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Hey there, folks! How’s your Read Harder Challenge going? Today, we’ve got classics written by people of color—who here we’re classifying as anyone whom posterity might have identified as a person of African, Indigenous, Latin American, or Asian descent. (We can get into the weeds on who “counts” later.) And in this case, people of Asian descent includes anyone from the Asian continent, from Istanbul on eastwards.
These classics are novels, works of poetry, memoirs, treatises, manifestos, and other works that have made it through the passage of time, and which have made lasting imprints on the people who read them in their time, and who continue to do so in ours. Some of them are familiar—maybe you were assigned to read the whole thing or excerpts in a lit class in secondary or advanced education—and some are a little lesser known, unless you are familiar with the author or have been doing your research for other purposes. Some were even lost to time, and only republished recently. But each book proves that we have been here for a long time, writing for our own people and eventually for those who traded with, invaded, colonized, and tried to silence us.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Everyone and their mother knows that Dumas was of African descent, and that he wrote this educational prison break book starring Jim Caviezel. Vaguely inspired by his own father, Alex Dumas (nicknamed Daddy Dumas by the internet), Middle Dumas (because there is also a Dumas, Fils, author of the most boring book known to man) wrote the story of a man who is falsely charged with a crime, is sent to prison until he finds his way out, and finds a boatload of treasure that allows him to make himself a count in order to enact vengeance on those who did him wrong. Because that always ends well.
If you’re more of a poetry person, the Ruba’iyat (or Rubaiyat or Rubayat or Rubiyat, it’s all transliterated anyway) is a collection of poems written in the 12th Century by Omar Khayyam, a Persian mathematician, poet, and all around (lol) Pre-Renaissance man. There has been a lot of conversation about the translation of the selected poems, so that might also be something worth checking out.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
If you didn’t have to read this in high school, it’s definitely worth picking up anyway. One of the exemplary narratives of enslavement written from the POV of a woman, this autobiographical book tells the story of Harriet’s life during her enslavement, and her escape from South Carolina to the north to be with her children.
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Considered the first novel in existence, The Tale of Genji paints a picture of Japanese court life like no other. It is a lengthy, epic saga, centered around a prince and his search for…love. Yeah, totally searching for love.
Romance in Marseille by Claude McKay
After sitting unpublished for nearly 90 years, this novel from the Harlem Renaissance tells the story of an African sailor who becomes wealthy after suing the freight company that caused him to lose both lower legs to frostbite and the surgeon’s knife. This book has been described as one of the earliest overtly queer books about the Black experience.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong
A dramatic exploration of feudal warfare during the Han dynasty, this 16th century novel is an epic romance (in the classical usage of the word) that could match Ariosto and Roland and all those other chansons de geste for its sprawling storytelling—and also page count.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Everybody needs a little Baldwin in their life, and this manifesto is a great entrance point. Comprised of two letters, one to his nephew about living in the world (the inspiration for Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me), and the second to the American people on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, this short but powerful treatise has sparked several fires in hearts for the past sixty years.
Cogewea, the Half Blood by Mourning Dove (Hum-Ishu-Ma)
The first novel published by an Indigenous American woman, Cogewea is the story of a woman with both Native and white blood, torn between two worlds when it comes to many things, including how to live, where to work, and who to love.
Iola Leroy: Or, Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Considered one of the earliest examples of romantic fiction by a Black American woman, Iola Leroy tells the story of a young Mississippi woman who travels north for school and is sold into slavery when it’s discovered she has African blood. Freed during the Civil War, she must figure out how to live in her new reality. (Also, Beverly Jenkins told me to read this book. I’ll be darned if I don’t.)
There are actually several Vedas, the scriptures that make up the basis of Hinduism. But the Rig Veda is the one you might have touched on in a high school Humanities class or other exploration of world literature. (Just me?) A collection of over 1000 sanskrit hymns, the Rig Veda is the oldest of the four.
Passing by Nella Larsen
With the film adaptation having released on Netflix last year, this would be a good novella to explore with a group, watch the film, and discuss. Or just compare on your own. The story of two women walking a thin line between two worlds during the Harlem Renaissance, this will enrapture you with every turn and you won’t be the same when you’re done.
1001 Nights (or The Arabian Nights)
Most of us have seen Aladdin, but might not be as familiar with the text from which the idea originally sprung (and was twisted to Disney’s whim). Told by Scheherezade as she hopes to not be killed by the king, the 1001 Nights are a collection of stories filled with mythical beings and daring adventures. And of course, the ultimate story of daring, that of Scheherezade herself.
The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands by Mary Seacole
A free Black woman born in Jamaica in the early 19th century, Mary Seacole traveled the world, learned to be a healer (knowledge she used to help soldiers during the Crimean War), and generally had a lot of fun and interesting times. She also dealt with a lot of other stuff, because, you know, Black. But she had a helluva life.
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
First published in 1967, this memoir recounts the author’s experience as a young Nuyorican getting into trouble and exploring the meaning of self and identity on the streets of Spanish Harlem.
Looking for more? Check out this great list of 100 must-read classics by people of color. And if you’re curious what I’ve been reading, you can check out my page on Book Riot proper, listen to the When In Romance podcast, or catch me on twitter (@jessisreading) or instagram (@jess_is_reading).