Let’s face it: The ’10s have been quite the shitshow of a decade. Given the sad state of our democracy, extrajudicial police killings, and the reinvigoration of fascism and white supremacy, never before have I wished so hard for peace on Earth and goodwill toward humanity. So, as a firm believer in the transformative power of a good book, I invite you to roar your way through the ’20s, starting with these deep, daring, delicious reads.
1. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman
Did you know that at the beginning of the twentieth century, young Black women in New York and Philly sparked a radical cultural movement defined by free love, queer relations, and alternative forms of cohabitation, intimacy, and kinship bonds? Neither did I, until I read this aching, gorgeous, brilliant book. Hartman spins painstaking research into gold that reads like fiction. It is at once scholarly and literary, imaginative and the hardest truths.
2. Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry
At a time when Black children’s lives are not valued, and when Black resilience and resistance are so necessary, Perry shares this love letter to her children and ours, encouraging them toward freedom and possibility in a racist society. Feminist, fierce, personal and scholarly, Breathe elucidates the fear that comes with raising Black children in America, while also imagining Black futures firmly rooted in our pride and our history.
3. Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz
You might find yourself holding your breath while reading this memoir. Díaz’s lyrical writing is just that raw, and her story just that profound. Growing up in housing projects in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach, Díaz dealt with mental illness and violence—her own and others’—as well as poverty and coming to terms with her sexual identity. She is a masterful storyteller, and her journey toward healing and hope is anything but ordinary.
4. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Whether it’s a battle of words between the highly accomplished mothers of the only two Black girls at an elite private school; an ill-fated cosplayer dressed as his favorite anime character; or the subversive actions of a Black man married to a white woman fruitarian who is angling to be America’s next top reality TV star, the stories in this smart, fresh collection take on issues of race and identity with poignancy, satire, and dark humor.
5. Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth
Margaritte is in love and in trouble. She’s a 16-year-old Native American, desperate to escape her Colorado town where violence, poverty, and drugs render her life bleak. And to make life even more complicated: She’s pregnant by her unreliable boyfriend. Wurth, an Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee writer, has penned a powerful coming-of-age story with richly drawn, complex characters.
6. Monument by Natasha Trethewey
The two-time U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner presents her first retrospective, a collection of connected new and selected poems tying her family history to our broader history—from the Civil War to Hurricane Katrina. Literal and figurative monuments, sometimes to white supremacy and Black erasure, are the focus. Loss, trauma, joy, and love are among the themes in this keen meditation on our collective past, present and future.
7. I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi
With this incisive, unforgettable memoir about living with bipolar II disorder and anxiety, Ikpi will challenge what you thought you knew about mental illness. From her fractured early childhood in Nigeria and Oklahoma to her precarious adulthood as a spoken word artist traveling with HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, Ikpi chronicles the unraveling of her mental health, which she sometimes hid behind lies, for decades until her diagnosis.
8. How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman
Coleman’s hybrid memoir combines short stories (“not quite non-fiction”) and essays to tremendous effect. She blurs not only the lines between fact and fiction, but also between transgressors and the transgressed. In doing so, she brings sharp insights and questions to the experiences of Black girlhood and womanhood, in romantic relationships, across and among generations in familial relationships, as well as in her relationship with herself—and with the truth.
9. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers
This book is a gauntlet thrown: Do we have the courage to build on the best of Black, feminist and LGBTQ+ liberation movements and traditions in order to make the U.S. social justice movement more queer, more feminist, and more radical? Activist Carruthers provides a model for effective strategizing, building alliances, and empowering young leaders. Her vision is broad and inclusive, embodying the truth that none of us are free until we are all free.