40 best African American books, according to the NAACP

Celebrate Black History Month reading these NAACP-nominated books, from fiction to poetry and young adult literature.
Image: 40 best African American and black books, according to the NAACP
"Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow" by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; "American Spy: A Novel" by Lauren Wilkinson; "Red at the Bone: A Novel" by Jacqueline Woodson
By Amanda Mitchell

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On Saturday night, the NAACP celebrated the winners of its annual Image Awards event, spanning music, film and literature. We had shared all 40 nominees in the latter category last week and are back with an update on the winners below (you can also scroll through winners of all Image Awards categories). Anthony Anderson hosted the event and some big names won some significant honors: Rihanna was awarded the 2020 President's Award, Lizzo was awarded the Entertainer of the Year Award, Michael B. Jordan won Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture and Just Mercy won Outstanding Motion Picture, Tracee Ellis Ross won the Actress in a Comedy — to name a few highlights.

Even before the awards were announced, there was plenty to celebrate: The majority of the NAACP’s annual Image Awards nominees this year were black women telling stories about black women, from Oscar winner Lupita N’yongo to Grammy winner Erica Campbell. And this year’s Black History Month is likewise celebrating other substantial moments, including the launch of the first-ever 24-hour news channel “by and for” African Americans, the largest propotion of African American members in the Super Bowl’s officiating crew than any NFL game ever, and Howard University’s largest ever donation for its STEM program.

In this article

  1. Image Awards 2020 literature winners

  2. What are the Image Awards
  3. Fiction winner and nominees
  4. Nonfiction winner and nominees
  5. Debut author winner and nominees
  6. Biography/ autobiography winner and nominees
  7. Instructional books winner and nominees
  8. Poetry winner and nominees
  9. Children's books winner and nominees
  10. Youth/teens and YA books winner and nominees

As a people, so much of our history would be forgotten or altered without black writers to put our story on paper.

Marc Banks, NAACP national press secretary

Image Awards 2020 literature winners

Over in the literature pool, eight winners celebrated top awards from their respective categories:

  1. Fiction: "The Revisioners: A Novel" by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
  2. Nonfiction: "The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations" by Toni Morrison
  3. Debut author: I Am Dance: Words and Images of the Black Dancer" by Hal Banfield and Javier Vasquez
  4. Biography / autobiography: "More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say)" by Elaine Welteroth

  5. Instructional: "Your Next Level Life: 7 Rules of Power, Confidence, And Opportunity For Black Women In America" by Karen Arrington

  6. Poetry: "Felon: Poems" by Reginald Dwayne Betts

  7. Children: "Sulwe" by Lupita Nyong'o and Vashti Harrison

  8. Youth / teens: "Around Harvard Square" by C.J. Farley

See the full list of winners and nominees below.

What are the Image Awards

Within those Image Awards — which originally covered just two categories, motion picture and television — are now 60 categories comprising people of color in the arts, as well as people and groups who creatively pursue social justice and public service.

This year, 40 books were nominated in the literature category, its genres running the gamut from fiction and YA to poetry and biography. Common themes among the nominees include police brutality, black identity in America, privilege, colorism, inherited generational trauma and the impact slavery carries still for today’s black population. A nominating committee numbering about 250 decide whom to award from the pool of candidates, much like the Oscars.

"The critical and awe-inspiring works of Black literature serve as the narration of and an outlet to share the achievements, trials, and victories of our community,” says Marc Banks, the NAACP’s national press secretary. “As early as 1915's “Birth of A Nation”, Banks explained, the NAACP had been recognizing the "power and sway of media."

"With that, the organization created partnerships with major studios and elected officials to monitor the image and portrayal of African Americans on the screen," Banks told NBC News. "The Image Awards has also been at the forefront of ensuring inclusion of all Americans, regardless of race, is a mainstay in the entertainment industry.”

“The NAACP recognizes the importance of honoring those that use their pen to uplift, celebrate, and call attention to our culture, journey, and struggles,” Banks said. “As a people, so much of our history would be forgotten or altered without black writers to put our story on paper."

The Image Awards aired Feb. 22 on BET — the event’s first time airing on the network. Whether they win or not, these are the most important works of literature from and for the black community in 2020, according to the NAACP. If you’ve been looking to add to your reading list, this might be a good place to start.

