novel is a testament to his versatility as a writer, delivering a poignant narrative that resonates with readers across generations.
The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher, 1932
“The Conjure-Man Dies” emerges as a pioneering achievement in African-American literature, arguably the first detective novel authored by an African-American. Rudolph Fisher seamlessly fuses the stylistic elements of Golden Age mystery fiction with the vivacious ambiance of Harlem. A vibrant cast of characters takes center stage as the narrative unfolds with the mysterious death of Frimbo, an African practitioner of physic, found murdered at his conjuring table. The last six individuals who crossed paths with Frimbo prior to his demise become prime suspects, prompting Detective Perry Dart and Dr. John Archer to embark on a quest to unearth the perplexing truths concealed within.
Though Rudolph Fisher’s life was tragically cut short, leaving no room for further Dart-Archer novels, his indelible mark upon the literary landscape persists. Fisher’s literary oeuvre extends to encompass numerous short stories and the 1928 novel, “The Walls of Jericho.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
Zora Neale Hurston, though renowned as a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, often set her narratives in her native Florida rather than the bustling streets of Harlem. “Their Eyes Were Watching God” represents her second foray into the world of novels, following her established reputation as a short story writer and poet.
The tumultuous journey of Janie Crawford, the novel’s captivating protagonist, takes center stage. Janie yearns for more from life, embarking on a quest to carve her path in a world brimming with uncertainty. The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of Florida, culminating in a riveting climax amidst the fury of a hurricane in the Everglades.
Zora Neale Hurston’s literary legacy extends beyond this iconic novel, encompassing works like “Jonah’s Gourd Vine,” “Moses, Man of the Mountain,” and “Seraph on the Suwannee.” These literary gems, collected in a single volume, stand as a testament to Hurston’s storytelling prowess.
The Street by Ann Petry, 1946
“The Street” serves as an unflinching exploration of Lutie Johnson’s relentless pursuit of the American dream, despite the odds stacked against her. As a single black mother, Lutie endeavors to provide a better life for her son, Bub, in the heart of Harlem. Her unwavering belief in the power of thrift and hard work fuels her determination. However, disillusionment lurks around every corner, as she confronts the predatory vices and violence endemic to 116th Street.
Part social realism, part literary thriller, “The Street” made waves upon its release, etching its place in history as the first book by an African-American woman to sell over a million copies.
Ann Petry’s literary pursuits extended beyond her debut work, “The Street,” encompassing novels like “Country Place” and “The Narrows.” Additionally, she contributed a middle-grade biography of Harriet Tubman and the middle-grade novel “Tituba of Salem Village,” further enriching the tapestry of African-American literature.
The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, 1948
Set against the backdrop of World War I, “The Living is Easy” invites readers into the labyrinthine world of Cleo Judson. As a working-class maid and Southern transplant, Cleo harbors ambitions of integration into Boston’s elite black social circles. Her path is marked by deception, manipulation, and an unrelenting desire to orchestrate not only her life but also the lives of her three sisters, urging them to forsake their husbands and move in with her.
Dorothy West’s novel introduces readers to a black anti-heroine in the form of Cleo. While Cleo may not be the most likable character, “The Living is Easy” offers a compelling social satire, delving into the complexities of the black upper class during the Great War era. The novel, having experienced a resurgence in interest after its reprinting in 1982, spurred Dorothy West to complete a second novel, “The Wedding,” published when she was eighty-five years old in 1995.
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, 1952
Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” casts an incisive spotlight on its unnamed black protagonist’s existential quest to define himself within a society intent on prescribing his identity. As he journeys from the South to New York, he encounters a tapestry of ideologies within both the black and white communities, only to find them all wanting.
Inspired by the tragic antiheroes of literary classics like “Wuthering Heights,” “Jude the Obscure,” and “Crime and Punishment,” as well as T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Ralph Ellison crafts a compelling portrait of an individual in perpetual conflict with society. This masterpiece garnered critical acclaim, clinching the National Book Award and establishing Ellison as a literary luminary, despite the fact that he would never publish another novel in his lifetime.
Ralph Ellison’s exploration of identity and society’s expectations resonates profoundly in a world grappling with similar complexities.
Jubilee by Margaret Walker, 1966
“Jubilee” unfolds as a sweeping historical saga, often hailed as “the Black ‘Gone with the Wind.'” Margaret Walker escorts readers through the life of Vyry Brown, spanning the years leading up to, during, and after the Civil War. Vyry, the offspring of a white plantation owner and his black mistress, traverses the tumultuous terrain of her upbringing as a slave on the plantation and within the “Big House.” Her journey towards love and self-fulfillment weaves a tapestry of resilience, character, and unwavering faith in God.
Margaret Walker embarked on her literary journey with a deeply personal connection to the narrative, drawing inspiration from the life of her great-grandmother. She commenced her exploration of “Jubilee” at the tender age of nineteen, intermittently weaving her tale over three decades. Ultimately, it found its place as part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa.
“Jubilee” beckons readers to traverse an emotional odyssey, resonating with themes of heritage, love, and the enduring human spirit.
These classic novels by Black authors weave a diverse tapestry of perspectives, experiences, and narratives, enriching literature. Each work embodies the human spirit’s quest for freedom, love, and self-realization.