February is Black History Month, and I thought I’d use this time to promote some black lesbian books! (And black bisexual books, black sapphic books, black queer books, etc.) Black lesbian fiction is one of the keywords that leads a lot of people to the Lesbrary, and I can see why. A quick Google search doesn’t bring up a lot of helpful posts. The Black Lesbian Literary Collective is a fantastic resource, though, and I highly recommend checking it out.
To help add to your Black History Month TBR, here are 15 black bi and lesbian books that I love. Most are by black authors and feature black characters, but there might be a few that are just one or the other. Let me know in the comments what your favourite black lesbian fiction is, or any other black queer books you recommend!
I’m going to start out with 15 black sapphic books that I have read and loved, and then I’ll share some of the top ones on my TBR. I talked about them in my latest Book Riot video, or you can scroll down if you’d rather read my thoughts on each!
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This is a classic for a reason. It does have brutal subject matter, including rape and racism, but it somehow manages to have an overall message of hope and resilience. My favourite part about this book was the huge cast of diverse, complex female characters that all form a network of support with each other, finding connections across difference.
Speaking of relationships between women, the description of this book often downplays the queer content. Celie is proudly gay. She has romantic and sexual relationships with women in this book. It’s not subtext: it’s a major part of the plot.
The Summer We Got Free by Mia Mckenzie
The overwhelming image I get when trying to describe The Summer We Got Free is the moments just before a summer thunderstorm: the charged anticipation, the humid heat, the claustrophobia of it. This is about a family and a house haunted by its past. In an alternating structure, we learn about Ava as a vibrant, unrestrainable child, and the closed-off and dulled person she is now. Slowly, we build up to the event that caused this shift. This is a brilliant and affecting book that should be recognized as a classic of black lesbian fiction and of literary fiction in general.
YA and Middle Grade:
This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow
Who can resist a literal getting the band back together book? Dia, Jules, and Hanna used to be inseparable. But the band and friendship fell apart when a) Dia’s boyfriend died b) Dia discovered soon after that she was pregnant and c) Hanna’s alcoholism landed her in the hospital. Dia cuts ties with Hanna, and Jules sides with her. Now, Hanna is sober, Dia is a mom of a toddler, and there’s a Battle of the Bands that could change all of their lives, if they can mend their friendship. These are multifaceted people with complex relationships with each other. There’s also a cute F/F romance (with Jules)!
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
A quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles subjects like race, sexuality, and mental health. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness. But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. This is a beautiful book with a lot of depth.
The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus
It’s the classic story: girl meets granddaughter of pastor, girls falls in love, girls get caught and sent away to separate countries. That is only the beginning, though.
This is a book with a strong voice and focus. I appreciate that this isn’t written to pander to a white American audience–it trusts that readers will ether understand or accept being a little lost. It makes for an immersive, powerful read.
I really appreciated the skill at work here. Audre and Mabel are well-rounded characters, and I loved their relationship. Mabel pushes away the people in her life when she becomes seriously ill, and they also don’t know how to be around her. Audre is determined to keep their friendship, and she continues to show up for Mabel. They develop a stronger relationship through this. Audre is also still dealing with the rejection from her mother, and slowly becoming closer to the father that she has spent very little time with in her life.
The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson
This is a tiny (99 pages) book with a lot of layers. It’s the story of the summer when Staggerlee was fourteen, and when she felt confused and alone. It’s also the summer when she met her (estranged, adopted) cousin Trout. It’s atmospheric and emotional. Staggerlee is struggling with being small-town famous for her grandparents dying in an anti-civil rights bombing. She feels set apart for being mixed race, and is also questioning her sexuality. She is able to process a lot of this with Trout, finding ease in not yet having the answer. “Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t be gay.” This is a slow, thoughtful read.
Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender
A middle grade novel with a lot of complexity. It’s set on the US Virgin Islands, and Caroline is struggling with a lot: she is ostracized at school, her mother has gone missing, and as she begins to develop feelings for a new girl at school, she is met with waves of homophobia. This is a difficult and sometimes surreal book–Caroline sees spirits. This is a messy story, not in writing skill, but because it realistically depicts this overwhelming and confusing point in Caroline’s life.
Goldie Vance series by Hope Larson (Author) and Brittney Williams (illustrator)
This is an all-ages comic with a black teenage girl detective! The plot is a little more serious/political than I’d expect with something like Lumberjanes, but this is still a lot of fun.
