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, most importantly, value our consciousnesses.
In the early 1900s, during the time of the New Negro, we kept lists again. Poets like Alice Dunbar Nelson and Angelika Weld Grimké created new work while calling out to the writers who had come a generation before them. And these early catalogs helped lay the groundwork for the abundance of the Harlem Renaissance—that period in the 1920s that would give us Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West and Nella Larsen and so many others. Wider White culture was interested in lists then, interested in cataloging us. But when their never completely friendly gaze shifted somewhere else, declared the Renaissance over, we still kept our lists, collected in copies of Jet and Ebony and Tan, written in tiny print on the back of Negro History Month calendars; included in church circulars when we had to learn of the Negro race.
The lists grew and redoubled and got louder during the Civil Rights era and the following movements of Black Power and the celebration of Black revolution. Then, many of the women on this list made it their business to call the names of the past. Toni Morrison published The Black Book, her famous pastiche and collage of Black culture and Black images that mixed excerpts from Black poets with images from minstrel sheet music and slave-ship manifests. Alice Walker performed a most literary of resurrections and reintroduced Zora Neale Hurston to the roll call of Black writers’ names, culminating with purchasing the headstone for her unmarked grave, ensuring that Hurston was properly identified as “Genius of the South.”
The lists continued into the 1980s, though their purpose had shifted. No longer intended to prove the worth of our voices or our humanity, the lists were made for ourselves. Black women historians and critics like Gloria Hull, Claudia Tate, Hazel Carby, and Hortense Spillers called the names again to begin to construct a genealogy, a legacy, a rubric, and a tradition of Black women’s literature, mapping a landscape that became ours to question, play in, tussle over, build homes in, or wander through. We did not need to spend time insisting we had been here. We could go about the challenging work of defining what this space would mean for us.
It is a new digital map for our consciousness and a space to create anew what it means to write and read as a Black woman.
And now, here we are, almost two decades into the new millennium, with this list made in conversation with, acknowledgement, and praise of others. Made for ourselves. And made here, in this space, where it is accessible to anyone with Wi-Fi and a phone.
It is a new digital map for our consciousness and a space to create anew what it means to write and read as a Black woman. I cannot wait to read the works that will come from the people who find this list on their timeline, read the pieces, find the books, and feel called upon to write something in response to the voices calling out to them.
For many Black women writers, we find our beginnings in Toni Morrison’s famous response, when asked why she wrote her debut novel The Bluest Eye: “I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it.” She explained, “That kind of book, with that subject — those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little Black girls — had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props.”
That’s how I came to write — through reading and noticing the gaps, the silences. Those places were erasures, for sure. But they also were spaces for me and mine. I saw the gaps, and I tried to think of how I would fill them. That’s where my first book, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, came from. On the surface, it is a novel about a Black family from Boston who moves to a nearly all White town in western Massachusetts to take part in an experiment where they raise a chimpanzee as their child. It is a grotesque and gothic tale — partly an attempt to reckon with the legacies of scientific racism and the racial divides of the northeastern United States. But its impetus was noticing a silence around language, on how people spoke about race.
When I started writing the book, it was a month after Barack Obama won his first election. The newspapers were full of essays on how we had entered a new age — the post-racial era. I knew it wasn’t true. Most people I loved and talked to and argued with knew it wasn’t true. But I also knew that the ways most Americans talked about race and imagined it seemed calcified, recycling the same definitions and experiences that had been cataloged immediately after the Civil Rights movement and had not accounted for the betrayals, redoublings, and double-speak of the 1980s, ’90s, and ’00s. So, into that silence that I heard, I wrote. I wrote this novel, delighting in its messiness and its off-putting premise.
As I wrote, I imagined it in conversation with the Black women novelists I read and loved. With Fran Ross’ Oreo and with Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills and with Morrison, of course. In my hubris as a writer, I imagined that what I put on the page could be a response to their call, a way—on some intellectual plain, at least—to join into the Blackest, fiercest dinner party of all time.
So it was a shock when I toured with the book and was asked about being a Black woman writer in terms of what I lacked in that position. What indignities had I suffered? When had I been discriminated against? Who had misunderstood me? As a first-time writer, I wanted to please. I was not above trying to answer these questions. And, of course, there were often answers to these questions, because we operate and publish within racist systems.
But as I continued to talk about my book, I became irritated by this framing. That, as Morrison has pointed out, Black women are read for “sociology” or for a “moral” reason as an apology. This is the thinking that casts Black women’s writing as the broccoli of literature, something you consume for virtue’s sake, not because you relish the taste. I read Black women because I was hungry for us, and I liked our tastes.
I remember doing an event in St. Louis toward the end of my book tour. I read at a public library. The crowd was mixed — older White people, older Black people, a few younger Black boys and girls. During the question period, a Black man stood up and angrily asked me if I was aware of the racist history of comparing Black people to monkeys. “Yes,” I said. “That’s what the novel is about. That’s what it is in conversation with.”
“But why don’t you write anything positive?” he said. “We don’t have enough books about us. Why don’t you write something that is actually positive?”
“It is positive,” I said. And then I had the conundrum that happens often in public events — how to respectfully and lovingly contradict an elder in front of a mixed audience. How to acknowledge this person’s pain while hewing to your own artistic choices and rights to artistic freedom. What I wanted to say to him was, literally, “Turn around.” Behind him were stacks of books with Black authors on them. But this reading was held only a few miles from Ferguson. As I traveled there, I heard on the radio about the intense segregation of the college campuses in the city. This man was describing a lack of the wider culture, while ignoring what we have always created for ourselves.
I did not resolve any of it well. I think he left angry with me, assuming that I did not understand, that I was another Black artist who had let him down. I felt bad. But as I was packing up, two Black women who had also been in the audience stopped me to say hi. “We came because we saw your picture on the poster,” they told me. “We didn’t know anything about it. But we came for you.”
I think about those two instincts — to look at the vast story of the Black experience and see only loss. Or to look at Blackness and to see a chance to rally, to celebrate, to show up. I hope this list inspires you to show up for Black women’s voices, for Black women writers, for Black women, wherever you encounter us.