The books, poems and other writings of a culture can tell us a lot about that culture’s story. This Black History Month, Dr. Joshua D. Smith, assistant professor of English literature, shares about the significance of African American literature. Smith is a literary and American studies scholar. His primary research centers on nineteenth-century American thought and the conceptual influence of the American West. Smith shared about notable Black authors in America’s literary tradition and why it matters for us to read their work.

As a professor in Biola’s Torrey Honors College, Smith has taught a “Meta Torrey” — a type of class dedicated to a specific subject — on African American history and culture. Smith often notices students frequently come to the class with very little context for African American culture. He notes that in addition to learning about African American history, it’s important to understand the culture.

“When I have students who are coming to the Meta Torrey to learn about African American culture, they’re processing a lot because it’s so different,” said Smith. “If they had some kind of residence in some Black community, some of that would have been less of a non-sequitur.”

Smith emphasizes that while reading a book is no replacement for actually engaging with and learning from real people who belong to a culture, books can offer a unique perspective on the historical events of a particular time.

“Historical context is important, and literature is important,” said Smith. “Literature is a fun way of looking at history.”

To take a stroll through African American literature — and to understand African American history — Smith recommends reading one book every few months. Check out Smith’s suggested reading list below including fiction, poetry and non-fiction works!

African American Literature Reading List

  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (Phyllis Wheatley, 1773)
  • The Appeal (David Walker, 1829)
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
  • The Heroic Slave (Frederick Douglass, 1852)
  • "What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (Fredrick Douglass) (1852)
  • My Bondage and My Freedom (Douglass) (1855)
  • “Letter To His Old Master” (Fredrick Douglass) (1855)
  • Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (Harriet Wilson) (1859)
  • Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl (Harriet Jacobs) (1861)
  • “Men of Color, To Arms!” (Fredrick Douglass, 1863)
  • Iola Leroy (Frances Harper, 1892)
  • Up From Slavery (Booker T. Washington, 1901)
  • The Souls of Black Folk (W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903)
  • Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man (James Weldon Jonson, 1912)
  • Collected Poems (Langston Hughes, 1925-1951)
  • Cane (Jean Toomer, 1923)
  • God’s Trombones (James Weldon Johnson, 1927)
  • Quicksand (Nella Larsen, 1928)
  • Passing (Nella Larsen, 1929)
  • Collected Songs (Billie Holiday, 1933-1958)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neal Hurston, 1937)
  • Collected Poems (Robert Hayden, 1940-1975)
  • Native Son (Richard Wright, 1940)
  • Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison, 1945)
  • Collected Poems (Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1971)
  • Collected Songs (Mahalia Jackson, 1947-1963)
  • Collected Songs (Aretha Franklin, 1956-1972)
  • A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry, 1957)
  • Such Sweet Thunder (Duke Ellington, 1957)
  • Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Final Tour (1960)
  • Collected Speeches and Essays (Martin Luther King, 1963-1968)
  • The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin, 1963)
  • A Love Supreme (John Coltrane, 1963)
  • Collected Speeches (Malcom X, 1964-1965)
  • Collected Poems (Audre Lorde, 1968-1973)
  • Collected Poems (Maya Angelou, 1969-1975)
  • The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison, 1970)