The ZORA Canon
The ZORA Canon, our list of the 100 greatest books ever written by African American women, is one of a kind, yet it exists within a rich cultural tradition. As author and New York Times contributing opinion writer Kaitlyn Greenidge notes in “Why We Need to Acknowledge the African American Women’s Canon,” her insightful and moving introduction to the list, Black artists and cultural leaders have been compiling documents of this sort since the 1700s, first as part of an ongoing argument against White supremacy and slavery. Later, during Reconstruction, as a reminder to the newly literate Black population “that they were not alone.” Later still, to catalog the abundance of the Harlem Renaissance (the period that brought us Zora Neale Hurston, for whom ZORA is named). And in contemporary time, less to prove the value of Black women’s voices and their humanity than to “go about challenging the work of figuring out what this space would mean for us.”
To our knowledge, however, no one has ever compiled a comprehensive list specifically featuring the finest literary works produced by African American women authors. We decided to undertake that effort both to honor that still underappreciated group of writers and to provide ZORA readers — you — with a handy reference guide to their work.
How did we choose what works to include? The ZORA editors assembled a blue-ribbon panel of authorities on African American women’s literature, asked them for their selections, then worked with them to vet and shape the final list. The group included Malaika Adero, a former vice president and senior editor for Atria Books at Simon & Schuster; Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and professor; Ayana Mathis, a professor and New York Times bestselling author; Tressie McMillan Cottom, an author and sociologist; Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies and an author; and Jesmyn Ward, an author and English professor.
The result is a list of 100 masterworks, spanning 160 years of African American women’s literature, divided into sections from pre-emancipation to the present, including fiction and nonfiction, novels, plays, anthologies, and poetry collections and ranging in subject matter from the historical to the personal (and…