7 Essay Collections on Black Life and Love

Eirinie Carson, author of “The Dead Are Gods,” recommends books that celebrate Blackness in America

Person walking in front of a red wall covered in cursive graffiti reading 'love'
Photo by Jakob Owens via Unsplash

My book, The Dead Are Gods, centres around my friendship with Larissa, who I met in my early teens in early aughts London. She died in 2018, a death that shook me to my core. Together, we were fixtures on the rock ‘n roll scene in the city, and found home in each other, both of us Black women navigating distinctly white spaces of fashion and music in the UK. It is a home that harbours me still, even after her death. 

The Dead Are Gods  is a book about grief, yes, but it is also a book about Black love, something we do not get to see nearly enough of in today’s media. While Larissa and I were friends first and foremost, our love for each other was expansive, and we both felt more like sisters than anything else. She was there for every pivotal moment of my life, we were entwined in a way that, when she died, I was unsure of how to untangle myself, and if I even wanted to. Our love was not one you usually see on tv—it was platonic, it was boundless, we came back to one another over and over and over again, and in my book we are together once more, a final (or perhaps infinite) time. We prioritize romantic love, but what are we without the love of our chosen family? This ballast that supports us through the hardest of times?

Here are some essay collections that illuminate and highlight essential conversations around Black life and love in America. Some are funny, some are poignant, all are important. 

Don’t Let it Get You Down by Savala Nolan

Savala Nolan, a biracial woman with a Black-Mexican father and white mother, explores the in-between liminal spaces where identities and selfhood overlap. As a mother, she considers what she will pass down to her child and reflects on the history of her female predecessors who were enslaved by her white ancestors. Don’t Let it Get You Down offers a personal look into race, gender, and the body and the ways in which the intersection of the three is seen by American society. 

Breath Better Spent: Living Black Girlhood by DaMaris B. Hill

In her ode to Black girlhood, DaMaris B. Hill holds her own inner child’s hand throughout, and in doing so, uncovers much about what Black girls throughout America and beyond have inherited. Hill pays homage to trailblazing Black women like Phillis Wheatley,  Zora Neale Hurston and Whitney Houston while lamenting the loss of Black girls whose disappearance goes unacknowledged.

Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby

Now arguably world renowned, I first discovered Samantha Irby via her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat (a reference from the movie Friday, don’t get much Blacker than that). Her writing is openly queer and openly weird, and unapologetic about both. She talks, unfiltered, about dildos, Crohn’s Disease and the stigma of being a Black woman with depression in a way that feels like sitting next to your funniest friend at dinner, trying to restrain yourself from doing a spit-take. She’s the gold standard on how to remain exactly oneself in a world that is trying to tell you how to change. 

Black Matrilineage, Photography, and Representation: Another Way of Knowing by Lesly Deschler Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago

Separated into five segments, this collection of essays, paired with a selection of curated images, contains stories of Black female and genderqueer artists being confronted with the societal assumption that to be a mother or to mother and to be an artist are mutually exclusive, instead of inherently linked—to make art you create, to create is to give birth to something. The work of Black mothers and femme child-carers has long been overlooked and undervalued, and, in a time when deaths of Black birthing people during childbirth are on the rise, this book is a vital read. 

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young

Damon Young is undeniably funny; I first came across his writing on the Washington Post and The Root and have been hooked ever since. He tackles subjects like the ever-increasing anxiety of being Black in a country that is, at best, openly hostile and, at worst, murderous with a black (both senses of the word) humour this British person appreciates. In his opening essay, he lampoons the extreme sports world, a flagrantly white space, and compares simply existing as Black in America as an extreme sport capable of getting your heart rate up just as high as, say, bungee jumping. He deftly summarises misogynoir, takes the reader by the hand through Black neighbourhood staples like the barbershop, dusting the hair debris off the seat before sitting them in the barber’s chair and waxing lyrical about the difference between the n word “er” and the n word “a”. Honest, hilarious, a book that made me say, “well, shit” several times out loud.

Black Love Matters by Jessica P. Pryde

We need more stories of Black joy and mirth and that social media trend of “frolicking” (mostly Black men grinning and skipping in nature, maybe the only good thing to have come from TikTok). Throughout Black Love Matters, the celebration of Blackness and Black romance is consistently emphasized over that of Black hardship, and it is a joy to behold. In this anthology, Jessica P. Pryde compiles essays about the essential nature of love in the Black community and how it has saved us countless times and in immeasurable ways. 

A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars by Erin Sharkey

A beautiful anthology about Black people in nature. Nature and its associated activities have long been the domain of white people—skiing when there’s snow, hiking when there isn’t, waterskiing and stand up paddleboards and all sorts of things that, if you were to try them as a Black person, you would find yourself very much in the minority. But Black people in America are inextricably linked to nature by our very history, and this book explores our love and our home in nature.

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