10 Books to Read During Black History Month
Powerful stories that explore essential issues.
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” the literary giant James Baldwin once said.
Even though it’s often distorted or forgotten, there’s no escaping history and its consequences. But as Baldwin understood, an appreciation of history can lead to a better understanding of current events.
Black History Month is an especially good time to look back and trace lines between past injustices and ongoing inequalities, or forgotten triumphs and improved circumstances.
For example, there’s the Federal Housing Administration’s explicit refusal to insure the mortgages of African Americans during the mid 20th century, which has led to the extreme segregation that’s still seen throughout the US today.
That’s just one example of a largely overlooked period in US history that had lasting impacts. There are, of course, more familiar events and periods — the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, the Jim Crow Laws, and slavery, to name three glaring examples — that have had more dramatic consequences.
But all throughout and between these eras there were events and moments that are still felt today.
One of the best ways to learn about how these sweeping periods played out is to read books.
So here are 10 book suggestions for Black History Month
Jesmyn Ward “Salvage the Bones”
This National Book Award winner is as elegant and evocative as a poem. Set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, “Salvage the Bones” describes the dream-like arrival of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating impact on a poor, black family. Covering topics as diverse as teen pregnancy, poverty, dog fighting, and alcoholism, this book imbues mundane events with the texture and depth of an epic drama.
Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow”
In this concise history and analysis, Michelle Alexander argues that the bigoted Jim Crow Laws never really ended — they just took on new forms that are just as crippling to black people. Since its publication, the book has hit a national chord. Movies have been based on it, movements have been informed by it, and prisons have banned inmates from reading it because the ideas contained within are deemed too “dangerous.”
Colson Whitehead “Underground Railroad”
What if the Underground Railroad was a physical subway? That’s the premise of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. In this colorful and brutal tale that explores the US’s deeply racist history, two slaves travel along a perilous route toward freedom.
Ralph Ellison “Invisible Man”
This classic from 1952 follows a man whose dreams for a better life are erased by a society that barely perceives him as a human being.
Yaa Gyasi “Homegoing”
This sweeping, multi-generational story begins in Ghana in the 18th century and traces a family tree fractured by tribal warfare and the monstrous machinery of slavery in the US. Going all the way up to the present moment, “Homegoing” draws startling parallels between past traumas and modern injustices. It also movingly shows how family bonds can survive the most inhumane treatment.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie “Americanah”
Ifemelu begins this story as a student in Nigeria, but when teachers strike at her university because they’re not being paid, she winds up studying in the US, a country that had been described to her as a fabled land of opportunity. That expectation is quickly destabilized when she arrives in the US, and the rest of the narrative is a bracing, funny, and scathing story of the immigrant experience.
Edward P. Jones “The Known World”
Slavery in the US was a brutal system that led to many strange perversions. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel depicts the lives of white and black slave owners and the slaves who were under their control. Dealing with issues like the corruption of power and moral complicity, “The Known World” explores obscure pockets in the era of slavery.
Angie Thomas “The Hate U Give”
How many people have been driven into greater awareness and activism after seeing a video of police brutality? That’s the starting point of Thomas’ “The Hate U Give.” Starr Carter watches as her unarmed friend is killed by police and is thrust into a life of activism as she seeks justice and greater reform.
Anything by Toni Morrison & James Baldwin
You can’t go wrong with anything written by Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. So go pick up Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” or any number of their books, and think about complex issues while being blown away by their prose and storytelling.