In his provocative new book, What Was African-American Literature?—an expansion of his 2007 W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University—Kenneth W. Warren defines “African American literature” as titles produced by blacks during the Jim Crow era, that terrible time of constitutionally sanctioned segregation in the United States. With discriminatory Jim Crow laws now off the books, Warren argues that the rich body of contemporary literature produced by African Americans belongs to the greater literary community and should not be limited to bookshelves labeled “African American literature.”
Warren’s stance is definitely controversial, but even if one accepts that the singular classification “African American literature” refers to titles produced in a time past, it is certainly quite valid to explore and discuss the wonderful variety of contemporary titles produced by African Americans and members of the global black community. From Toni Morrison’s achingly beautiful novel of a Korean War veteran’s homecoming struggles and Colson Whitehead’s ingenious retellings of the John Henry legend to Pat G’Orge-Walker’s hilarious gospel comedy featuring the feisty Sister Betty, this article will explore the wide array of adult fiction audiobooks with which you can stock your libraries’ physical (and virtual!) shelves.
Troy Juliar, VP of acquisitions and content at Recorded Books, reports that “[they] are the only audio publisher with a dedicated program/imprint—Griot—created to identify and record the most popular African American fiction.” (A griot is a West African storyteller.) Recorded Books editors scour popular and industry press for news of both well-known and interesting new African American authors—for example, Shelton Johnson and Tiphanie Yanique. As far as trends go, Juliar believes the urban literature or “street lit” trend reached its apex a year or so ago, but it still remains a strong subgenre. Other popular Griot subgenres are inspirational fiction, romance, and mystery/thriller.
Michele Cobb, marketing director at AudioGO, notes that demand for African American authors is high and says that AudioGO is continually searching for new authors to add to its catalog. She reports that while the well-known African American authors such as Kimberla Lawson Roby and Eric Jerome Dickey sell the best and that simultaneous releases with print tend to get the most visibility and sales, AudioGo is “constantly searching for backlist gems.” The recent and forthcoming releases of James Baldwin works certainly demonstrate the firm’s commitment.
Cheryl Herman, marketing director for Books on Tape/Listening Library, states that popular authors such as Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, and Walter Mosley are top sellers to public libraries and that authors such as Morrison, Sapphire, and Maya Angelou also have strong academic and school library initial and backlist sales.
David Burleigh, distributor OverDrive’s marketing director, reports an increasing interest in works by African American authors, especially established writers such as Morrison and E. Lynn Harris. Urban lit remains strong for OverDrive, and Burleigh believes increased review coverage of urban lit in trade journals increases discoverability. Tracy Brown, Zane, and Wahida Clark are strong authors in the urban lit area.
Award winners on audio
Collection development librarians looking to build a strong audiobook collection by contemporary African American authors can start by simply selecting award-winning titles, e.g., Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, the 2011 National Book Award Winner; Whitehead’s John Henry Days was a finalist for the 2001 Pultizer Prize for Fiction; and Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women was nominated for a 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award. Morrison has won both a Pulitzer and a Nobel prize. J. California Cooper, Mosley, and Edward P. Jones have each received multiple literary awards and nominations.
Looking for award-winning narrators is another great way to build a strong collection. Dion Graham, narrator of several titles below, has just been named an AudioFile Golden Voice, while Joe Morton (Juneteenth), Mirron Willis (King of Ragtime et al.), Peter Jay Fernandez (John Henry Days), and Patricia Floyd (God Don’t Make No Mistakes) have had multiple works recognized as AudioFile Earphones Award winners.
Audiobooks designated with a star  are considered essential library purchases.
Baldwin, James. Going To Meet the Man. library ed. unabridged. 7¾ hrs. AudioGO. 2011. ISBN 978079276437. $64.95; retail ed.; Playaway digital; digital download.
