The pendulum is swinging, folks. Every week, we see more diversity in new releases, books by black authors hitting the best-seller lists, and untold stories make their way into the world. But we’re not all the way there, yet: the vast majority of these works present a dark view of contemporary black life, with the most tragic and traumatic consequences of racism and oppression at the fore. That’s why I was particularly taken with this Vogue UK piece by Chanté Joseph about the importance of amplifying black joy.

“Amplifying black joy is not about dismissing or creating an ‘alternative’ black narrative that ignores the realities of our collective pain; rather, it is about holding the pain and injustices we experience as black folks around the world in tension with the joy we experience in pain’s midst,” writer Kleaver Cruz (founder of The Black Joy Project) told Joseph. “It’s about using that joy as an entry into understanding the oppressive forces we navigate through as a means to imagine and create a world free of them.”

In that spirit, here are nine fabulous black books to read, ones that tackle the hard stuff with heart, humour, and joy.

9 Fabulous Black Books To Read - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist - Roxane Gay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you follow Roxane Gay on Twitter, you probably already love her as much as I do. She’s forthright, unabashed, and amplifies the best and worst of the little voices inside our heads. Bad Feminist is a selection of her essays, all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly. She blends pop culture and academia to make her points, just as comfortable citing professors and academic papers as she is pop stars and Law & Order: SVU. You’ll definitely laugh out loud and find something relatable – whatever your colour or background – in this gratifying collection. Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Becoming is Michelle Obama’s account of her life up to and including her time as the first black First Lady of the United States. She describes her mostly happy and stable childhood growing up in Chicago’s South Side, her Princeton/Harvard education, her courtship with Barack Obama, and their time in The White House. It’s an interesting and inspiring read, with a no-nonsense tone and a frankness that surprised me. This ain’t your bog-standard salacious political tell-all, but a testament to black perseverance and strength. Obama’s pragmatic optimism, and her steely determination to raise a safe and happy family while also doing good in the world, is truly infectious. Read my full review of Becoming here.

We’re Going To Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

We're Going To Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We’re Going To Need More Wine feels like a boozy conversation with a friend, one that runs the full gamut and has you cracking open another bottle just to keep it going. That doesn’t mean that it’s fluffy or insubstantial, though. As well as exploring race and violence and sexuality, “actress, activist, and one half of a power couple” Gabrielle Union uses anecdotes from her life to discuss illness, death, fear, and vulnerability, too. Chapters include Sex Miseducation, On Mean Women and Good Dogs, and Warning: Famous Vaginas Get Itchy Too. It’s a witty and biting memoir, one that proves Union is far more than her role in a cult-classic cheerleading movie. Read my full review of We’re Going To Need More Wine here.

Year Of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Year Of Yes - Shonda Rhimes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Few women have defied the odds like Shonda Rhimes. Despite the myriad challenges she faced as a black woman, single and raising children, she rose to the top of her field as the showrunner of appointment-viewing like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. And yet, despite her undeniable talent and power, she hid from the spotlight. She shied away from events, interviews, and anything else that scared her. In Year Of Yes, she recounts stories from the year she decided to start agreeing to things she never dreamed she’d do in a million years. It’s an inspirational and disarming book that will penetrate the shell of even the most hardened cynic. Read my full review by Year Of Yes here.

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

The Other Black Girl - Zakiya Dalila Harris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Other Black Girl was one of the most hotly-anticipated books of 2021. In it, Harris examines “the psychic cost to Black women of making [themselves] palatable to institutions that use [their] cultural cache for their own ends”. It sounds like heavy going, but Harris blends the contemporary, the speculative, and a dash of humour to make it fun. The story revolves around a young black woman who’s overjoyed to finally have another black woman in the office, but her new colleague might have a nefarious objective in being there. If you’re looking for fabulous black books to read that take a weird turn and leave a lot open to interpretation, this is the pick for you. Read my full review of The Other Black Girl here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such A Fun Age - Kiley Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Such A Fun Age might look like a sweet summer read, but underneath lurks a serious critique of race, class, and good intentions. It’s the ultimate bait-and-switch, and it’s very effectively done! Emira is a young woman still struggling to find her feet. As she stumbles through her twenties, she makes ends meet with a baby-sitting job. When she finds herself the unwilling star of a viral video exposing the racism to which she was subjected in a grocery store, she stumbles into a hotbed of white saviour nonsense. This one will resonate and discomfit all readers who struggle with the “right” thing to do. Read my full review of Such A Fun Age here.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Wow No Thank You - Samantha Irby - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Samantha Irby is a self-described “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” who still hides past due bills under her pillow. In her essay collection, Wow, No Thank You, she tells stories from her new life, her attempt to start over in her 40s. Just as in her previous essay collections, though, she is “unflinching, riotous, and relatable”, unafraid to bare it all and unashamed of the quirks and secrets that make us all interesting. If you need a good chat with a funny friend but it’s too late to call, hers are the fabulous black books to read.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie - Candice Carty-Williams - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Queenie is “a disarmingly honest, unapologetically black, and undeniably witty debut novel that will speak to those who have gone looking for love and found something very different in its place”. A mid-20s Jamaican woman – the titular Queenie – is living in London and can’t comfortably straddle both cultures at once. She looks for love in all the wrong places, and as such she rarely finds it, so she’s forced to find herself instead. Fans of Bridget Jones’s Diary and other books about young women doing their best will love this one; it’s one of the funniest and most fabulous black books of recent years.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings has become one of the most-often quoted must-read black books, and for good reason. As a child, Maya Angelou faced more adversity than any one person could reasonably be expected to bear: abandoned by her mother, ostracised by her peers, attacked by a man who should have helped keep her safe. But with an imitable spirit and a whole heart, instead of becoming broken down and bitter, Angelou sought the love and joy she knew she deserved. This is a powerful and uplifting read, and it will touch you in ways you won’t expect.