The New Black Canon: Books, Plays and Poems That Everyone Should Know
A guide to some of the undervalued 20th-century works that testify to the richness of the Black American literary archive.
Adam Bradley, a T writer, is a professor and the author of multiple books on music and culture. He is the founding director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at U.C.L.A.
Fifty years ago, when college courses in Black American literature were rare; when Zora Neale Hurston’s novels were out of print and Toni Morrison was a book editor with one novel to her name, the job of shaping a Black canon was clear: Rediscover, anthologize, define the terms of a tradition. “The act of recovery means something different now,” says Kenton Rambsy, an associate professor of English and digital humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington, whose research uses data analytics to tell new stories about the Black literary past. Sometimes recovery demands peering into the shadows cast by towering canonical figures. “It might mean finding that writer who is just being overlooked because of the canonicity of, say, Toni Morrison,” Rambsy says. Sometimes it’s even simpler than that. “We don’t have to go deep into archives to find undervalued Black authors,” says the poet and U.C.L.A. English professor Harryette Mullen. In a recent essay, I look to such undervalued authors and works as the impetus for shaping a new Black canon.
What follows is a list of 20 books — works of fiction, drama and poetry, presented chronologically by category — that testify to the richness of the Black American literary archive. You’ll encounter many of these works as recent reissues; others remain difficult to find or are out of print entirely. All were published last century. Their writers are genre fiction authors and experimentalists, nature poets and satirists, pulp fiction practitioners and trans-nationalists, writers of the weird, the quirky, the unsettled and unsettling. Together, they help to tell a story of Black American literature that reflects the infinite number of ways of being Black in America — and of being in the world.
Pauline E. Hopkins, “Of One Blood” (1902-3)
In Telassar, a thriving city hidden below the Nubian Desert, Hopkins’s protagonist, the biracial Harvard Medical student Reuel Briggs, encounters an advanced civilization with “specimens of the highest attainments the world knew in ancient days.” This sprawling work of speculative fiction resists paraphrase, but what’s important is that it helped spawn a vast contemporary tradition: “I like to say [this book] was ‘Black Panther’ before ‘Black Panther’, ” says Eve Dunbar, a professor of English at Vassar College. “It’s got something for everyone: Black sci-fi, a passing narrative, a back-to-Africa plot, and a plantation ghost story.” Hopkins published “Of One Blood” in serialized form in the pages of the Boston-based Colored American Magazine, which she edited. Embedded in her novel’s title is Hopkins’s rejection of the pseudoscientific conflation of race with blood, a myth used to buttress white supremacy and racial division.
Chester Himes, “Lonely Crusade” (1947)
Himes’s revival in recent years has come on the strength of his noir crime fiction. Starting with 1957’s “A Rage in Harlem,” he wrote eight books that follow detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones through the New York underworld of the 1950s and ’60s. Himes knew something of crime and punishment himself, having served nearly eight years in prison for armed robbery. His body of work, though, defies tidy categorization. After emigrating to France in the mid-50s (he lived in Europe until his death in 1984), Himes wrote perceptively about the Black expatriate experience. He also wrote about Black-white labor movements, same-sex relationships, interracial marriage and racism. “Few African American writers had his sure-handed ability to depict the nitty-gritty of Black life,” Himes’s biographer Lawrence P. Jackson says. Jackson points to “Lonely Crusade” as “his classic text.” For evidence, he cites a passage in which Himes’s protagonist Lee Gordon listens to his father, not knowing it will be for the last time: “You’re just as good as any white person. Don’t let nobody tell you no different. Now all you got to do is prove it.” Himes takes readers into Lee’s mind as he ponders how his father intended those words — “whether sincerely or satirically Lee Gordon never learned.”
Fran Ross, “Oreo” (1974)
Ross’s only novel was lightly reviewed and largely overlooked. “Perhaps a book like ‘Oreo’ — though I know few — gets ignored or quite purposefully sidelined because it defies the reader, the reviewer, the cultural critic, the scholar and just about anyone else who dares position it,” the novelist Michelle Latiolais recently wrote. “Oreo” is satire and metafiction, a picaresque and a bildungsroman. (Ross herself described it as “cockeyed and nutty.”) The narrative action, such as it is, concerns a young biracial Black and Jewish protagonist’s search for her father. Most remarkable, though, is the novel’s mode of address. In 2015, the novelist Danzy Senna described the book as “a strange, uncanny dream about a future that was really the past.” As the literary critic Scott Saul points out, though, the novel is also very much of its time. “Oreo,” he writes, “is a queer novel, written by a gay woman who, while she traveled in gay circles and revered queer writers like James Baldwin and Djuna Barnes, opted not to disclose that side of her identity when she made her literary debut.”