Of course, what really made me love this is the queer content. Goldie meets Diane and is immediately enamored with this girl rocking the James Dean look. Their romance is adorable, and I look forward to seeing more of them.
(Note: Brittney Williams is the co-creator, and she does the illustrations in this first volume, but isn’t involved in the subsequent volumes.)
Science Fiction & Fantasy:
The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
This is historical fiction following three black women in different places and times (18th century Haiti, 19th century Paris, and 4th century Egypt). All three are sometimes possessed by Elizi, a spirit.
The Salt Roads is a hugely ambitious book exploring racism throughout time, and how these women survive and fight back. It is also incredibly queer. I was assigned this in a university class, and I was pleasantly surprised to find 2 lesbian sex scenes within the first 15 pages.
This is a stunning book that made me a lifelong Nalo Hopkinson fan.
Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson
Did I mention being a lifelong Hopkinson fan? I’ll admit that this collection only has one sapphic story, but it is the longest story in the collection, and there are other queer stories. I was hooked from the first sentence: I didn’t used to like people much.
“Ours Is the Prettiest” is part of the Borderlands series, which is a series of books and stories where authors share the same characters and settings. I thought this worked really well as a stand-alone. I can’t say how well it fits into the established world–in the introduction Hopkinson mentions getting complaints that her more diverse take was criticized by some readers–but I am definitely inclined to side with this story, which felt like it had more world-building informing it than even made it into the text.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
This is a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. It is a brilliant, dense, thought-provoking story about colonialism told from a huge variety of perspectives. This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.
The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. There are three queer women point of view characters, and the complicated, deeply flawed, compelling relationship between two of them is at the heart of this story.
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
This follows a vampire from just before her change, when she is escaping from slavery, to two centuries afterwards (yes, to 2050). It is almost like a collection of short stories, each set a decade or two after the previous one. It really imagines the scope of being immortal. It also is just as much a history of racism and slavery in the United States.
I also loved how Gomez incorporated vampire mythology (about running water and connection to the earth) as well as developing a vampire moral code: Vampires are able to manipulate people’s thoughts, reading what a person needs (comfort, decisiveness, hope, etc), and leaving that with them. They also heal the wounds they cause, making it, in their opinion, an even exchange.
Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Another lesbian vampire book, but with a very different tone. This is an erotica (vampire sorority sisters!) I did have some issues with the plot, but overall this is a really fun, sexy story that manages to convincingly have vampires with consensual relationships.
Despite the vampire orgies, this ends up having compelling characters. I look forward to reading the next books in the series, especially because focuses on my favourite supporting character, Cleo.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Hunger follows Roxane Gay’s journey with her body, from when she was a kid to her present day, and how the trauma in her life has played out over her body. It talks frankly about her rape as a child and how she has lived with that experience for the rest of her life. It talks about the way our society views fat bodies, how that fatphobia affects her in so many ways. It talks about her disordered eating, the unhealthy relationships she’s had (as well as the healthy ones).
Despite the subject matter, Gay writes in approachable style that feels like she’s having a conversation with you, making this easier to read than I was expecting. She also discussed coming out as bi, and some of her relationships with women. This is dark, sometimes brutal book, but it’s also a masterful one.
Of course, this only scratches the surface! Here are a few more on my TBR pile:
- In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand (Fiction)
- For Sizakele by Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene (Fiction)
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Fiction)
- The Heart Does Not Bend by Makeda Silvera (Fiction)
- Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett (Historical Fiction)
- Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair (Historical Fiction)
- Don’t Explain by Jewelle Gomez (Short Stories)
- Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole (Romance)
- Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers (Romance)
- Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Romance)
- Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden (Science Fiction)
- The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum (YA Science Fiction)
- The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (YA Science Fiction)
- The Black Veins by Ashia Monet (YA Fantasy)
- The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis (YA Fantasy)
- Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron (YA Fantasy)
- Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA Horror)
- Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett (YA)
- You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson (YA)
- 37 Things I Love (in No Particular Order) by Kekla Magoon
- The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin (Memoir)
- Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology edited by Barbara Smith (Nonfiction)
- The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (Poetry)
- The Complete Works of Pat Parker edited by Julie R. Enszer (Poetry)
- Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney (Poetry)