Books

10 powerful memoirs by black women to read right now

From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou to The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae, these books deserve a spot on your reading list.

Did you race through Michelle Obama’s brilliant memoir, Becoming, published last November? You’re not alone - the former first lady’s book sold 1.4million copies in its first week of publication, and went on to become one of the bestselling books of the decade.

And if you’re on the hunt for your next read, look no further. Below, we’ve handpicked 10 of the most powerful, moving and relevant biographies written by black women to add to your reading list right now.

Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday and William Dufty

“Dope never helped anybody sing better, or play music better, or do anything better. Take it from Lady Day. She took enough of it to know.”

Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday and William Dufty

Billie Holiday in 1957

Published in 1956, just three years before the iconic jazz singer died from alcohol and drug-related complications, Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings The Blues remains an extremely compelling read all these years later. The brutally honest memoir recounts Billie’s turbulent childhood, which saw her molested at the age of 10 and turning to prostitution during her teenage years. The late singer vividly describes her descent into heroin addiction and struggles with racism in a searingly honest and upbeat manner that’s as poetic as any of her songs.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou in 1978

The first volume in a series of autobiographies by Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is considered the late author’s best work. Focused on her early years growing up in a segregated America, this beautifully written book is the ultimate story of survival. It covers racism, sexism, rape and literacy, with the young Maya ultimately finding her strength through the power of words. 

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

“Dreams do not come true just because you dream them.”

Shonda Rhimes at the Oscars in 2019

Shonda Rhimes at the Oscars in 2019

Part memoir, part self-help tome, Shonda Rhimes’ incredible book follows the creative force behind TV shows Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal as she resolves to say “yes” to everything for an entire year. Full of nuggets of wisdom, it’s a great read for anyone looking to break away from negative habits of behaviour.

We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union 

“You were fly, dope, and amazing from birth… From the second you took your first breath, you were worthwhile and valid. And I’m sorry you had to wait so long to learn that for yourself.”

Gabrielle Union in Feburary 2019

Gabrielle Union in Feburary 2019

As the title suggests, Gabrielle Union’s remarkably frank autobiography is best enjoyed with a bottle of vino within easy reach. The Bring it On star is refreshingly honest while relaying the brutal rape she endured at the age of 19 as well as her fertility struggles. Despite covering some painful subjects, Gabrielle’s tone is never self-pitying. In fact, she’s incredibly self-reflective, even exposing herself as a one time “mean girl” who took pleasure in tearing down other women.

Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme by Mary Wilson

“The fame and fortune to come would never replace the caring and true affection we felt for one another in the early years. Of course, we couldn’t know that then…”

Mary Wilson (centre) with The Supremes in London in 1965

One of the biggest girl groups of all time, The Supremes, helped break racial barriers through their music and once rivalled The Beatles in popularity. Written by founding member Mary Wilson, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, provides a fascinating insight into their ascent to fame as well as life in the Motown bubble. From Mary’s long-running affair with singer Tom Jones, to the feud between band mates Florence Ballard and Diana Ross, it’s fascinating from start to finish.

No Woman, No Cry by Rita Marley and Hettie Jones

“His interest in my baby made me feel proud instead of ashamed. That to me was a good sign, but so unexpected.’”

No Woman, No Cry by Rita Marley and Hettie Jones

Rita Marley and husband Bob pictured in 1978

Largely focused on her marriage to reggae singer Bob Marley, Rita Marley’s autobiography offers an incredible insight into the star’s life and his untimely death at the age of 36. Then a teenage single mother, Rita candidly relays the moment she met Bob as well as the ups and downs of their union, including an incident that saw both of them shot and wounded. 

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

“My comedy skills came in really handy. I thought that if I made these girls laugh they wouldn’t beat me up. But bully girl said, ‘Ahh bitch, we still going to beat you’re ass. . . but you funny.’” 

tiffany haddish

Tiffany Haddish in March 2019

To say Tiffany Haddish had a tough upbringing is something of an understatement. However, in this absolutely hilarious memoir, the Girls Trip actress manages to find humour in everything from the physical abuse she received at the hands of her mentally ill mother to being illiterate until she reached high school. 

Desert Flower by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller 

“When I realised he wasn’t going to kill me, I gave no sigh of relief, because I hadn’t been afraid.” 

Desert Flower by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller

Waris Dirie in 2010

The opening pages of Desert Flower see its heroine staring into the eyes of a lion, pleading with it to kill her. Believe it or not, this is one of the tamer parts of the book. Model Waris Dirie’s depiction of her escape from Somalia, where she became a victim of the practice of female genital mutilation at the age of five, is gut-wrenchingly emotional. Although it’s a difficult read at times, it’s also a gripping one, with Waris’s astonishing spirit a constant throughout.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

“It all made sense: my shyness, all the times I was dismissed for not being ‘black enough,’ my desire to reframe the images of black film and television… my inability to dance - these were all symptoms of my Awkward Blackness.” 

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Issa Rae in 2018

Written as a collection of essays, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl is a humourous retelling of Issa Rae’s experiences navigating through the world as a black woman who doesn’t fit into the stereotype of a “typical” black person. The creator of hit show Insecure takes on everything from dating, feeling awkward in the workplace, to constantly being asked “can I touch your hair?”, and ultimately challenges the danger of labels.

A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown

“Always remember the acronym for ‘FEAR’ can mean one of two things: F*** Everything And Run or Face Everything And Recover.” 

Released in 2006, this inspirational memoir chronicles the life of successful lawyer Cupcake Brown, detailing the abuse she suffered at the hands of her foster parents, the years she spent selling her body and her addiction to crack cocaine. Her account is no-holds barred throughout, with the moment Cupcake wakes up behind a bin and decides to turn her life one of the most powerful.  

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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