Image Awards 2020 fiction winners and nominees

1. "New Daughters of Africa" by Margaret Busby

A companion to Busby’s 1992 anthology “Daughters of Africa,” this compilation of literature comprises writing from 200 women of African descent including Andrea Levy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ayòbámi Adébáyò, Warsan Shire and Zadie Smith.

2. "Out of Darkness, Shining Light: A Novel" by Petina Gappah

The story of how David Livingstone’s body was carried across Africa by those who accompanied him on his journey, sharing the stories of his travels and his death.

3. "Red at the Bone: A Novel" by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson, a celebrated black writer, follows three generations in Brooklyn and how their lives are impacted by a teenage pregnancy.

4. "The Revisioners: A Novel" by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (winner)

Telling the story of two related black women, separated by 100 years, but related, “The Revisioners” displays the life of both a slave and her descendant.

5. "The Water Dancer: A Novel" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates won the 2015 National Book Award for his previous “Between The World And Me,” as well as a MacArthur grant — he's also penned several Black Panther graphic novels.

Image Awards 2020 nonfiction nominees

6. "Breathe: A Letter to My Sons" by Imani Perry

Scholar Imani Perry writes a letter to her children, a call for society to see black children as what they are: deserving of humane treatment.

7. "Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow" by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Gates won last year in the fiction category for “The Annotated African American Folktales.” In this year’s entry, he tells a history of black Americans fighting for equality in post-Civil War America while also fighting the onslaught of White supremacy and supremacist propaganda through the 19th and 20th centuries.

8. "The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations" by Toni Morrison (winner)

The late writer, Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner presents a new nonfiction collection of essays, speeches, and nonfiction writing on society, culture, and art from throughout her extensive 40-year career.

9. "The Yellow House: A Memoir" by Sarah M. Broom

A memoir about one hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in New Orleans East, Broom compiles oral history, cultural history, and admiration in her National Book Award-winning book.

10. "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays" by Damon Young

From the cofounder and editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com, Young presents a series of essays about how “existing while Black is an extreme sport.” Humorous, intelligent, and entertaining, this memoir takes you through the ever-changing idea of being a black man in America.

Image Awards 2020 debut author nominees

11. "American Spy: A Novel" by Lauren Wilkinson

Wilkinson’s novel follows an undervalued black American FBI agent who is recruited by the CIA to help overthrow a charismatic dictator in Burkina Faso.

12. “I Am Dance: Words and Images of the Black Dancer" by Hal Banfield and Javier Vasquez (winner)

The authors present the stories of black dancers and what being a dancer of color means to them.

13. "More Than Pretty: Doing The Soul Work To Uncover Your True Beauty" by Erica Campbell

Grammy-winning gospel singer Erica Campbell of singing group Mary Mary wants people to embrace their inner beauty and build confidence through the power of God.

14. "Such A Fun Age" by Kiley Reid

A New York Times bestseller, Reid delivers a send-up of identity politics and wokeness in this novel about privilege in America.

15. "The Farm: A Novel" by Joanne Ramos

There’s a reason the book is being compared to The Handmaid’s Tale — it follows desperate women who have been allowed the chance to live in luxury in exchange for being surrogates for the world’s wealthiest people.

Image Awards 2020 biography/ autobiography nominees

16. "Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward" by Valerie Jarrett

Jarrett was the longest serving senior adviser to President Barack Obama, and this biography touched on her life as a public servant, government leader, wife, lawyer and mother.

17. "Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System" by Cyntoia Brown-Long

Cyntoia Brown-Long was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed at the age of sixteen, becoming national news when activists worked to make the hashtag #FreeCyntoia go viral, leading to her eventual freedom. This is the story of her road to redemption.

18. "More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say)" by Elaine Welteroth (winner)

Welteroth’s memoir follows her life as she shattered glass ceilings on the road to becoming one of the most powerful black women in media.

19. "My Name Is Prince" by Randee St. Nicholas

Longtime Prince photographer Nicholas shares stories of his 25 years following the musician, sharing intimate moments of their history.

20. "The Beautiful Ones" by Prince and Dan Piepenbring

Piepenbring was set to co-write Prince’s biography before the musician’s unexpected death in 2016, and this memoir makes up the 30 pages Prince had finished.

