50 Must-Read Classic Memoirs by Writers of Color

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Rebecca Hussey

Staff Writer

Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

Love memoirs? Want to read some older ones that can give you a glimpse into another time and place? Here’s the list you need: 50 classic memoirs by writers of color. Why writers of color in particular? Because so often the stories we hear and the lives deemed important enough to read about have been white. If we want to understand the full sweep of history and understand humanity in its fullness, we need to make a point of reading the stories of all kinds of people. I’m hoping this list can be a good starting place if you want to read more widely.

50 Must-Read Classic Memoirs by Writers of Color

I may be stretching the definition of “classic” just a bit—this list begins in the 11th century and goes up to 1996. I began this post by compiling a list of great memoirs from any time period, but then my list got so long and unwieldy, I thought I could divide it into two. If all goes as planned, you may see a list of contemporary memoirs by writers of color from the last 20 years at some point in the future. But for now, check out the titles below and see what you think!

The book descriptions for these classic memoirs by writers of color come from Goodreads.

Pillow Book coverThe Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, Translated by Meredith McKinney

“Written by the court gentlewoman Sei Shonagon, ostensibly for her own amusement, The Pillow Book offers a fascinating exploration of life among the nobility at the height of the Heian period.” (early 11th century)

The Diary of Lady Murasaki by Murasaki Shikibu, Translated by Richard Bowring

Told in a series of vignettes, [the diary] offers revealing glimpses of the Japanese imperial palace, the auspicious birth of a prince, rivalries between the Emperor’s consorts, with sharp criticism of Murasaki’s fellow ladies-in-waiting and drunken courtiers, and telling remarks about the timid Empress and her powerful father, Michinaga.” (1010)

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams by Lady Sarashina, Translated by Ivan Morris

A autobiography in which the anonymous writer intersperses personal reflections, anecdotes and lyrical poems with accounts of her travels and descriptions of the Japanese countryside. She illuminates her pilgrimages to temples and mystical dreams in exquisite prose, describing a journey that can be read as a metaphor for life itself.” (1050)

The Confessions of Lady Nijō by Lady Nijō, Translated by Karen Brazell

In about 1307 a remarkable woman in Japan sat down to complete the story of her life. The result was an autobiographical narrative, a tale of thirty-six years (1271–1306) in the life of Lady Nijo, starting when she became the concubine of a retired emperor in Kyoto at the age of fourteen and ending, several love affairs later, with an account of her new life as a wandering Buddhist nun.” (1307)

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Written by Himself by Olaudah Equiano

An exciting and often terrifying adventure story, and a precursor to the famous nineteenth-century slave narratives, Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative recounts his kidnapping in Africa aged ten, his service as a slave of an officer in the British Navy for ten years, and his life after he bought his freedom in 1766.” (1789)

cover of narrative of the life of frederick douglassNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Douglass’s shocking narrative takes the reader into the world of the South’s antebellum plantations and reveals the daily terrors he suffered as a slave, shedding invaluable light on one of the most unjust periods in the history of America.” (1845)

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth

This remarkable narrative…offers a rare glimpse into the little-documented world of Northern slavery. Truth recounts her life as a slave in rural New York, her separation from her family, her religious conversion, and her life as a traveling preacher during the 1840s. She also describes her work as a social reformer, counselor of former slaves, and sponsor of a black migration to the West.” (1850)

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

“[Twelve Years a Slave] is a slave narrative of a black man who was born free in New York state but kidnapped in Washington, D.C., sold into slavery, and kept in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana.” (1853)

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains among the few extant slave narratives written by a woman. This autobiographical account chronicles the remarkable odyssey of Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) whose dauntless spirit and faith carried her from a life of servitude and degradation in North Carolina to liberty and reunion with her children in the North.” (1861)

Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

Part slave narrative, part memoir, and part sentimental fiction Behind the Scenes depicts Elizabeth Keckley’s years as a slave and subsequent four years in Abraham Lincoln’s White House during the Civil War. Through the eyes of this black woman, we see a wide range of historical figures and events of the antebellum South.” (1868)

Life Among the Piutes coverLife Among the Piutes: Their wrongs and Claims by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins

This autobiographical work was written by one of the country’s most well-known Native American women, Sarah Winnemucca. She was a Paiute princess and a major figure in the history of Nevada; her tribe still resides primarily in the state. Life Among the Piutes deals with Winnemucca’s life and the plight of the Paiute Indians.” (1883)

Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Liliuokalani

Published shortly after these momentous events, her book Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen is an incredibly personal history of the islands that she was born to rule. Liliuokalani covers from her birth in 1838 through the reigns of her forebears to her own turbulent time as Queen of the Hawaiian Islands.” (1898)

Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington

Washington reveals his inner most thoughts as he transitions from ex-slave to teacher and founder of one of the most important schools for African Americans in the south, The Tuskegee Industrial Institute.” (1900)

The Big Sea by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, born in 1902, came of age early in the 1920s. In The Big Sea he recounts those memorable years in the two great playgrounds of the decade—Harlem and Paris.” (1940)

Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston

Dust Tracks on a Road is Zora Neale Hurston’s candid, funny, bold and poignant autobiography, an imaginative and exuberant account of her rise from childhood poverty in the rural South to a prominent place among the leading artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance.” (1942)

Black Boy Richard Wright coverBlack Boy by Richard Wright

An enduring story of one young man’s coming of age during a particular time and place, Black Boy remains a seminal text in our history about what it means to be a man, black, and Southern in America.” (1945)

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri

Describing his childhood in the Bengali countryside and his youth in Calcutta—and telling the story of modern India from his own fiercely independent viewpoint—Chaudhuri fashions a book of deep conviction, charm, and intimacy that is also a masterpiece of the writer’s art.” (1951)

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era.” (1955)

The autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, As Told to Alex Haley

Through a life of passion and struggle, Malcolm X became one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century. In this riveting account, he tells of his journey from a prison cell to Mecca, describing his transition from hoodlum to Muslim minister.” (1965)

Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown

During his first year at Howard University, Claude Brown wrote an article for the magazine Dissent about growing up in Harlem. The piece attracted the attention of a publisher, who encouraged him to write his autobiography. The result, Manchild in the Promised Land, traces Claude Brown’s own transformation from a hardened, streetwise young criminal to a successful, self-made man.” (1965)

I-Know-Why-the-Caged-Bird-Sings-Maya-AngelouI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime.” (1969)

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells by Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) was one of the foremost crusaders against black oppression. This engaging memoir tells of her private life as mother of a growing family as well as her public activities as teacher, lecturer, and journalist in her fight against attitudes and laws oppressing blacks.” (1970)

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Farewell to Manzanar is the true story of one spirited Japanese-American family’s attempt to survive the indignities of forced detention—and of a native-born American child who discovered what it was like to grow up behind barbed wire in the United States.” (1972)

Half-Breed by Maria Campbell

Maria Campbell’s biography is a classic, vital account of a young Métis woman’s struggle to come to terms with the joys, sorrows, loves and tragedies of her northern Saskatchewan childhood.” (1973)

The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years by Chester Himes

In The Quality of Hurt, Chester Himes writes of black ghetto life and of his personal struggle with repressive American ways. The pain of his rejection of and by America is tempered by his own vitality and humor as an artist, making this important work not only a look at Chester Himes, but a sharp and often painful look at America itself.” (1973)

Angela Davis An Autobiography coverAngela Davis: An Autobiography by Angela Y. Davis

Her own powerful story to 1972, told with warmth, brilliance, humor & conviction. The author, a political activist, reflects upon the people & incidents that have influenced her life & commitment to global liberation of the oppressed.” (1974)

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

A Chinese American woman tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity. It is a sensitive account of growing up female and Chinese-American in a California laundry.” (1975)

Nisei Daughter by Monica itoi Sone

With charm, humor, and deep understanding, a Japanese-American woman tells how it was to grow up on Seattle’s waterfront in the 1930s and to be subjected to ‘relocation’ during World War II.” (1979)

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie, Translated by James Kirkup

Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in Togo when he discovered a book about Greenland—and knew that he must go there. Working his way north over nearly a decade, Kpomassie finally arrived in the country of his dreams.” (1981)

Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriquez

Hunger of Memory is the story of Mexican-American Richard Rodriguez, who begins his schooling in Sacramento, California, knowing just 50 words of English, and concludes his university studies in the stately quiet of the reading room of the British Museum.” (1981)

unning-in-the-family-coverRunning in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

In the late 1970s Ondaatje returned to his native island of Sri Lanka. As he records his journey through the drug-like heat and intoxicating fragrances of that ‘pendant off the ear of India,’ Ondaatje simultaneously retraces the baroque mythology of his Dutch-Ceylonese family.” (1982)

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

From the author’s vivid childhood memories in Harlem to her coming of age in the late 1950s, the nature of Audre Lorde’s work is cyclical. It especially relates the linkage of women who have shaped her…Lorde brings into play her craft of lush description and characterization.” (1982)

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King Jr., Edited by Clayborne Carson

Using Stanford University’s voluminous collection of archival material, including previously unpublished writings, interviews, recordings, and correspondence, King scholar Clayborne Carson has constructed a remarkable first-person account of Dr. King’s extraordinary life.” (1986)

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

With wit and candor, Assata Shakur recounts the experiences that led her to a life of activism and portrays the strengths, weaknesses, and eventual demise of Black and White revolutionary groups at the hand of government officials.” (1987)

