12 Black Writers and Poets You Must Read This Year

It doesn’t make sense that Black History Month is squished into the shortest month of the year. In a world where our history is, too often, one-dimensional, Black History Month is crucial to the health of our society. It brings to light the movements and achievements of incredible people without whom our world would lack so much of its beauty, its nuance, and its brilliance. 

One month simply isn’t enough time to listen to all the voices, past and present, that we need to hear. 

Today, I’d like to share 12 black contemporary writers—one for each month of the year. That’s intentional. These are people with vast collections of poetry and prose that will fill 30 days and then some. It’s just a start, but it’s my hope that their work will spark a passion that lasts for your entire lifetime. 

I won’t waste too much of your time explaining. I’ll let their words do the talking.

1. Warsan Shire

“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

Excerpt from “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon

2. Erica Dawson

“I saw
a gullet so voracious it could fit
a demonym and all the gist of where
a woman lost too much of her to bare.”

Excerpt from “Fallacious

3. Roxane Gay

“Pink is my favorite color. I used to say my favorite color was black to be cool, but it is pink—all shades of pink. If I have an accessory, it is probably pink. I read Vogue, and I’m not doing it ironically though it might seem that way. I once live-tweeted the September issue. I demonstrate little outward evidence of this, but I have a very indulgent fantasy where I have a closet full of pretty shoes and purses and matching outfits. I love dresses. For years I pretended I hated them, but I don’t. Maxi-dresses are one of the finest clothing items to become popular in recent memory. I have opinions on Maxi-dresses! I shave my legs! Again, this mortifies me.”

Excerpt from “Bad Feminist

4. Marlon James

“But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now.” 

Excerpt from A Brief History of Seven Killings

5. Zadie Smith

“If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.” 

Excerpt from White Teeth

6. Toni Morrison

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”

Excerpt from Beloved

7. Rita Dove

“The windows you have closed behind
you are turning pink, doing what they do
every dawn. Here it's gray. The door
to the taxicab waits. This suitcase, 
the saddest object in the world.”

Excerpt from “Exit

8. Claudia Rankine

“White is living its brick-and-mortar loss, 
staving off more loss, exhaustion, aggrieved
exposure, a pale heart even as in daylight
white hardens its features. Eyes, which hold all
the light, harden. Jaws, which close down on nothing, 
harden. Hands, which assembled, and packaged, 
and built, harden into a fury that cannot call...”

Excerpt from “Sound & Fury

9. Thomas Sayers Ellis

“The strings attached
   To our thangs were
     Reeled into The Deep
       And rhythmic as fins,
     Schools of P signs
       Flapped and waved
     Like flags.
       One nation
     Under a groove.
       No one held their breath
 In the flashlit depth.”

Excerpt from “A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop

10. Saeed Jones

“Take your hand out
from under my pillow, please.
And take your sheets too.
Drag them under. Make pretend ghosts.”

Excerpt from “Sleeping Arrangement

11. Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

“I say moist / and do not first think about two naked bodies / the sound their skin might make / when they awkwardly press into each other / underneath a hungry sun / in an apartment with a broken air conditioner / I say moist / and first think of / the eager and swallowing mud…”

Excerpt from “In Defense of ‘Moist

12. Tracy K. Smith

“For kicks, we'll dance for ourselves
    Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.

    The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
    But the word sun will have been re-assigned

    To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
    Found in households and nursing homes.

   And yes, we'll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged…”

Excerpt from “Sci-Fi