Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer
Culturally Relevant

12 of the Best Books by Black Authors That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Laura Sackton

Senior Contributor

Laura Sackton is a queer book nerd and freelance writer, known on the internet for loving winter, despising summer, and going overboard with extravagant baking projects. In addition to her work at Book Riot, she reviews for BookPage and AudioFile, and writes a weekly newsletter, Books & Bakes, celebrating queer lit and tasty treats. You can catch her on Instagram shouting about the queer books she loves and sharing photos of the walks she takes in the hills of Western Mass (while listening to audiobooks, of course).

In the small corner of the queer bookish internet I inhabit, I am known for championing little-known and under-the-radar books. This is a reputation I’ve cultivated, and one I’m proud of. There is nothing that makes me happier than getting unknown queer books into the hands of the readers who need them. I wish it did not have to be this way. I wish there weren’t so many incredible books by LGBTQ+ and BIPOC authors that get little to no attention in the book world. But the truth is that there are hundreds — probably thousands — of books by Black authors (and disabled authors, trans authors, etc.) that you probably haven’t heard of because they still don’t get the marketing budgets and publicity campaigns and big publisher support that white authors do.

That’s not to say there aren’t lots of wildly popular, buzzy, and bestselling books by Black authors out there. Of course there are! But those books do not tell the whole story. There are so many more worthy books by Black authors out there, many of them published by amazing indie presses, books that are funny and smart and beautifully written, books with characters that will stay with you forever, books in every genre.

So here are 12 of my favorite books by Black authors with fewer than 1,000 ratings on Goodreads (though most of them have less than 500 ratings). While some of these are older books, many of them are new within the last few years. So have at it — I guarantee you’ll discover something to love!

Nonfiction and Poetry

Cover of Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan

Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan

In this book-length essay, Sloan writes about being Black and queer during a long summer in Homer, Alaska. But her own experiences are just the jumping-off point for a robust and agile exploration of photography, nature writing, art, and wilderness — and the messy, often fraught places these ideas intersect with race, gender, and history.

Cover of We Are Each Other's Harvest

We Are Each Other’s Harvest by Natalie Baszile

This isn’t only an under-the-radar book, it’s one that covers a topic that should be getting much more mainstream attention: the long, complicated history of Black farmers in the U.S., the central role they’ve played in agricultural industries, and the challenges they face today. Author Natalie Baszile has curated an incredible collection of interviews, poetry, essays, recipes, oral histories, and excerpts of longer works, all of which celebrate Black farmers past and present.

Cover of This Is Major

This Is Major by Shayla Lawson

If you enjoy smart, sharp, humorous essay collections in the vein of Samantha Irby, you should probably read this book stat. Lawson dissects pop culture, explains what it’s like online dating as a Black woman, delves into the power of Black music, and reflects on friendship, internet culture, and microagressions. Throughout, she is extremely funny, intellectually curious, nuanced in her analysis, and generally engaging.

Cover of What Noise Against the Cane

What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree C. Bailey

This stunning collection moves from the Haitian revolution to contemporary Black life in America. Bailey writes with incredible precision and endlessly surprising imagery about diaspora, lineage, Caribbean history, the legacies of racism, journeying, nationhood, and so much more.

Fiction

Cover of Seasons in Hippoland

Seasons in Hippoland by Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ

This quiet novel snuck into my heart and there it remains. Set in an unnamed African country, it follows a young woman, Mumbi, and her slow awakening to the world around her. Over the course of the many summers she spends living with her aunt in the country, listening to her aunt’s stories, Mumbi begins to realize just how powerful stories are — and decides to use them to change her own life. It reads like a fable, but one with singular, vivid characters.

sea swallow me book cover

Sea, Swallow Me by Craig Laurance Gidney

Fans of Weird Queer: take note of this under-the-radar gem from 2008! These stories are a deliciously eerie blend of reality and magic. They feature characters, mostly Black and queer, in situations that at first seem ordinary but turn out to be anything but. They take place in various time periods and incorporate elements of magic, horror, and folklore.

cover of Nobody's Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong

Nobody’s Magic by Destiny O. Birdsong

This triptych novel is about three Black women with albinism and the various unexpected ways their lives intersect. It’s set in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the setting is as vivid as the characters. If you enjoy character-driven stories, and books that play with structure in interesting ways, this one is for you. The three stories don’t come together in the ways you might expect — instead, Birdsong uses the space between the three sections to explore Black womanhood in all its infinite variations.

Cover of God's Children are Little Broken Things

God’s Children are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu

This was one of my favorite books from 2022, and I am still outraged that more people haven’t read it. It’s not often that I read a story collection in which I love every single story, but there are no misses here. The stories focus on the everyday lives of queer men in Nigeria, and Ifeakandu writes about both queer suffering and queer joy with incredible nuance and tenderness. He’s especially brilliant at capturing small moments of domesticity — there are dozens of scenes in these stories I won’t soon forget.

In the Company of Men book cover

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo, Translated by John Cullen 

If you’re not ready for pandemic books, hold off on this one, but if you are, this is a moving and insightful book about the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. It’s structured as a series of short pieces, each told from a different POV: doctors and nurses, orphaned children, people who are sick and their loved ones, an ancient tree, a bat, the virus itself. The result is a book that feels both intimate and symphonic. It’s often heartbreaking, but it also highlights the possibilities of community care.

Book Cover for The House of Rush, white wave patterns on a light yellow background with an orange shark shape at the top of the cover, a long blue leviathan shape at the bottom, and a man wearing a tall wizard hat in the middle.

The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

This lyrical debut by Kenyan writer Khadija Abdalla Bajaber won the Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize in 2021. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl who goes searching for her missing fisherman father, and the ways the journey changes her — and helps her see herself more clearly. It’s part fable, part magical adventure, and part family drama.


Looking for more brilliant under-the-radar books? We’ve got you covered! Check out our ongoing The Best Books You’ve Never Heard Of series for dozens and dozens of Rioter favorites that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.