Last fall, Shonda Rhimes received an unexpected phone call, with a top-secret invitation. She was given the chance to read an advanced copy of the book; fly to Washington, D.C.; and share her thoughts with the author at a private gathering weeks before the chart-buster would hit bookstores.
The superstar producer and writer behind Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal told no one. The manuscript was “like a live baby I was afraid to leave home alone,” as Rhimes described it. Every free moment she had, she read.
“I wanted to be prepared,” Rhimes remembered. “Because this was not any book club. This was the book club.”
Eleven other black women writers and confidantes received a similar invitation. They included the National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson; the legendary radio journalist and first black woman NPR host, Michele Norris; the renowned poet Elizabeth Alexander, who had just been named president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the towering Johns Hopkins University historian Martha Jones, who had just published Birthright Citizens, which would win two book awards; another towering historian, Rutgers University’s Erica Armstrong Dunbar, whose latest book, Never Caught, was a National Book Award finalist; one of America’s most influential literary scholars, Columbia University’s Farah Jasmine Griffin; the novelist Tayari Jones, whose An American Marriage was a New York Times best seller; the Pulitzer Prize–winning, two-time U.S. poet laureate Natasha Tretheway; the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill; and the author’s special assistant, Chynna Clayton, and her old friend from Harvard Law School Verna Williams, whose recorded conversations with the author were crucial in the book’s development.
The book appeared on bookshelves on this day last year and sold 725,000 copies on its first day in stores. It sold more than 1.4 million copies in its first week on sale. Within two weeks, the book had sold 2 million copies in North America, becoming the best-selling book of 2018.
By March, with 10 million copies sold, publishing executives were already saying that this memoir of an African American woman was on track to become one of the most successful memoirs in history. The canons of American literature and black women’s literature converged, as they rarely had before, in the form of Becoming, by Michelle Obama.
Weeks before the former first lady of the United States started packing basketball arenas with thousands of excited readers, she packed a small conference table with about a dozen serious readers. She wasn’t after platitudes or cheerleaders. She wanted some of the best black women writers around to tell her “what we all really and truly think,” Rhimes recounted. And they did. And “all of the women at the roundtable felt a deep connection to this memoir,” Dunbar later wrote. It was a connection so deep, they were all “caught up in Michelle’s embrace,” Jones added.
They discussed Becoming. And much more.
The end of the day neared. Obama sat back and said, “The other thing that several people mentioned is: When does a black woman from my background get to tell her own story in a way that will be read by millions of people? … We don’t have enough stories out there … We are blinded by our ignorance of what it means to be an American.”
I, for one, am striving to overcome my ignorance about what it means to be an American by reading the stories of black women, by black women, who have developed an inimitable viewpoint of America as they overcome the confines of their gender, race, and often class. We still don’t have enough stories out there. But the stories are coming, especially from black women. And we should all be reading them to better compose our stories in our minds, on our pages. When I say we and our, I’m especially talking to us nonblack women.
On this, the one-year anniversary of the release of Becoming, I have compiled a list of 21 new releases from August to the year’s end—books of all kinds on my reading list—that showcase what black women’s literature this year is becoming, and what it has always been: essential to fully understanding the American story, the human story, and to what we are all becoming.
August 6, 2019
This creator of the viral #DisabledAndCute campaign offers an encouraging and refreshing collection of essays rooted unapologetically in self-love, in an ablest white America that struggles to love disabled people and black people, and especially disabled black people.
August 13, 2019
The Yellow House: A Memoir, by Sarah M. Broom
A finalist for the National Book Award, The Yellow House is a moving and intensely told story of 100 years of Broom’s family and their relationship to home place, to the unruly shotgun home in a neglected area of New Orleans that was devastated before and by Hurricane Katrina.
August 27, 2019
Everything Inside: Stories, by Edwidge Danticat
One of the greatest short-story writers of our time returns with these eight forceful, emotionally gripping stories set from Miami to the Caribbean and beyond, stories that unlock the forces that drive us away and together.