Dion Graham earned an Audie nomination for Best Solo Narration—Male for his outstanding performance of Baldwin’s haunting 1965 short story collection, which gave voice to marginalized Americans—from poor whites in the rural South to blacks displaced to the big city. (LJ 5/15/11)
Ellison, Ralph. Juneteenth. library ed. unabridged. 14 hrs. Books on Tape. 2011. ISBN 9780307939456. $45; digital download.
This unfinished follow-up to Ellison’s masterpiece, The Invisible Man, was shaped into a novel by John F. Callahan, the literary executer of Ellison’s estate. Joe Morton brings Ellison’s rich prose to life. Don’t miss Morton’s reading of The Invisible Man, also recently released by Books on Tape.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. retail ed. unabridged. 8 hrs. Harper Audio. 2004. ISBN 9780060776534. $34.95; digital download.
Hurston’s classic tale of African American Southern culture in the 1930s is brought vividly to life by the captivating Ruby Dee.
Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. library ed. unabridged. 8½ hrs. Recorded Bks. 2005. ISBN 9781419327551. $77.75; digital download.
Literary critic Harold Bloom rates Reed’s 1972 satire of Western civilization as one of the 500 most important books in the Western canon. Narrator JD Jackson relates the madcap action with aplomb.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. library ed. unabridged. 8 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2010. ISBN 9781440754395. $77.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Nearly three decades after Walker published her Pulitzer Prize–winning book she breathes life into her wonderfully drawn, unforgettable characters.
Clarke, Breena. Stand the Storm. retail ed. 10½ hrs. unabridged. Tantor Audio. 2008. ISBN 9781400108787; digital download.
Listeners will be moved by Richard Allen’s passionate performance of the lyrical prose in Clarke’s powerful story about a slave family buying its freedom.
James, Marlon. The Book of Night Women. library ed. unabridged. 16 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2009. ISBN 9781436198431. $123.75; retail ed.; Playaway digital; digital download.
Robin Miles’s calypso cadence sweeps listeners away to a 19th-century Jamaican sugar plantation, where a contingent of slaves are planning a revolt. (Xpress Reviews, 8/3/09)
Johnson, Shelton. Gloryland. library ed. unabridged. 8¼ hrs. Recorded Bks. 2011. ISBN 9781461809036. $77.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Yosemite Park ranger Johnson intimately narrates his spellbinding debut—the story of Elijah Yancy, a sharecropper of black and Indian blood who becomes a Buffalo Soldier and one of the first rangers at the newly created Yosemite National Park.
Morrison, Toni. Home. library ed. unabridged. 4½ hrs. Books on Tape. 2012. ISBN 9780307748997. $30; retail ed.; digital download.
Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Morrison is a national treasure. Her elegant reading of a Korean War veteran’s desperate search for meaning is, quite simply, unforgettable.
Perkins-Valdez, Dolen. Wench. library ed. unabridged. 8 hrs. Books on Tape. 2010. ISBN 9780307713704. $45; digital download.
Narrator Robynne Young excels when delivering the powerful dialog of this debut novel set in a pre–Civil War Ohio resort town where slave-owning Southern whites secretly vacation with their slave mistresses.
Phillips, Delores. The Darkest Child. library ed. unabridged. 14 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2008. ISBN 9781428183575. $123.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Cherise Boothe authentically portrays 1950s Georgia teenager Tangy Mae Quinn, the darkest child of light-skinned Rosie Quinn. A devastating look at the life of a child abused by her mother and a racist society. (LJ 3/15/09)
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. library ed. unabridged. 11 hrs. Recorded Bks. 1998. ISBN 9781428198340. $102.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Considered by many to be the first sf/fantasy novel written by an African American woman. Narrator Kim Staunton deftly handles the many transitions of this slave memoir/fantasy/historical fiction masterpiece.
Carter, Stephen L. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. library ed. unabridged. 23 hrs. Books on Tape. 2012. ISBN 9780307989802. $45; retail ed.; digital download.
