Books about black lives: a Serpent’s Tail reading list

01 June 2020

The books below shine a light on black lives and open up new ways of looking at them.

At Serpent’s Tail, we believe that sharing and reading stories of black experiences is one small way to combat racism. We will continue to publish and amplify the voices of our black authors.

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attica locke

HEAVEN MY HOME | ATTICA LOCKE

Waterstones Book of the Month
Shortlisted for the Orwell Prize
Winner of a CWA Steel Dagger

With Texas already suffering a new wave of racial violence in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, a black man is a suspect in the possible murder of a missing white boy: the son of an Aryan Brotherhood captain.
 
In deep country where the rule of law only goes so far, Ranger Darren Mathews has to battle centuries-old prejudices as he races to save not only Levi King, but himself.
 

 
Follow @atticalocke on Twitter




saidiya hartman
 
WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS | SAIDIYA HARTMAN

Winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award 2020
‘A startling, dazzling act of resurrection’ Michelle Alexander
‘Exhilarating….A rich resurrection of a forgotten history’ NYT

At the dawn of the twentieth century, black women in the US were carving out new ways of living. The first generations born after emancipation, their struggle was to live as if they really were free.

These women refused to labour like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. These were the pioneers of free love, common-law and transient marriages, queer identities, and single motherhood – all deemed scandalous, even pathological, at the dawn of the twentieth century, though they set the pattern for the world to come.

IWith visionary intensity, Saidiya Hartman conjures their worlds, their dilemmas, their defiant brilliance. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires, their unfinished revolution in a minor key.

 
 
Follow Saidiya Hartman @sojournerlife on Twitter
 

 
jamel brinkley
A LUCKY MAN | JAMEL BRINKLEY

A National Book Awards Finalist
In the end, there’s no doubt who the lucky ones are: we, the readers.’ Observer

In the nine unforgettable stories of A Lucky Man, Jamel Brinkley explores the unseen tenderness of black men and boys: the struggle to love and be loved, the invisible ties of family and friendship, and the inescapable forces of race, class and masculinity.

The Guardian called the collection ‘near faultless’.


 
 
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WASHINGTON BLACK | ESI EDUGYAN

esi edugyan

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize | Winner of the Giller Prize

‘Strong, beautiful and beguiling’ Observer

Washington Black tells the epic story of a young slave who escapes his plantation and travels the world in search of a place to call home. On his journey he meets unforgettable characters, develops a deep interest in marine biology, deep dives for a rare octopus and eventually arrives in London to establish the world’s first aquarium. Written with exquisite lyricism and gripping storytelling, Washington Black explores what it means to be a free man, having once been a slave.

 Buy your copy | Download the ebook

 


 

alain mabankcou

THE DEATH OF COMRADE PRESIDENT | ALAIN MABANCKOU

‘A novelist of exuberant originality’ Guardian

In Pointe-Noire, in the small neighbourhood of Voungou, on the family plot where young Michel lives with Maman Pauline and Papa Roger, life goes on. But In March 1977, just before the arrival of the short rainy season, Comrade President Marien Ngouabi is brutally murdered in Brazzaville, and not even naïve Michel can remain untouched.

Starting as a tender, wry portrait of an ordinary Congolese family, Alain Mabanckou quickly expands the scope of his story into a powerful examination of colonialism, decolonization and dead ends of the African continent.

Buy your copy | Download the ebook

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QUICKSAND AND PASSING | NELLA LARSEN

‘Absolutely absorbing, fascinating and indispensable’ Alice Walker

nella larsen

A writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen’s novels speak powerfully of the contradictions and restrictions experienced by black women at that time.

Quicksand, written in 1928, is an autobiographical novel about Helga Crane, a mixed race woman caught between fulfilling her desires and gaining respectability in her middle class neighbourhood.

Written a year later, Passing tells the story of two childhood friends, Clare and Irene, both light skinned enough to pass as white. Reconnecting in adulthood, Clare has chosen to live as a white woman, while Irene embraces black culture.

Buy your copy | Download the ebook



 

eat up ruby tandoh

EAT UP | RUBY TANDOH

SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER

‘A wonderful read, whatever you eat. Loved this book for helping me rediscover joy in food’ Reni Eddo-Lodge

IEat Up, Ruby Tandoh celebrates the fun and pleasure of food, taking a look at everything from gluttons and gourmets in the movies, to the impact of culture on our diet. She will arm you against the fad diets, food crazes and bad science that can make eating guilt-laden and expensive, drawing eating inspiration from influences from Moonlight, to Rihanna to Gemma from TOWIE. We join Ruby as she learns to make groundnut soup as a way to reconnect with her Ghanain heritage. She shows us how what we eat is who we are, and we can assimilate or differentiate with food, clutch tight to our culture or transgress timeold rules.

