It’s true that teachers don’t need a special time to celebrate the accomplishments that writers of color have made. However, Black History Month provides an ideal timeline to start and finish a project, and there’s no weeks-long classroom activity quite like reading and discussing a novel to create a lasting, positive impact.
Black novelists have penned some of the most timeless, honest, relevant, and crucial pieces of literature. While their narratives most often tackle sensitive subject matter that may be tricky to navigate, these authors deserve to have their voices amplified in the classroom. But which Black novelist should you teach?
NOTE: Each result includes a teaching resource to help you communicate the novel’s meaning and explain its relevance in contemporary society.
When should the novel take place?
What social issues do you want your students to learn about?
The ideal novel should…
What concept would you most like your students to grasp?
Critics should describe the author as…
Zadie Smith writes novels, essays, and short stories. While she doesn’t shy away from the struggles that people of color face in modern society, human suffering is not the sole impetus for her books. In this way, she ensures that we never treat the BIPOC community as a monolith.
Our favorite novel: On Beauty
Featuring an array of characters dealing with a plethora of conflicts, Zadie Smith’s hilarious and poignant On Beauty uses a family narrative to unravel the complexities of being alive and in the company of others. Dealing with issues of class, division, and authenticity, teachers can use this novel to teach their students about perspective and how, for good or ill, a person’s experiences may shape their behavior.
Teacher’s Guide to On Beauty
Often described as one of the finest writers of the 20th century, James Baldwin penned novels, plays, and essays that gave the civil rights movement a louder and more impactful voice. A person of color and openly gay during an unwelcoming time in our history, this author embodies what it means to create brave art.
Our favorite novel: If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story about perseverance; however, that tenacity doesn’t happen in the interest of keeping the spark of a relationship alive. The novel focuses on two young lovers experiencing an injustice that seeks to fracture a family. Navigating issues of poverty, racism, institutional corruption, and false imprisonment, teachers can use this novel to hold a mirror up to today’s systemic inequities.
Teacher’s Guide to If Beale Street Could Talk (Discussion Questions)
Winner of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” Colson Whitehead’s fiction gives a platform to those who might otherwise see their voices silenced.
Our favorite novel: The Underground Railroad
The characters in The Underground Railroad face an impossible choice: Is it worth losing what few comforts they have in order to escape the tyranny of chattel slavery? It’s a question of gaining freedom versus the almost certain loss of life. In teaching this novel, you will uncover the vicious ripple effect of institutionalized oppression, commodification, and dehumanization. While Whitehead employs fictional elements, the author shows readers historical realities that reveal additional layers of humanity and create a call for social change in the present.
Teacher’s Guide to The Underground Railroad
Alice Walker is a Renaissance woman of American letters, working as a novelist, poet, and short story writer who keeps her literary lens focused on the dire need for social change. She has won the Pulitzer Prize.
Our favorite novel: The Color Purple
An epistolatory novel, The Color Purple navigates the tumultuous life of Celie, a pregnant teenager residing in rural Georgia. This book is brutal in its candor, dealing with issues of racism, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, child abuse, spousal battery, and gender inequality. As a book that sees consistent challenges (banning) in classrooms, teachers can use this book to discuss what gives rise to censorship in literature.
Teacher’s Guide to The Color Purple
With decorations that include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Nobel Prize, Toni Morrison embodies what it means to write literature that calls for sweepingly transformational change.
Our favorite novel: Beloved
Beloved tells the sadly true story of an escaped slave who makes terrible sacrifices to spare her children from a life in chains. A book that tackles issues surrounding dehumanization, slave labor economies, and the tough emotions inherent in parenthood, teachers can use this novel to paint an accurate portrait of the past that reveals why it’s so crucial for our society to never let these events happen again. Inequality creates the harshest consequences — we’d be foolish to ignore that fact.
Teacher’s Guide to Beloved
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