As a person who’s experienced bullying and bouts of depression during childhood after her parents’ divorce, one of the only things I drew hope and comfort from were books. Lots and lots of them. With that, came a natural love for writing which has continued to feed my endless appetite for reading through adulthood.
Exploring and sharing the works of Black women is vital, especially during a time when it’s easy to become hardened and defeated by the realities of ongoing systemic oppression.
Here’s a few Black women whose books highlight mental health and in so doing, give me strength to heal myself and embrace compassion for all.
1) 4-Headed Woman by Opal Palmer Adisa
Opal Palmer Adisa’s 4-Headed Woman is a candid and nourishing poetry collection. The book oozes with love, warmth, wit, awareness, and admiration for the complexities—and sometimes, the emotional and mental horrors—that often ring true for women of color. Her latest book is deeply matriarchal, weaving in food and humor to convey relatable experiences. For me, it was a spiritual guide to womanhood that paid homage to mothers, sisters, aunts, mentors and endearing community elders who insist on keeping it real.
2) An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
If you’re into literary thrillers, consider Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. I couldn’t put this novel down until I’d finished every page, ‘Acknowledgments’ section included. Gay takes readers through the mind of a Haitian woman who’s kidnapped and tortured for days by her captors after her rich father refuses to pay a ransom. The narrator’s mental and emotional state worsens after she’s released and attempts to piece her life back together during a long and rigorous recovery. Gay’s depiction of human fragility in the face of trauma taught me how hope and resilience is still attainable.
3) The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
The Star Side of Bird Hill is a coming-of-age story about the growing pains of a 10-year-old Brooklynite and her older sister who must stay with their grandmother in Barbados when their mother, an overworked, homesick nurse, starts having mental health challenges. The backdrop is about the struggles of underserved medical workers during the early days of the AIDS epidemic in 1980’s New York City. Jackson’s lyrical novel, I believe, shows how fiction encourages readers to think outside of their own personal narratives and develop a better understanding of cultural differences. In this case, I empathized with the psychological scars linked to immigrants’ migration experiences.
4) Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s updated version of the classic Snow White fairy tale that addresses the repercussions of racism, child abuse, and transgender-related stigma, during the segregated civil rights era. The main character is a runaway whose emotional baggage causes her to reinforce harm onto her new family. For me, an important takeaway was how cruelty becomes normalized and cyclical when unresolved issues go unchecked.
5) Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele
Faith Adiele’s vivid memoir focuses on her quest for inner peace at a convent in Thailand after becoming a Harvard drop-out and enduring Boston racism. This book’s fluidity and frankness about the author’s internal battles with fear, loneliness, and contradictory world views helped me accept that life comes with no instruction manuals. Adiele’s self-discovery and one-year immersion into Thai Buddhism also reminded me that self-awareness involves keeping an open mind about all cultures and customs.
6) The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Family can be complicated. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, conveys the thin line between the beauty and the struggle between relatives. The book follows a Detroit-based family of 13 siblings affected by the matriarch’s sudden illness in the midst of the city’s economic woes. Despite a tangle of intergenerational issues, like addiction and depression, the Turner clan fights to stick together and preserve the family home. What resonated with me most was Flournoy’s expression of both the joys and burdens of familial responsibility.
7) Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
Natalie Baszile’s Queen Sugar was, for me, a prime example of one woman’s testament of endurance in the face of grief and loss. The novel’s main character inherits her late father’s sugarcane farm in rural Louisiana and abruptly moves from Los Angeles with her daughter to begin a new chapter. Baszile gracefully explores the intricacies of modern southern life. The demands faced during one stifling hot summer— bitter sibling rivalry, an unruly teenager, and inexperience in the cane farming business—were key indicators that wholeness and positive change doesn’t come without its bumps in the road.
8) Undoing Crazy by Colette Winlock
Set in Oakland, California, Colette Winlock’s Undoing Crazy is about a woman’s recovery of mental exhaustion. The narrator, a devoted daughter, attentive friend, and hardworking schoolteacher, feels empty, but with the help of a local spoken word poet, she’s able to rebuild what Winlock calls her ‘emotional legacy’. Winlock effectively addresses the dangers of emotional burnout, the result of a toxic selflessness prevalent among women of color due to deep-rooted cultural expectations. More than anything, I enjoyed this book for bringing to mind the power of unapologetic self-care.
Long story short, these books by phenomenal Black female storytellers are examples of what keeps me going in trying times when the world feels flat, bitter, and wrong. Most importantly, they motivate me to think of my small role in mental health advocacy as not just a job, but a life’s work.
— Lyndsey Ellis