Black History Month: A Reading List
Last year saw the publication of many award-winning and lauded novels written by black authors, including the unquestionable biggest book of 2016, The Underground Railroad. Colson Whitehead’s reimagining of American history, turning the underground railroad into a literal railroad that transported slaves to freedom, won the National Book Award after essentially relaunching Oprah’s beloved book club.
Things were no less exciting on the nonfiction side of things, with Margot Lee Shetterly’s debut Hidden Figures skyrocketing up the charts thanks to the Oscar-nominated movie adaptation. While we can all name pivotal people throughout black history, like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Hidden Figures focuses on a history we hardly ever hear about: three African-American women mathematicians who were essential to NASA during the space race.
The Underground Railroad
This February, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to grow, go beyond the familiar narratives about black history with this collection of novels and nonfiction accounts.
Yaa Gyasi’s debut takes readers through 300 years of history through multiple generations of a family, starting with two half-sisters, one a slave, the other the wife of a slaver. Well written and compulsively readable, Homegoing is also illuminating; the novel makes clear that as far as our country has come, the roots of racism that built it go deeper still. This book garnered almost as much buzz as The Underground Railroad throughout 2016, making multiple best-of-the-year lists.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
Like its mixed-race main character, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is an eclectic mix of a story, told from alternating points of view, part mystery but mostly a coming-of-age novel. Informed by Durrow’s experiences the daughter of a white Danish mother and an African-American father, this novel illuminates all the smaller ways in which racial stereotypes about what is and isn’t “white” or “black” continue to influence our lives.
Also available as as an audiobook.
The latest from Smith follows two brown girls who drift apart, even as music continues to keeps the memories of each other alive. Swing Time is an expansive work that touches on everything from celebrity culture to diaspora pilgrimage, all while depicting relationships — both familial and platonic — with an exacting and ebullient eye. It was part of our “Best Books of 2016” post with good reason.
Want to see more novels, both classic and contemporary, from black authors? See our collection “The Best Novels for Black History Month.”
The Warmth of Other Suns
There’s a lot to learn and celebrate with The Warmth of Other Suns: This National Book Award winner was written by the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Wilkerson’s work tells the story of the nearly 6 million African Americans who migrated from the South to other regions of the United States, hoping to find a better life. To keep this massive migration in perspective, Wilkerson focuses on the stories of three people in particular, giving The Warmth of Other Suns a poignant touch.
The New Jim Crow
A startling look at the racism underlying almost every aspect of America’s “War on Drugs.” Alexander gives a sweeping overview of how racial caste systems became entrenched throughout American history, from slavery to legalized segregation. In today’s caste, many people of color serve severe prison sentences for minor drug offenses, which has lasting repercussions even once they’re released. If you still need convincing that the legalization of marijuana is not a bad thing, let Alexander be your tutor.
Also available as an audiobook.
Devil in the Grove
Before Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American Supreme Court justice and before he played a crucial role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, he staunchly defended the innocence of four black men wrongfully accused of rape in Jim Crow America. In the face of intense violence from the Ku Klux Klan, Marshall stood firm in his defense of “The Groveland Boys.” A riveting account of a little-known civil rights victory.
See more of our nonfiction picks with the collection “Black History Month: A Reading List.”
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