The ZORA Canon: The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written by African American Women

he ZORA Canon, our list of the 100 greatest books ever written by African American women, is one of a kind, yet it exists within a rich cultural tradition. As author and New York Times contributing opinion writer Kaitlyn Greenidge notes in “Why We Need to Acknowledge the African American Women’s Canon,” her insightful and moving introduction to the list, Black artists and cultural leaders have been compiling documents of this sort since the 1700s, first as part of an ongoing argument against White supremacy and slavery.

Later, during Reconstruction, as a reminder to the newly literate Black population “that they were not alone.” Later still, to catalog the abundance of the Harlem Renaissance (the period that brought us Zora Neale Hurston, for whom ZORA is named). And in contemporary time, less to prove the value of Black women’s voices and their humanity than to “go about challenging the work of figuring out what this space would mean for us.”

To our knowledge, however, no one has ever compiled a comprehensive list specifically featuring the finest literary works produced by African American women authors. We decided to undertake that effort both to honor that still underappreciated group of writers and to provide ZORAreaders — you — with a handy reference guide to their work.

How did we choose what works to include? The ZORA editors assembled a blue-ribbon panel of authorities on African American women’s literature, asked them for their selections, then worked with them to vet and shape the final list. The group included Malaika Adero, a former vice president and senior editor for Atria Books at Simon & Schuster; Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and professor; Ayana Mathis, a professor and New York Times bestselling author; Tressie McMillan Cottom, an author and sociologist; Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies and an author; and Jesmyn Ward, an author and English professor.

The result is a list of 100 masterworks, spanning 160 years of African American women’s literature, divided into sections from pre-emancipation to the present, including fiction and nonfiction, novels, plays, anthologies, and poetry collections and ranging in subject matter from the historical to the personal (and sometimes both at once). Taken together, the works don’t just make up a novel canon; they form a revealing mosaic of the Black American experience during the time period. They’re also just great reads.

Finally, to complement the canon, ZORA editors and contributors compiled “The Next Generation,” a list of 10 up-and-coming African American women writers we believe are likely to make their own indelible mark.

Exercises like this are inherently subjective, of course. We invite you to offer your comments and critiques in the response sections at the end of the lists.

Our intention with both lists is to offer ZORA readers an opportunity to explore our shared cultural and literary history, connect with others in the ZORA community, and simply have fun. We hope you enjoy them.

— The Editors

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