Amidst the weeks of worldwide protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, we’ve been reflecting on the fiction from recent years that speaks to the ongoing legacy of racism in the United States.
The books highlighted here—featuring quotes from Publishers Weekly reviews—employ a variety of forms to unequivocally confront slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racial bias in the workplace, wrongful conviction and imprisonment, police brutality, and the anger felt by people living under racist oppression, from literary novels and short story collections to mysteries, speculative fiction, and satire.
American Histories by John Edgar Wideman
“Each story feels new, challenging, and exhilarating, beguilingly combining American history with personal history,” as Wideman rhetorically asks the U.S. President if we “need another Harper’s Ferry” to address the country’s persistent slavery.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
“Jones lays bare the devastating effects of wrongful imprisonment” of black men in the U.S. “to explore simmering class tensions and reverberating racial injustice in the contemporary South.”
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Wilkinson “combines the espionage novels of John le Carré with the racial complexity of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man” in a story about “a black woman stultified by institutional prejudice.”
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
A Texas Ranger investigates the murder of a black lawyer from Chicago and a white woman while he “struggles for justice in this tale of racism [and] hatred.”
Charcoal Joe: An Easy Rollins Mystery by Walter Mosley
“As always in this series, racism in all its insidious forms is central. As Easy observes, ‘Life was like a bruise for us [black men] back then, and today too.’”
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
Hannaham delves into modern slavery, highlighting “the realities of racial injustice, human trafficking, drug abuse, and exploitation.”
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin follows up her essay critiquing the racist worldbuilding of many white fantasy writers with this collection of Afrofuturist tales, in which “themes of defiance, feminism, and self-acceptance shine through no matter what the setting or premise.”
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
“Inspired by horrific events that transpired at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.”
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
“As a teenager in New York, Kev is brutally assaulted by police and arrested for no crime but being black; he spends the next eight years incarcerated” in Onyebuchi’s tale of “political speculative fiction.”
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Beatty draws on the heritage of satire as protest in this “wildly funny but deadly serious” rant from a protagonist who’s mad as hell about racial oppression, and whose “damning social critique carries the day.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
“When Jojo’s and Kayla’s father is released from prison, Leonie takes the kids with her, hoping for a loving reunion, but what she gets instead is a harrowing drive across a muggy landscape haunted by hatred.”
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
“Reid excels at depicting subtle variations and manifestations of self-doubt, and astutely illustrates how, when coupled with unrecognized white privilege, this emotional and professional insecurity can result in unintended—as well as willfully unseen—consequences.”
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
“Bennett explores a Louisiana family’s navigation of race, from the Jim Crow era through the 1980s, in this impressive work.”
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Hiram yearns for a life beyond ‘the unending night of slavery.’ But when his plans to escape with Sophia, the woman he loves, are dashed by betrayal and violence, Hiram is inducted into the Underground, the secret network of agents working to liberate slaves.”
The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott
Scott imagines an alternate history around the contemporary site of a successful slave revolt, surrounded by “the more hostile ground of the once-segregated towns.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.