Image Awards 2020 instructional nominees

21. "Inspire Your Home: Easy, Affordable Ideas to Make Every Room Glamorous" by Farah Merhi

Instagram star and founder of Inspire Me! Home Décor, Merhi shares her tips and tricks to making your house a fabulous home without breaking the bank.

22. "Letters to the Finishers (who struggle to finish)" by Candace E. Wilkins

Not quite a self-help book, Wilkins doesn’t claim to be perfect — she’s a work in progress, and this book is a love letter to all of the people who start projects but struggle to get them done.

23. "More Than Pretty: Doing The Soul Work To Uncover Your True Beauty" by Erica Campbell

In her second nomination on this list, Grammy-winning gospel singer Erica Campbell of singing group Mary Mary wants people to embrace their inner beauty and build confidence through the power of God.

24. "Vegetables Unleashed" by José Andres

Chef, restaurateur, and philanthropist Andres wants to change the way you eat vegetables.

25. "Your Next Level Life: 7 Rules of Power, Confidence, And Opportunity For Black Women In America" by Karen Arrington (winner)

Looking to find your #BlackGirlMagic? Arrington is set to inspire you to get to your next level.

Image Awards 2020 poetry nominees

26. "A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland" by DaMaris B. Hill

Hill presents a collection of poems about black women who have struggled for the pursuit of protest, and honors them while unflinchingly discussing the American shame that accompanies their treatment.

27. "Felon: Poems" by Reginald Dwayne Betts (winner)

Betts’ third collection of poems touches on the world of incarceration and what comes afterward. Betts was just 16 when he was charged with carjacking in Virginia, and was in prison for more than eight years before his release in 2005.

28. "Honeyfish" by Lauren K. Alleyne

Alleyne’s collection of poetry memorializes and mourns black men and women who have been the victims of police brutality.

29. "Mistress" by Chet'la Sebree

This book of poems serves a conversation across generations between Sally Hemings and a contemporary narrator about the way black women walk through the world and the overly simplistic way we talk about them.

30. "The Tradition" by Jericho Brown

This poetry collection touches on the normalization of evil, and the question of who is safe and who is not — it was nominated for a National Book Award for Poetry.

Image Awards 2020 children's nominees

31. "A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation" by Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney

A children’s biography of activist Martin Luther King Jr. and how he wrote his famous speech for the 1963 March on Washington.

32. "Hair Love" by Matthew A. Cherry and Vashti Harrison

Based on the Academy Award-winning short of the same name, “Hair Love” is an ode to loving natural hair and to black daddies and daughters everywhere.

33. "Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment" by Parker Curry, Jessica Curry and Brittany Jackson

The photo of the two-year-old admiring Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery that went viral gets the novel treatment.

34. "Ruby Finds a Worry" by Tom Percival

Ruby is an excitable and adventurous child until she finds a Worry, and that slowly becomes all she can think about — before she meets a boy with a Worry of his own.

35. "Sulwe" by Lupita Nyong'o and Vashti Harrison (winner)

Sulwe has skin as dark as midnight, and just wants to be seen as beautiful. Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o wrote this children’s novel about colorism, loving your skin and self-confidence.

Image Awards 2020 youth/teens nominees

36. "Around Harvard Square" by C.J. Farley (winner)

A Jamaican student-athlete at Harvard has one goal: writing for the famous humor magazine “The Harvard Lampoon” — he must overcome race and class issues to get there.

37. "Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl's Brave Fight to Walk" by Meredith Davis and Rebeka Uwitonze

Rebeka Uwitonze was born in Rwanda with curled and twisted feet and must take extreme risks to walk on the bottoms of her feet for the first time.

38. "Hot Comb" by Ebony Flowers

This graphic novel gives a glimpse into black hair salon culture through this coming-of-age story about a girl’s first perm.

39. "I'm Not Dying with You Tonight" by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal

Two girls with very different lives and backgrounds must rely on each other to survive the race riot that takes over their town.

40."The Forgotten Girl" by India Hill Brown

Part ghost story, part historical novel, this book follows a young girl as she tries to reclaim an abandoned segregated cemetery and change the legacy of racism.

More book recommendations

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