Alison Mills Newman, “Francisco” (1974)
Alison Mills Newman began her creative life as an actor. Her credits include a recurring role on the late-’60s NBC sitcom “Julia,” starring Diahann Carroll, a groundbreaking series that portrayed everyday Black life during a time of national tumult. Soon thereafter, in her early 20s, Mills Newman wrote her first novel, “Francisco,” which chronicles a young Black woman’s love affair with an independent filmmaker. In her foreword to a 2023 reissue (the book, long out of print, was originally published in 1974 by R. C. & J., an independent press founded by the writers Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon and Joe Johnson), the literary scholar Saidiya Hartman describes it as being in the style of a Künstlerroman: “a portrait of the artist as a young black woman trying to find a way back to herself.” The novel blends vernacular riffs with cameos from Reed and Muhammad Ali, Pharoah Sanders and Angela Davis, Melvin Van Peebles and Amiri Baraka. Writing of “Francisco,” the novelist William Demby observed that it’s “the song one would expect Love to be singing these troubled days of the 1970s — a song you cannot have heard before, off-key and haunting, disturbing even in its unfamiliarity.”
James Alan McPherson, “Elbow Room” (1977)
“There never was a nationwide coalition that looked unwaveringly at Black storytelling,” the cultural historian Wil Haygood tells me. Haygood — who’s written biographies of Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson and Thurgood Marshall — understands the responsibility of telling Black American stories on the page and onscreen, not only in the United States, but around the globe. “You have a world market from Japan to Australia to France that has access to streaming services and wants to see Black stories,” Haygood says. That storytelling necessarily involves engaging history-shaping social and political movements: the civil rights struggle, the Black Power era, the recent uprisings for racial justice. But Haygood is also drawn to quieter, though no less radical stories, found in the fiction of the Black quotidian. He particularly likes this collection of restrained, elegant stories that find high drama among ordinary people. You should read McPherson’s stories, Haygood says, “because the Black characters do things that the outside world doesn’t think that they’d ordinarily be doing, like listening to and falling in love with country music.”
William Demby, “Love Story Black” (1978)
“By some unfortunate miscarriage of advertisement,” writes the scholar Nathan A. Scott Jr. in his foreword to the 1991 reissue of Demby’s second novel, “The Catacombs” (1965), “the fiction of William Demby over more than a generation has remained little known and is not today generally accorded the prominence in the canon of Afro-American literature that it deserves.” More than thirty years after Scott wrote those words and nearly ten years after Demby’s death at 90, the canon may finally be catching up to Demby. An international conference in 2018 at the University of Rome, La Sapienza, and a recent issue of the literary journal African American Review, both dedicated to his work, provide evidence. His third novel, “Love Story Black,” is at once a satire of the Black Arts Movement and a departure from the narrow dictates of social realist Black protest fiction in favor of a vision that allows for the uncanny, the humorous and the absurd. Asked to describe Demby, the writer Ishmael Reed, his near contemporary and a professor at California College of the Arts, put it plainly: “One of the great novelists of the last 100 years.”
J. California Cooper, “The Wake of the Wind” (1998)
Cooper’s dedication to “Wake,” her saga of slavery and freedom, says it plain: “I WILL NEVER BE ASHAMED OF MY ANCESTORS. IF YOU ARE … YOU ARE A FOOL.” In scope (it begins, “Once upon a certain year, 1764 or so, 200 years ago”), and in story (the book opens in Texas with two enslaved people falling in love, ignorant of the fact that the Civil War has brought slavery to an end), “Wake” is the perfect book to celebrate Juneteenth finally becoming a federal holiday. Though some critics have called Cooper preachy, many readers find her inspiring and profound. “Cooper always writes about love. This [book] is steeped in the power of family love, one of the things that no one could ever take away from Black folks,” the novelist and screenwriter Attica Locke says.
