It’s Time to Name the African American Women’s Canon
We have been building and archiving our narratives for centuries. This list of 100 essential books gives flowers to our leading literary voices.
When did you first learn to listen to other Black women and girls? It’s an awkward question. We learn from our mothers and grandmothers and sisters and friends and lovers. We learn to listen to our voices first, before we learn the calculus of the wider world that says our voices do not have value, have no meaning, offer only bitterness, are too damn loud. Before we hear that cruel lesson, though, we have the voices around us that we hear first, that we are able to receive in delight, or sadness, or wonder, or confusion.
This list, the ZORA Canon, is an exciting one: an accounting by Black women writers for Black women readers of the voices to listen to and value; of the voices that show us ourselves, interrogate ourselves, and, most importantly, value our consciousnesses.
The ZORA Canon is part of a long tradition in African American culture of calling the names of our artists and writers, though why we make these lists varies. Since Phillis Wheatley, one of the first published African American writers, we have been cataloging Black literature. Wheatley herself became a touchstone for writers like William Still, who in the years before the Civil War compiled lists of Black artists as an ongoing argument against White supremacy and the justification of slavery. After the Civil War, in the optimistic rush of Reconstruction-era America, writers and thinkers at newly formed Black colleges, writing in our newly established newspapers, listed the living and dead Black writers for the newly literate Black population to remind them that they were not alone.
This list is an exciting one: an accounting by Black women writers for Black women readers of the voices to listen to and value; of the voices that show us ourselves, interrogate ourselves, and…