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Know Your Woke Classics

The 10 books every Black woman should read to fully understand our magnificence.

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collage of books that black women should read
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It’s no secret that we are magical. It’s also no secret that the charms that flow from our fingertips and emanate from our skin feel like a threat to those who can’t possess it. The only way to fully understand and appreciate what lives in you as a Black woman is to situate it within context, both historical and contemporary. Here are the 10 race-conscious books every Black woman should read to fully understand our magnificence in a world that frequently wishes us harm. And, no, it’s not a coincidence that they are all penned by our sisters.

Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism
By bell hooks
Hooks explores how Black women have been oppressed by white and Black men and white women. She goes all the way back to the 17th century to make her case, weaving in personal tales to illustrate how Black women have been left out of conversations about feminism. This work shows why — for us — it’s impossible to separate our race and our gender as we fight for freedom.

By Octavia Butler
I first opened this book in my first week on the campus of Howard University, and it cracked me open in a new way. I’d always held my love for science fiction at arm’s length, unwilling to fully associate myself with fantastical worlds that stubbornly refused to acknowledge my existence the same way my everyday world did. But Kindred, which follows 26-year-old Dana as she is transported back to the days of slavery, centered me in a way I’d never experienced, showing me that there is no space where I don’t belong. Read this even if you think you don’t like sci-fi or historical novels — you’ll love where it takes you.

Sister Outsider
By Audre Lorde
Here, we see why Lorde deserves a spot on every bookshelf. In 15 essays and speeches, she tackles racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and class, breaking down the ways they conspire against us and somehow managing to leave us with hope that we can defeat them, together.

The Color Purple
By Alice Walker
Yes, you can probably already quote the movie, but the book — written in the letters that Celie pens about her life before, with and after Mister — adds even more dimension to the characters we love. Walker’s prose is lyrical, her imagery vivid. You’ll get lost in this world in a new way and leave with a deeper appreciation for the magic of Black sisterhood and its ability to save our lives.

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty
By Dorothy Roberts
Born in a time when the media depicted us a welfare queens giving birth to crack-addicted babies, this book exposed the ways America has traditionally degraded our bodies, from forcing us to breed, to sterilizing us, to threatening our reproductive freedoms.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
By Ntozake Shange
Shange’s name has been on the lips of many this fall, as she recently passed away. Dubbed a choreopoem, this work began as a play where performers danced and recited the poems, which tell the stories of seven Black women as they struggle with sexual assault, racism, growing into women, domestic violence, abortion and heartbreak. It eventually made it to Broadway (only the second for a Black woman, following Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun) and the page, where it uses the vernacular and cadence we use to speak to each other when no one is listening.

We Should All Be Feminists
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
At just 64 pages, this is a slim title, but it uses those pages well, taking on the form of an essay to redefine feminism in a way that is inclusive of our existence and our needs as Black women. There’s a good reason it’s been published in 32 languages — it’s a must-read the world over.

All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies
By Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith
For those looking for an academic primer on Black feminism, this is the seminal text. It collects Black feminist scholarship from the folks who built the field, including Alice Walker and the Combahee River Collective. It’s a bit dense, but you’ll walk away with a solid foundation.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth
By Warsan Shire
You know some of Shire’s words from Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual. Here, her poetry speaks the truth we struggle to speak to ourselves, situating us in landscapes where we are often ignored, then shaking them and showing us just how vulnerable we are, from our feelings to our physical bodies. Her solace, and ours, is that we get to move through this tilted world together as sisters, mothers, daughters, aunties and friends.

When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America
By Paula Giddings
Giddings doesn’t just look at the ways our rights have been transgressed, she looks beyond them, to highlight Black women doing the hard work of winning rights and dignity for us all.