September 17, 2019
Red at the Bone: A Novel, by Jacqueline Woodson
It is a spectacular novel that only this legend can pull off, one that wrenches us to confront the life-altering and life-pulling and life-subsuming facts of history, of love, of expectations, of status, of parenthood, as only a teenage pregnancy can.
Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, by Imani Perry
Raw, reflective, regal, this letter to Perry’s two sons is simultaneously an intimate love message of construction inside her home and a missive outside her home to destroy the racist forces not holding her black sons—all black children—as dear, as dearly human.
September 24, 2019
Who Put This Song On?, by Morgan Parker
Loosely based on her own teenage life, Parker’s debut young-adult novel is a beautiful salute to the black teenaged girl who struggled to tune out the haters and the dictators, who overcame and found the strength to live in herself voraciously, on her own terms.
October 1, 2019
Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, by Staceyann Chin
This is the highly anticipated first full-length collection of poems—in all their power and force and vulnerability—from a respected spoken-word poet who is magnificently queering American letters.
October 8, 2019
Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, by Susan Rice
A hard-hitting and candid New York Times best-selling memoir of a tough woman no longer confined by talking points, who shares her whole voice, her family history, her perspective, and her insider’s take on a host of national-security crises over the past three decades.
Grand Union: Stories, by Zadie Smith
In the first story collection of this critically acclaimed writer, Smith clenches us to the haunting legacies of history, identity, rebirth, and to the mysterious futures coming down on us.
October 15, 2019
Jackpot, by Nic Stone
Two charming characters combine to make one funny, captivating, and thoughtful tale for young readers about class privilege, class deprivation, and the politics of luck and love.
Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
A powerful critique of colorism for children, this book takes us on a magical journey into the darkness of night to see all its beauty—and I’ve already taken that journey several times with my daughter.
Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim, by Leah Vernon
As this incredibly instructive memoir asks us, if Vernon can find her way to live unapologetically as a big-bodied black Muslim woman, if she can own the rebellion that is her body and hold her hijab-covered head high as people look down on her, then why can’t anyone living in an othered body—then why can’t we?
October 21, 2019
Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Longlisted for the National Book Award, Race for Profit masterfully dissects how exploitative and racist real-estate practices continued well after housing discrimination was banned in 1968, with policies ostensibly encouraging low-income black homeownership that ended up opening the doors to new methods of exploiting black homeowners.
November 5, 2019
She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
She Came to Slay provides a genre-bending and stunning blend of traditional biography, illustrations, photos, numbers, and engrossing sidebars to illuminate the incredible life of Harriet Tubman in an exciting new form.
The Revisioners: A Novel, by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
The Revisioners intricately probes and reveals the depths of women’s relationships, from the powerful to the marginalized, especially the bonds across the color line that make and break those relationships, and their generational legacies.
Moving Forward: A Story of Hope, Hard Work, and the Promise of America, by Karine Jean-Pierre
Jean-Pierre inspires us to get involved in politics—every single one of us, no matter where we are from or who we are—by remarkably sharing her unlikely march from New York’s Haitian community to Barack Obama’s White House to the clear-eyed MSNBC contributor she is today.
November 12, 2019
White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, by Lauren Michele Jackson
An incredible reimagining of Norman Mailer’s infamous 1957 essay of a similar name, White Negroes confronts the normalization of black cultural appropriation for white profit, issuing a clarion call for a truly empowered and compensated creative black community.
November 25, 2019
Drawing on years of interviews and observations, Slocum’s fascinating book examines Oklahoma’s historic black towns from their marginality at the junction of black and rural to their serving as sacred places that affirm dreams of black self-determination and community empowerment.
December 3, 2019
Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel, by Bernardine Evaristo
This fast-paced, rhythmically composed, heart-rending Booker Prize winner centralizes and gives voice to 12 unforgettable black British women characters who are often marginalized and silenced in Britain due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, and class.
Children of Virtue and Vengeance, by Tomi Adeyemi
The second title in Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orïsha trilogy, it is a spectacular sequel to Adeyemi’s New York Times best-selling Children of Blood and Bone.
December 17, 2019
Drawing its title from the Black Panther in Cuban exile, this collection of incisive and timely essays explores the emergence of the world’s largest police state and the youth-led organized resistance against state violence and mass incarceration.