Paul Boehmer delivers a riveting performance of this alternate history thriller in which President Lincoln survives the assassination attempt, only to be charged with overstepping his constitutional authority.
Jemisin, N.K. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. library ed. unabridged. 12 hrs. Brilliance. 2010. ISBN 9781441886460. $89.97; retail ed.; Playaway digital; digital download.
Jemisin’s debut, Bk. 1 in the “Inheritance Trilogy,” is an action-packed, high fantasy sprinkled with political and social commentary. Narrator Casaundra Freeman’s portrayals are also magical.
Locke, Attica. Black Water Rising. retail ed. unabridged. 13½ hrs. Harper Audio. 2009. ISBN 9780061772092. $39.99; digital download.
Narrator Dion Graham’s drawl and deliberate pacing add to the drama of this cinematic debut novel in which struggling Houston lawyer Jay Porter, a disillusioned former civil rights activist, is drawn into the corrupt world of 1980s Big Oil.
Massey, Brandon. Thunderland. library ed. unabridged. 10 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2003. ISBN 9781428168619. $102.75; digital download.
Prepare to be up nights after listening to Kevin Free’s deliberate narration of Massey’s horror debut about a teenage boy being stalked by a mysterious, seemingly supernatural, stranger.
Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Hurricane. library ed. unabridged. 8½ hrs. Recorded Bks. 2011. ISBN 9781449854034. $77.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Myra Lucretia Taylor’s powerful narration transports listeners to New Orleans in this third volume of the Marie Lavant series.
Jones, Edward P. All Aunt Hagar’s Children. library ed. unabridged. 15 hrs. AudioGO. 2006. ISBN 9780792745181. $55.95; digital download.
Peter Francis James’s warm, deep baritone adds richness to these short stories about the struggles of Southerners moving up North. Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel The Known World. (LJ 2/15/07)
Yanique, Tiphanie. How To Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories. library ed. unabridged. 7¾ hrs. Recorded Bks. 2011. ISBN 9781456117986. $77.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Narrators Robin Miles, Dion Graham, and Andrew Garman bring to life the complex, colorful characters that inhabit this lyrical, sometimes dark, short story debut.
Alers, Rochelle. Sanctuary Cove. library ed. unabridged. 8 hrs. Blackstone. 2012. ISBN 9781470814908. $75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Nicole Small’s warm narration perfectly matches the sweet tone of this Carolina Lowcountry romance about second chances.
Brown, Tracy. Snapped. library ed. unabridged. 10½ hrs. Blackstone. 2010. ISBN 9781441728951. $88.50; Playaway digital; digital download.
Napiera Groves’s steady performance ensures listeners don’t miss a beat of this fast-paced drama, the first book in Brown’s “Snapped” urban lit series.
G’Orge-Walker, Pat. No Ordinary Noel. library ed. unabridged. 7 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2012. ISBN 9781461842125. $92.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
G’Orge-Walker, “The First Lady of Gospel Comedy,” has toured the country as the feisty Sister Betty. Her many fans won’t be disappointed with Lizan Mitchell’s deadpan reading of Betty’s slapstick struggle to save Crossing Over Sanctuary from creditors.
Jackson, Brenda. Bachelor Undone. library ed. unabridged. 5 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2012. ISBN 9781456117665. $56.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Jackson’s steamy romances have legions of fans (she’ll publish her 100th book in 2013), and they’ll very likely savor Shari Peele’s narration of this spicy Jamaican lovefest.
Monroe, Mary. God Don’t Make No Mistakes. library ed. unabridged. 12½ hrs. Recorded Bks. 2012. ISBN 9781461832621. $123.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Narrator Patricia R. Floyd’s sparkling performance is worth the price of admission in this rollicking conclusion to Monroe’s best-selling character-driven “God” series.
Roby, Kimberla Lawson. The Reverend’s Wife. library ed. unabridged. AudioGO. 2012. ISBN 9781619690684. $59.99; retail ed.; Playaway digital; digital download.
