A black girl's reading list: 10 books to inspire and challenge

The authors of Taking Up Space, recent Cambridge graduates, list the books that have given them ‘permission to dream’

Before university, during our years there and in the time since, the books that we have been exposed to have shaped our ideas, our writing – and ultimately how we see the world. Being able to see our realities reflected in the books we read has made us who we are. Some of these books were difficult to read and forced us to confront difficult truths about our place in the world. But we also found joy, and these books gave us permission to dream.

Reading stories about lives like ours gave us the confidence to tell our own. That’s exactly what we aim to do in Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change, which ends with a list of our favourite reads to inspire black girls everywhere to look beyond a canon that may not include them. Here are some of them.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Though I went to school in Nigeria for more than five years, Half of a Yellow Sun was my first real encounter with the devastating Biafran civil war of the late 1960s that remains a sore memory for many Nigerians. Against this historical backdrop, the novel explores the lives of a professor, his girlfriend, their houseboy and the various other people they encounter. Adichie offers an account of one of Nigeria’s most deadly and divisive periods with writing that is far more accessible and delicate than any history book. Ore Ogunbiyi

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Adeyemi has described her novel as “an allegory for the modern black experience, for people who aren’t black to understand what it’s like to walk in our shoes”. Using both history and fantasy, she whisks you away into the world of Orïsha, full of magic and family betrayals. Her descriptions are vibrant and vivid; so many scenes lingered in my mind and followed me into my dreams. Chelsea Kwakye

Frantz Fanon
Frantz Fanon. Photograph: handout/HANDOUT

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
This book is almost solely responsible for the passion that fuelled my Cambridge application. Fanon details the impact of colonialism on the psyches of black people. For the first time, I was able to understand empire as more than just an economic phenomenon, and in turn how much Africa’s decolonisation was expected to reverse. Reading it more than 50 years after publication was a visceral confrontation with a legacy that remains a shadow over black people. OO

Biased: The New Science of Race and Inequality by Jennifer Eberhardt
Although grounded in scientific research, this book dissects how our ideas of race are social constructs. Eberhardt details experiences, conversations and most notably, interactions with her own kids who try to articulate their racial trauma. Biased has given me a well-rounded and critical understanding of racial bias and answers the tough question: why does it exist at all? CK

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
The “angry black woman” trope is tired and boring, but as black girls we have to prepare ourselves for a world that is going to think of us this way. Cooper gives us permission to not only be angry but to use our anger. She invites other black women to share in her experiences, including desiring men while often feeling let down by them; finding a balance between her faith and her feminism; and learning the art of self-love in a society plagued with misogynoir. OO

Yaa Gyasi.
Yaa Gyasi. Photograph: Emma-Sofia Olsson/SvD/TT/TT News Agency/Press Association Images

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The best book I have read. I laughed, gasped and cried within a matter of a few pages. Starting on Ghana’s Gold Coast and ending at Stanford University, Gyasi takes you on an emotional rollercoaster through one family story. This novel was a stark reminder of how much family history I didn’t know – and worse, how much was lost and destroyed. CK

The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin
From the dramatic storyline that could have been straight out of a Nollywood film, to Shoneyin’s poetic command of both the Yoruba and English languages, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. A hilarious tale about a polygamous family in modern-day Nigeria, told with both refreshing candour and subtlety, interwoven with themes of Nigerian patriarchy. OO

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
At the age of 12, my sister and I watched the starry film (Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover) of Walker’s book. I remember being shocked by the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of the protagonist Celie, at the hands of the men (and women) in her life. It was my first exposure to how segregation and racial politics played out in the everyday lives of African Americans. It should be mandatory reading for every black girl. Walker isn’t afraid to expose her readers to a story that is raw and powerful. CK

Chika Unigwe.
Chika Unigwe. Photograph: Geraint Lewis/REX

On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe
I read this novel when I was 14 but the aftertaste still lingers. For so long, I had viewed Nigeria as a paradise of sorts, but Unigwe cleverly exposes what drives Nigerian women to want to leave, and how many are so desperate to stay away that they end up in sex work. Despite the hardships the women in this book have been through, Unigwe doesn’t portray them as passive or defined by their victimhood. Instead, it taught me the importance of empathy and solidarity, even in the most brutal circumstances. OO

There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack by Paul Gilroy
This book has helped me understand the rhetoric used in our divisive times – by the government, politicians and ordinary people – when we talk about the UK’s cultural and racial politics. Gilroy challenges the concept of nationhood, suggesting that the idea immigration is a “national decline” is based on a fallacy that populations are a “homogenous and continuous national stock”. This has never been the case and as a society we need to move away from describing migration in what Gilroy calls “military metaphors”. A complex mosaic of experiences exist – this should not be simplified for the sake of lacklustre public debate. CK

• Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi is published by #Merky Books. To order it, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi

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