Jean Toomer, “Balo” (1922)
This year marks the 100th anniversary of “Cane” (1923), Toomer’s generically mutable masterpiece of fiction, poetry and drama. His one-act play “Balo,” written the previous year and staged by the Howard University Repertory Company during its 1923-24 season, is no masterpiece. However, its imperfections (most notably its tortured dialect) show a young writer endeavoring to capture his experience of unfamiliar places and voices. Both works are set in Georgia, where Toomer, who was raised in Washington, D.C., spent several weeks during the fall of 1921, on a trip to visit the birthplace of his estranged father. The play follows a day in the life of a Black sharecropper and his family, living amid the ruins of an old plantation, alongside a poor white family who reside in a decaying slave mansion. Whereas “Cane” often bends toward tragedy, “Balo” chooses reverie: “AUTUMN DAWN,” the opening stage directions read. “Any week day. Outside, it is damp and dewy, and the fog, resting upon the tops of pine trees, looks like fantastic cotton bolls about to be picked by the early morning fingers of the sun.”
Eulalie Spence, “The Starter” (1923)
Forgoing propagandistic “problem plays,” Spence modeled a style of politically and humanly engaged Black theater that paved the way for Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry and their contemporaries. After emigrating as a child from the Caribbean island of Nevis to New York in 1902, Spence absorbed the speech patterns of her adopted community and gave them expression in plays written in one act, to meet the requirements of the contests to which she often submitted her work. In “The Starter,” Spence stages a comic tale of courtship written in an eye dialect that calls out for gifted actors to make stilted symbols into natural speech: “Y’know, kid, I bin thinkin’ — Say, why don’t we get married? Huh?” asks T. J. of his beloved, Georgia. “Ah dunno, ’cept yuh never mentioned it befo’, ” Georgia replies. To appreciate these lines, one must hear them performed onstage. Fortunately, “She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind,” a production of three of Spence’s plays (including “The Starter”), is running through March 12 at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York. The director, Timothy Johnson, says he enjoys how “in this one-act form she’s able to give you a whole life. … There’s such vibrant specificity about these characters that makes ordinary people extraordinary.”
Lorraine Hansberry, “Toussaint” (1961)
Above: Lorraine Hansberry in a 1961 clip from the series “Playwright at Work” discussing her play-in-progress, “Toussaint.”
“A Raisin in the Sun,” which premiered on Broadway in 1959, is a work of such canonical consensus that it risks subsuming its creator. It marked the commercial and critical high point of a career cut short by illness. In her literary afterlife, Hansberry “becomes boxed into ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ in a way, which is both to her benefit and to her detriment,” explains Soyica Diggs Colbert, author of the 2021 Hansberry biography “Radical Vision.” “Raisin” remains an indispensable work; reading beyond it, however, one discovers the politically radical, formally experimental writer that Hansberry was becoming. In “Toussaint,” a completed 1961 scene from her play in progress about the Haitian general and freedom fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture, Hansberry claims her identity as, in Colbert’s words, a “freedom writer.” In critiquing the legacy of colonialism and understanding that this, too, is part of the Black American story, Hansberry offers an animating insight for her time and for ours.
Charles Gordone, “No Place to Be Somebody: A Black-Black Comedy” (1969)
In 1969, Amiri Baraka (publishing as LeRoi Jones) released “Four Black Revolutionary Plays,” a series of one-acts obsessively, at times brilliantly, circling Black-white racial conflict. That same year, Gordone’s “No Place” debuted Off Broadway. The two works embody a fundamental tension: Baraka’s favors confrontation while Gordone’s displays a humanistic impulse to see dignity even in seeming degradation. Gordone peoples his play with pimps, prostitutes and hustlers, both Black and white. As Phyl Garland wrote in Ebony, Gordone “came equipped with a loaded pistol and a whole barrel of ‘MF’s’. ” Debuting at the Public Theater, founded by the towering New York theater figure Joseph Papp (a student of Eulalie Spence at Brooklyn’s Eastern District High School in the 1930s), “No Place” earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1970, becoming the first work by a Black playwright to do so. “No Place” blends comedy, tragedy and melodrama. In doing so, it shares with then-emergent Blaxploitation cinema a revolutionary sensibility that seeks not to counter Black stereotypes but rather to annex them, revealing the complexity beneath their distorting masks.