Fans of best-selling author Roby’s Rev. Curtis Black series will enjoy the entertaining ninth installment, featuring a silky smooth delivery from singer Maria Howell.
Campbell, Bebe Moore. 72 Hour Hold. library ed. unabridged. 12 hrs. Books on Tape. 2005. ISBN 9781415921685. $99.
New York Times best-selling author Campbell offers a moving account of a mother’s struggles with a bipolar child. Pamela D’Pella’s narration is gripping.
Cleage, Pearl. Till You Hear from Me. library ed. 8½ hrs. unabridged. Books on Tape. 2010. ISBN 9780307735904. $35; digital download.
After her work on the campaign, Ida Dunbar hopes for a job with President Obama, but when her father rants about the new administration, all hope seems lost. Engagingly read by Bahni Turpin and Mirron Willis.
Cooper, J. California. Life Is Short but Wide. library ed. unabridged. 9 hrs. Books on Tape. 2009. ISBN 9781415964408. $80; digital download.
At 91, Hattie B. Brown acts as the small-town historian in this multigenerational, folksy saga set in Wideland, OK. It is a pleasure to hear Anenrele Ojo deliver Cooper’s trademark graceful dialog.
Harris, E. Lynn. Basketball Jones. library ed. 7¼ hrs. unabridged. Books on Tape. 2009. ISBN 9781415960424. $60; retail ed.; digital download.
Mirron Willis is engaging as AJ Richardson, secret longtime boyfriend of NBA star Drayton Jones. When rumors swirl that Dray and AJ are more than friends, Dray tries to cover by getting married.
Jones, Tayari. Silver Sparrow. library ed. unabridged. 10½ hrs. AudioGO. 2011. ISBN 9780792777557. $74.95; retail ed.; Playaway digital; digital download.
Narrators Rosalyn Coleman Williams and Heather Alicia Simms each represent one of the two families of bigamist James Witherspoon in this evocative novel from Jones.
McCall, Nathan. Them. library ed. unabridged. 10½ hrs. Blackstone Audio. 2007. ISBN 9781433206436. $55; Playaway digital, digital download.
Mirron Willis’s wry tone is perfect for this darkly comic, character-driven drama about the gentrification of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. (LJ 3/1/08)
Mosley, Walter. The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray. library ed. unabridged. 8 hrs. Books on Tape. 2010. ISBN 9780307875839. $29.95; retail ed.; digital download.
When 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey finds his dementia temporarily reversed by a drug, he sets off to settle some unfinished business. Fans of Mosley’s crime series shouldn’t miss this stand-alone gem, brilliantly narrated by Dominic Hoffman. (LJ 3/15/11)
Tyree, Omar. Flyy Girl. library ed. unabridged. 13½ hrs. Recorded Bks. 2002. ISBN 9781402505072. $123.75; Playaway digital.
Sisi Aisha Johnson playfully voices the middle-class African American teenagers in this classic urban coming-of-age story.
Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. library ed. unabridged. 9 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2012. ISBN 9781464023583. $92.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
Cherise Boothe’s compelling narration draws listeners into this powerful story of a motherless, dirt poor Southern family, seemingly no match for an approaching hurricane. Winner of the 2011 National Book Award.
Whitehead, Colson. John Henry Days. library ed. unabridged. 18 hrs. Recorded Bks. 2001. ISBN 9781402529412. $123.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
It is hard to choose just one Whitehead title to spotlight, but this brilliant retelling of the John Henry legend across multiple generations and cultures was a finalist for the Pulitzer—and Peter Jay Fernandez’s performance will take your breath away.
Wideman, John Edgar. Fanon. library ed. unabridged. 8½ hrs. Recorded Bks. 2009. ISBN 9781436135054. $92.75; Playaway digital; digital download.
The New York Times named this fictionalized reconstruction of political activist Frantz Fanon’s life a Best Book of the Year. Dion Graham’s smooth narration perfectly complements the multilayered text.