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Anzaldua, a Chicana native of Texas, explores in prose and poetry the murky, precarious existence of those living on the frontier between cultures and languages. Writing in a lyrical mixture of Spanish and English that is her unique heritage, she meditates on the condition of Chicanos in Anglo culture, women in Hispanic culture, and lesbians in the straight world.” (1987)

The Motion of Light In Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village by Samuel R. Delany

Delany calls up this era of exploration and adventure as he details his development as a black gay writer in an open marriage, with tertiary walk-ons by Bob Dylan, Stokely Carmichael, W. H. Auden, and James Baldwin, and a panoply of brilliantly drawn secondary characters.” (1988)

Kincaid Small Place cover A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay candidly appraises the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up, and makes palpable the impact of European colonization and tourism. The book is a missive to the traveler, whether American or European, who wants to escape the banality and corruption of some large place.” (1988)

Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet by Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray (1910–1985)is regarded as one of the least discussed figures in the history of twentieth-century African American women’s activism. She was a highly regarded Feminist, who called attention to the plight of women, especially the colored and working poor.” (1989)

Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog

Lakota Woman was a national best seller and winner of the American Book Award. It is a unique document, unparalleled in American Indian literature, a story of death, of determination against all odds, of the cruelties perpetuated against American Indians, and of the Native American struggle for rights.” (1990)

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

An engrossing record of Mao’s impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of her family members” (1991)

Daughter of Persia coverDaughter of Persia by Sattareh Farman Farmaian

The fifteenth of thirty-six children, Sattareh Farman Farmaian was born in Iran in 1921 to a wealthy and powerful shazdeh, or prince, and spent a happy childhood in her father’s Tehran harem. Inspired and empowered by his ardent belief in education, she defied tradition by traveling alone at the age of twenty-three to the United States to study at the University of Southern California. Ten years later, she returned to Tehran and founded the first school of social work in Iran.” (1992)

Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter by Janet Campbell Hale

These autobiographical essays by a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe interweave personal experiences with striking portraits of relatives, both living and dead, to form a rich tapestry of history, storytelling, and remembrance.” (1993)

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Sarah L. Delany, A. Elizabeth Delany, and Amy Hill Hearth

Sadie and Bessie Delany have seen it all. They saw their father, who was born into slavery, become America’s first black Episcopal bishop. They saw their mother—a woman of mixed racial parentage who was born free—give birth to ten children…They saw the post-Reconstruction South, the Jim Crow laws, Harlem’s Golden Age, and the Civil Rights movement—and, in their own feisty, wise, inimitable way, they’ve got a lot to say about it.” (1993)

When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

In this first volume of her much-praised, bestselling trilogy, Santiago brilliantly recreates the idyllic landscape and tumultuous family life of her earliest years and her tremendous journey from the barrio to Brooklyn, from translating for her mother at the welfare office to high honors at Harvard.” (1993)

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth year by Louise Erdrich

The Blue Jay’s Dance brilliantly and poignantly examines the joys and frustrations, the compromises and insights, and the difficult struggles and profound emotional satisfactions the acclaimed author experienced in the course of one twelve-month period—from a winter pregnancy through a spring and summer of new motherhood to her return to writing in the fall.” (1995)

Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama

Dreams from My Father tells the story of Obama’s struggle to understand the forces that shaped him as the son of a black African father and white American mother—a struggle that takes him from the American heartland to the ancestral home of his great-aunt in the tiny African village of Alego.” (1995)

Bone Black bell hooks coverBone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks

Stitching together girlhood memories with the finest threads of innocence, feminist intellectual bell hooks presents a powerfully intimate account of growing up in the South. A memoir of ideas and perceptions, Bone Black shows the unfolding of female creativity and one strong-spirited child’s journey toward becoming a writer.” (1996)

Bound Feet & western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

“‘In China, a woman is nothing.’ Thus begins the saga of a woman born at the turn of the century to a well-to-do, highly respected Chinese family, a woman who continually defied the expectations of her family and the traditions of her culture.” (1996)

The Color of Water by James McBride

In The Color of Water, McBride retraces his mother’s footsteps and, through her searing and spirited voice, recreates her remarkable story. The Color of Water touches readers of all colors as a vivid portrait of growing up, a haunting meditation on race and identity, and a lyrical valentine to a mother from her son.” (1996)

The Women by Hilton Als

Daring and fiercely original, The Women is at once a memoir, a psychological study, a sociopolitical manifesto, and an incisive adventure in literary criticism. It is conceived as a series of portraits analyzing the role that sexual and racial identity played in the lives and work of the writer’s subjects.” (1996)

Want to read more about memoirs? Check out 100 Must-Read Memoirs, 100 Must-Read Biographies and Memoirs of Remarkable Women, and find even more memoir content here.