by Rhianna Walton, February 16, 2021 8:26 AM
Find more book lists and recommendations on our Black History Month page.
In a Powells.com interview a few years back, writer Jesmyn Ward explained her affinity for the classics this way: “The reason that I like to use classical myths as models is because African American writers and African American stories are usually understood as occurring in some kind of vacuum — because of slavery….Yet, something that is so great about African American art is that we incorporate aspects of our lost African heritage with aspects of the various people in this country whom we've mixed with and encountered.”
I’ve been thinking about Ward’s answer ever since, and eager to explore how other Black writers are using classical themes and characters to explore modern issues. While this list isn’t exclusive to American authors, the books below share some of the themes and preoccupations of pioneering Americans like Phillis Wheatley, William Sanders Scarborough, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston, who explored the centrality of classical Western, African, and Afro-Caribbean texts and traditions in Black cultural identity.