Adrienne Kennedy, “An Evening with Dead Essex” (1973)
Kennedy’s “The Ohio State Murders” (1991), which made its belated Broadway debut last December, closed early, on Jan. 15, after just 44 performances. In a video posted to Instagram, the play’s star, six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, paid tribute to Kennedy. “More of her work deserves to be produced commercially,” the actor said, “and hopefully this will be the beginning of more and more awareness about … how incredible and poetic and profound and raw and revolutionary her work is.” Kennedy’s career spans seven decades, beginning with “Funnyhouse of the Negro” in 1964. Her style is often described as surrealist — a central quality, but only a part of her varied aesthetic. Among the most striking of her early plays is “An Evening with Dead Essex,” first performed in 1973 at the American Place Theatre in New York. The play joins documentary with imagination: It concerns the factual account of a Black Vietnam vet named Mark Essex who returns from war and commits a mass shooting, killing nine and injuring more before being shot by police. The play takes place in a film production studio, with Kennedy insisting that “actors use their real names and the director should get the actors to play themselves.” The action consists of the actors and filmmakers, all but one of whom are Black, reconstruing Essex’s life so as to make some sense of the violence of his death — and of the violence that surrounds us all.
Andrea Hairston, “Lonely Stardust” (1998)
In the stage directions to “Lonely Stardust,” Hairston describes how she wants her audience to relate to her play. “The Audience,” she writes, “should be embedded in a corner of this galactic wonder. … Occasionally comets whiz by. Periodic showers of Stardust should be arranged. The Traveler has journeyed billions of miles and landed in Springfield, MA, USA. …” Through this asymmetry of scale — the cosmos and a town in western Massachusetts — Hairston opens up points of entry into the everyday and the ineffable. A nameless traveler, searching for life at the end of his own, speaks in a hip vernacular: “When you spiral down that image of lonely, there’s the beginning. Or the end, actually. Buggin’ out.” Sheree Renée Thomas, author of numerous works of speculative fiction, including the short-story collection “Nine Bar Blues” (2020), sees Hairston as the too-often overlooked link between her generation and that of Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany. “Andrea Hairston has had her pulse on the science fiction community since the 1970s,” Thomas says. “She was always in that liminal space with her work: too Black for the science fiction community, and too science fiction for the Black drama community.”
Esther Popel, “Flag Salute” (1934)
In November 1940, a little more than a year before the United States entered World War II, The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine, reprinted Popel’s “Flag Salute” on its cover. Popel’s poem intersperses phrases from the Pledge of Allegiance with an account of a Black man’s lynching. When it first appeared six years earlier, the poem was responding directly to the Oct. 18, 1933, murder of George Armwood, a 27-year-old Black farm laborer from Princess Anne on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, who had been arrested for “grabbing the arm” of a white woman on a public road. “Flag Salute” was newly relevant in 1940, The Crisis editors noted, because of the fact “that the federal anti-lynching bill had been killed in the Senate and that Negro Americans would be segregated and discriminated against in the U. S. armed forces.” Embodying the ambivalence of being both Black and American, Popel’s poem communicated across decades with Harryette Mullen, whose poems “Waving the Flag” and “Land of the Discount Price, Home of the Brand Name” bear its influence. “Popel was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,” Mullen says, “where she lived near my great-grandmother, although I can’t be certain they were acquainted.” Reading Mullen’s poems beside Popel’s is a form of acquaintance, too.
Bob Kaufman, “The Collected Poems” (1965-78)
“When I die, / I won’t stay / Dead.” These three lines conclude Kaufman’s 19-line poem “Dolorous Echo,” first published in his book “Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness” (1965) and now included in the remarkable 2019 edition of Kaufman’s collected poems. The lines have proved prophetic. Kaufman died in 1986 at 60, in his adoptive city of San Francisco (he was born and raised in New Orleans), after struggling for decades with mental illness, addiction, arrests and housing precarity. A careful poetic craftsman, he could nonetheless be a reckless steward of his own work, scrawling poems in the narrow margins of newspapers, reciting words in coffee shops and at house parties. A founding member of Beatitude, the seminal Beat periodical, alongside Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly and others, Kaufman is sometimes shorthanded as the “Black Beat.” While he helped define the Beat aesthetic, Kaufman was also a surrealist, a poet of blues and jazz and a spiritualist (he practiced Buddhism). “Kaufman’s poems use the most far out and surreal tools to render frighteningly honest, terrifying and delicious portraits of people and the world,” the poet Danez Smith tells me.
Gwendolyn Brooks, “In the Mecca” (1968)
By some measures, Brooks is about as canonical as it gets. Her poem “We Real Cool” (1960) is a high school staple, likely because its brevity lends itself to classroom reading and because its sharp enjambments invite close analysis of form. “Most young people know me only by that poem,” Brooks once told an audience. “I would prefer it if the textbook compilers and the anthologists would assume that I had written a few other poems.” Among Brooks’s many other poems, her long sequence “In the Mecca,” featured in a collection of the same name, is among her finest. Released in 1968, after a nearly decade-long publishing hiatus and just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., “In the Mecca” is both intimately focused on domestic life and urgently engaged in the politics of the moment. The poet Major Jackson, who this year will publish a collection spanning his own two-decade career, says that the poem “reads like a contemporary ballad, where one discerns Brooks’s gift for incisive and stark language as well as a sweeping social vision married to modernist sensibilities.”