Buy your copy | Download the ebook

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chester himesIF HE HOLLERS LET HIM GO | CHESTER HIMES

‘The greatest, most brutally powerful novel of the best black novelist of his generation’ Chicago Tribune

Robert Jones is a crew leader in a naval shipyard in Los Angeles in the 1940s. He should have a lot going for him, being educated, with a steady job and a steady relationship. But in the four days covered in this novel, the impossibility of life as a black man in a white world is made devastatingly clear.

Jones is surrounded by prejudice, suspicion and paranoia, and his daily experiences influence his thoughts, dreams and behaviour. Immediately recognised as a masterful expose of racism in everyday life, If He Hollers Let Him Go is Chester Himes’ first book, originally published in 1945.





 

PAULINE BLACK
BLACK BY DESIGN | PAULINE BLACK

‘Gritty, witty and compelling’ Elle
 
Born in 1953 to Anglo-Jewish/Nigerian parents, Pauline Black was subsequently adopted by a white, working class family in Romford. Never quite at home there, she escaped her small town background and discovered a different way of life – making music.

Lead singer for platinum-selling band The Selecter, Pauline Black was the Queen of British Ska. The only woman in a movement dominated by men, she toured with The Specials, Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners when they were at the top of the charts – and, sometimes, on their worst behaviour.

From childhood to fame, from singing to acting and broadcasting, from adoption to her recent search for her birth parents, Black By Design is a funny and enlightening story of music, race, family and roots.

 
 
Follow @paulineblack on Twitter
 
 


A LESSON BEFORE DYING | ERNEST J GAINESERNEST GAINES

An Oprah Book Club selection
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize

In a small Cajun community in the late 1940s, a young black man named Jefferson witnesses a liquor store shootout in which three men are killed. The only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Gaines explores the deep prejudice of the American South in the tradition of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Toni Morrison’s BelovedA Lesson Before Dying is a richly compassionate and deeply moving novel, the story of a young black man sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit, and a teacher who hopes to ease his burden before the execution.

 Buy your copy | Download the ebook

 


 

lola shoneyin

THE SECRET LIVES OF BABA SEGI’S WIVES | LOLA SHONEYIN

‘A rich debut… an engrossing and beautifully written domestic tale of polygamy and rivalry’ Harpers Bazaar

To the dismay of her ambitious mother, Bolanle marries into a polygamous family, where she is the fourth wife of a rich, rotund patriarch, Baba Segi. She is a graduate and therefore a great prize, but even graduates must produce children and her husband’s persistent bellyache is a sign that things are not as they should be. Bolanle is too educated for the ‘white garment conmen’ Baba Segi would usually go to for fertility advice, so he takes her to hospital to discover the cause of her barrenness.

Weaving the voices of Baba Segi and his four competing wives into a portrait of a clamorous household of twelve, Lola Shoneyin evokes an extraordinary Nigerian family in splashes of vibrant colour.

Buy your copy Download the ebook 

Follow @lolashoneyin on Twitter

 



SELECTED POEMS | LANGSTON HUGHES

langston hughes

For over 40 years, until his death in 1967, Langston Hughes captured in his poetry the lives of black people in the USA. Selected Poems is made up of Hughes’ own choice of his poetry, published first in 1959. It includes all of Hughes’ best known poems including ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, ‘The Weary Blues’, ‘Song for Billie Holiday’, ‘Black Maria’, ‘Magnolia Flowers’, ‘Lunch in a Jim Crow Car’ and ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’. With the advantage of hindsight, it is now easy to see that – for his poems, his jazz lyrics, and his prose – Langston Hughes was one of the great artists of the 20th century.

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there will be no miraclesTHERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE | CASEY GERALD

Casey Gerald’s story begins at the end of the world: on New Year’s Eve 1999, Casey gathers with the congregation of his grandfather’s black evangelical church to witness the rapture. The journey that follows is a beautiful and moving story of a young man learning to question the dreams of success and prosperity that are the foundation of modern America.

Growing up gay in an ordinary black neighbourhood in Dallas, his parents struggling with mental health problems and addiction, Casey finds himself on a remarkable path to a prestigious Ivy League college, to the inner sanctums of power on Wall Street and in Washington DC. But even as he attains everything the American Dream promised him, Casey comes to see that salvation stories like his own are part of the plan to keep others from rising.

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