The explosion of diversity in science fiction and fantasy writers since 2010 feels like a relatively recent (and long overdue) phenomenon. But Black authors have been penning novels since pre-Civil War times, and like their white counterparts, they began to use their imaginations to create a future where things were better or at least ones where bigotry wouldn’t hold them back.
Afrofuturism wasn’t coined as a term until the early 1990s. (It is credited to a white author, Mark Dery, in an essay titled “Black to the Future,” in which he discussed how cyberculture was loosening the hold white gatekeepers had on our imaginations.) However, Black writers have been imagining a world where the black diaspora reclaimed their forgotten ancestry since 1859 with Martin Delany’s Blake; or the Huts of America, a serial that he never got to finish. But other writers have been following in the realms of speculative fiction, alternate histories, and science fiction and fantasy ever since.
I’ve suggested works by Black authors in previously published lists, from Jesse Kimbrough’s Defender of the Angels to Namina Forna’s Deathless series. Here are ten other novels from the genre written by Black authors that everyone should read.
Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted by Frances E. W. Harper (1892)
Considered the foremother of Black fantasy and science fiction, the free-born Frances Harper spent her life as an outspoken abolitionist and poet. But it wasn’t until she was 67 that she wrote Iola Leroy, which was among the earliest published fantasy novels in America by Black authors. On the surface, the book follows the sentimental conventions expected by women writers of the era. However, Harper used Leroy’s story to champion women’s education, abolition, and temperance, as well as dive into the issues of white-passing, miscegenation laws, and the failure of reconstruction.
A fascinating what could have been in the post-Civil War world had the United States worked to be more of a racially diverse utopia, Leroy is a story about reuniting families and finding a home in a country that long denied them.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
The 2016 novel upon which Barry Jenkins’ miniseries of the same name
was based, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
is an alternate history novel set in the 1850s. The story follows Cora, a runaway slave who finds her way to the Underground Railroad only to discover the rumored network of clandestine routes and safe houses is an actual train line. Upon arriving in the North, she also finds a tranquil world where people of all colors live in harmony, a paradise eventually destroyed by angry southerners, forcing her back on the run.
The Underground Railroad was not just a best-seller but also a critical hit, winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence.
The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois (1920)
W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a lifelong advocate of integration and anti-war activist. Though most people know him for his non-fiction, his interwar-era short story The Comet is a must-read for fans of early post-apocalyptic fiction. Dui Bois’ The Comet begins after one smashes into NYC, unleashing toxic gasses and devastating the city. The only two survivors seem to be a working-class Black man and a wealthy white woman, who band together for survival.
The Comet is one of those stories with a twist ending that puts the two protagonists on either side of an invisible divide, questioning if their growing love and respect for each other can survive. Though the conclusion is ambiguous, Du Bois leaves it open to believing in happy endings.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2015)
I’ve recommended Nnedi Okorafor’s works before, and most readers have likely heard of her breakout novel Who Fears Death? However, it is her 2015 novella, Binti, that wound up spawning an entire series.
The titular Binti is the first member of the Himba people accepted into the intergalactic Ivy League-like university Oomza Uni, but a hijacking by the jellyfish-like aliens, the Meduse, threatens her arrival. Lucky for her, it turns out she has more to offer than just being a hostage, and before long, she’s already begun her career as a diplomat by brokering a tentative truce.
Binti took home the 2016 Hugo Award and 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novella. There are three sequels, Binti: Home, Binti: Sacred Fire, and Binti: The Night Masquerade. The entire series is currently in development at Hulu.
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1974)
Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 put him on the map when it tied with Flowers for Algernon for the 1967 Nebula award. But Dhalgren, published in 1974, takes the edge of science fiction and practically goes avant-garde with his novel about the lost city of Bellona, narrated from the perspective of the very unreliable narrator only known as “The Kid,” who cannot remember his own name, let alone how he got here or what tragedy befell him.
Parts of Dhalgren are repeated verbatim as he reads passages of his own story or lives through things he has already read, and the ending calls into question everything the reader has thought from the beginning. The cyclical nature of Dhalgren is one of those endings that live rent-free in your head for years after.
How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin (2018)
N.K. Jemisin has yet to top her masterwork, The Broken Earth Trilogy, but her short story collection, How Long ‘til Black Future Month? released in the wake of the series’ final novel, is worth reading for many reasons. The 22 short stories, which Jemisin wrote between 2004 and 2017, contain the original short story that developed into The Broken Earth’s first novel, as well as the short story that inspired her latest series, The City We Became.
But it’s the stuff that Jemisin wrote that didn’t turn into a long-form story that will stay with you. From her earliest Groundhog Day-like piece, “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows,” to the Hurricane Katrina-related ghost story “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters,” there’s something in this collection for everyone.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (1993)
Octavia Butler is probably best known for Lilith’s Brood, released initially as Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. But her other series everyone should read is her post-apocalyptic Parable duology, which leads off with 1993’s Parable of the Sower, and was followed by Parable of the Talents five years later in 1998.
The plot might feel too close to home, as the first novel starts in 2024, as America begins to collapse due to climate change, growing wealth inequality, and corporate greed told from the perspective of the hyper-empathetic Lauren Oya, who goes on to found the Earthseed religion. Butler meant for the Parable series to go on for much longer, starting Parable of the Trickster, with plans for Parable of the Teacher, Parable of Chaos, and Parable of Clay. Sadly, she passed away before finishing Trickster, and the rest of her novels remain as outlines among her private papers.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (2017)
Unlike the other novels on this list, The Deep began life as a freestyled rap by the hip-hop group clipping., featuring Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes. The story’s protagonist, Yetu, is a “wajinru,” a historian mermaid. As one of the children of enslaved African women thrown overboard who magically took the form of half-fish and created an underwater utopian society, it is her job to keep the painful memories of her people alive to that the world never forgets.
This American Life originally commissioned The Deep for the 2017 Afrofuturism-themed episode “We Are In The Future; However, the song was such a hit the group commissioned trans author Rivers Solomon to expand it into prose, resulting in the 2018 novella.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
Not to be confused with the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man, is a black existentialist comedy of the absurd. The unnamed Black protagonist describes growing up in an America where Black students are forced to participate in a Gladiator-style competition to entertain the rich white populace to qualify for scholarships. He can disguise himself by making himself more acceptable to white people, and where Black nationalists ride through Harlem on horseback, armed with a spear and shield.
Everything about Invisible Man tracks with the Black experience of living in America just dialed up to 11. The novel won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction, the first time a Black author had won the prize.
Black Panther: World of Wakanda by Roxane Gay (2017)
Not every great novel is made up of black-and-white words on the page. One of the best works by New York Times bestselling author Roxane Gay is her collaboration with poet Yona Harvey on Marvel Comics’ World of Wakanda, a six-issue spin-off of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther run that was released as a prequel ahead of the 2018 feature film to help expand and flesh out T’Challa’s world. The LGBTQ-centric story follows Ayo and Aneka, two ex-members of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s female security force.
Though the story may not sound as highbrow as some on this list, it’s an example of how communal storytelling works in our modern culture and how tales we already know can become very different when retold through other eyes. It’s the most crucial lesson anyone picking up a book from this list can learn for Black History Month.
Ani Bundel is an Associate Editor at PBS/WETA’s Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles. A self-taught journalist from the school of hard knocks, Ani came up blogging in the fast-turn-around era. Ani’s other regular bylines can be found on NBC News THINK.