Ishmael Reed, “A Secretary to the Spirits” (1978)
The richness of the 85-year-old Reed’s ever-expanding catalog (from his 1967 debut novel “The Free-Lance Pallbearers” to his play “The Conductor,” which premieres at New York’s Theater for the New City on March 9) is such that one might overlook the slender 17-poem, 42-page volume he published 45 years ago with NOK, a Nigerian publisher. Julian Lucas, who has written often about Reed, considers “A Secretary to the Spirits” to be “criminally underrated.” The book is long out of print and difficult to find; all of the poems, however, are available in Reed’s “New and Collected Poems” (2007). But if you’re lucky enough to find a copy of the 1978 original, you’ll experience them as Reed intended, in call-and-response with illustrations by the Black Arts Movement assemblage artist Betye Saar. Saar’s full-page panels depict Egyptian motifs juxtaposed with the Cream of Wheat chef, dancing Jazz Age silhouettes beside the Eye of Providence. Reed’s poems are sly and confrontational. In “The Reactionary Poet,” he claims that title in opposition to self-styled revolutionaries whose orthodoxy chokes out creativity and joy. He writes: “In your world of / Tomorrow Humor / Will be locked up and / the key thrown away / The public address system / Will pound out headaches / All day.”
Dolores Kendrick, “The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women” (1989)
“The Women of Plums” is theater living inside poetry. Kendrick understood as much, adapting her collection for the stage, where it won the New York New Playwrights Award in 1997. She writes in dialect, but not in the caricatured deez and doze of the minstrel stage; instead, much as Toni Morrison did two years earlier in “Beloved,” she employs shifts in syntax, rhythm and diction to render speech that lives beyond the page. Kendrick wrote the poems as a kind of alternative history of the United States, from the Middle Passage to the Civil War, in the voices of 34 enslaved Black women. These voices are so strong that they have even been adapted as an opera, which opened in New York in the spring of 1995. “Soon I’ll go for a stroll / in my blue silk dress, / go into town / and buy myself a plum, / the blackest from the bush,” one of her speakers proclaims.
Melvin Dixon, “Love’s Instruments” (1995)
Dixon, a novelist, poet and scholar, published only one poetry collection in his lifetime, “Change of Territory” (1983). A posthumous collection, “Love’s Instruments,” released three years after his death at 42, is a playful and poignant tribute to the lives of gay Black men. In “Heartbeats,” Dixon uses line breaks to generate a syncopated rhythm that unfolds a narrative of regularity and revelation. This is how it begins:
Work out. Ten laps.
Chin ups. Look good.
Steam room. Dress warm.
Call home. Fresh air.
Eat right. Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.
Sore throat. Long flu.
Hard nodes. Beware.
Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.
Just months before Dixon died of complications related to AIDS, in 1992, he addressed the Third National Lesbian and Gay Writers Conference in Boston. He warned his fellow writers to “guard against the erasure of our experience and our lives” and to claim responsibility for the future of literature. “I come to you bearing witness of a broken heart,” Dixon said. “I come to you bearing witness to a broken body — but a witness to an unbroken spirit.”
Ai, “Vice: New and Selected Poems” (1999)
Born Florence Anthony in Albany, Texas in 1947, Ai chose a name that means “love” in Japanese, one of several lineages that the mixed-race poet could claim. Ai was part of a generation of post-Black Arts Movement figures who now occupy canonical places: Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nathaniel Mackey and Harryette Mullen chief among them. Though Ai, who died in 2010, achieved distinction during her lifetime — she was the first Black recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry, for “Vice” in 1999 — she is less well-known today. None of her poems appear in the major anthologies of African American and American literature. Perhaps that should change: Ai is among the pre-eminent practitioners of the dramatic monologue — a persona-driven mode of poetic address exemplified in the work of Victorian poet Robert Browning. “I want to take the narrative ‘persona’ poem as far as I can,” Ai said. “All the way or nothing.” In “Vice,” she does just that, inhabiting the persona of a Black woman in love and trouble, writing past respectability to the hard truths of lived experience.