February is here, which means it’s officially Black History Month. It’s the annual event where Americans join together to celebrate Black Americans’ cultural contributions and stories, and it’s also when we ponder the complicated history and struggles that Black Americans have faced in this country.
There are many ways to learn about and honor Black history, and reading is one of the most crucial.
The conversation surrounding reading and the study of Black history has become increasingly paramount in recent months. This January, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis revealed plans to ban an AP African American studies course created by the College Board from being taught throughout the state.
On Wednesday, February 1 (which is, ironically, the first day of Black History Month), the College Board released an edited version of the course’s framework. The New York Times explained that the updated curriculum removed the names of many Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory and other topics, like Black Lives Matter which had triggered the governor and other conservatives throughout the state.
A 2022 report conducted by the American Library Association additionally noted an unprecedented rise in book censorship, heavily directed towards those written from minority perspectives, according to AP News.
The New York Times also revealed that, to date, more than two dozen states have placed restrictions on material related to critical race theory, according to a CRT tracking project conducted by the University of California law school.
This continued oppression and censorship make it even more important than ever to educate yourselves on Black History, not just in February but all year round.
Whether you’re interested in learning more about the leaders who led enslaved people to freedom or the heroes who navigated Black Americans through the civil rights movement, there are many incredible books to add to your reading list. Of course, Black history is about more than struggle. Many Black authors have also written poignant history books about various topics, including politics, medicine, jazz, education, and cuisine. Because there are many widespread myths about Black history in the United States, it’s vital to seek out Black history books that set the record straight. Often, this means finding books written by Black authors such as Isabel Wilkerson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alex Haley, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Below, we’ve gathered a selection of Black history books that we feel encompass a significant amount of this country’s history and culture. Some of the books highlight specific leaders, while others highlight particular historical moments that need remembering.
The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
One of America’s most eerie and unsettling stories is of the Tulsa riots. Not only was the event itself horrifying, but many Americans are still completely unaware that it happened in the first place.
The riots centered around Tulsa’s “Negro Wall Street,” where a white mob that numbered in the thousands obliterated a Black community that was one of America’s most prosperous.
This book tells the story of this community and the racial turmoil Black Americans faced during that time. With searing details, The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is a chilling piece of historical reporting that seeks to tell the truth about one of America’s most heinous acts of mob violence.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
This 1937 novel written by Zora Neale Hurston is set in central and southern Florida during the early 20th century and details a young woman’s struggles and triumphs amidst her quest for racial and gender role liberation.
Although poorly received during its initial release, Their Eyes Were Watching God was later rediscovered during the 1970s and 1980 as universities began to create Black studies programs across the country.
In 2005, the novel was included in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Redlining was a racist practice most know to have affected Black want-to-be homeowners. In the 1930s, the federal government began the practice of “redlining” real estate by marking what were deemed to be risky neighborhoods for federal mortgage loans. These were based on race populations and made it nearly impossible for a Black family to buy a home.
The practice extended from home mortgages to a variety of financial services, including student loans, credit cards, and insurance. This has had a cascading and lasting effect on generational wealth growth that continues to perpetuate the racial wealth gap in America.
In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein helps us understand those New Deal-era housing policies that mandated segregation on a local, state, and federal level. This book will shed light on why the act of overturning a law doesn’t automatically undo its intended devastation.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Moving from the south to the north and achieving the unimaginable was the dream of so many Black Americans. Too often, these dreams could only come to fruition through great sacrifice. In telling the stories of three individuals who achieved the unimaginable, Isabel Wilkerson explores how these journeys impacted our cities, country, and ourselves.
The publisher writes, “Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work.”
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
Most people know about the legacy of Malcolm X, but some may not know the man behind the legacy. This book, written by Les Payne and his daughter Tamara Payne, seeks to tell his biography.
The book follows his Nebraska birth in 1925 to his untimely Harlem assassination in 1965. Hearing from people close to Malcolm X, Payne strives to tell his story accurately and with heart.
Essentially, this book is a work that affirms the position of Malcolm X in the African-American freedom, equality, and justice struggle.
<em>Roots: The Saga of an American Family</em>
One of the most required and talked about novels about Black history is Roots. Written by Alex Haley, Roots tells the story of a young enslaved person named Kunta Kinte, which chronicles his life going through the turmoil of slavery.
The book won a Pulitzer Prize and was a #1 New York Times bestseller for 22 weeks. A year after its release, a miniseries was adapted from the book — more than 130 million Americans watched some or all of the series.
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story
In a stunning story about a Black woman’s battle to define herself, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, is Elaine Brown’s story of acquiring the power and weaponry of one of the most powerful Black power groups of the 60s and 70s — the Black Panther Party.
A woman gaining control of the male-dominated Black Panther Party was a big deal back in the day, and it is a testimony to her wits and character. This book explores her backstory and shares information about what happened in the Black Panther Party behind the scenes, which is perfect as a jumping point to learn more about the Black Panthers as a part of Black history.
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a visionary leader of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. is considered a national hero. Thanks mainly to his tireless efforts, the American government passed critical civil rights legislation that ended legal segregation and southern Jim Crow laws. His nonviolent approach to activism helped reveal the violence and brutality of Black Americans’ oppressors.
MLK has become one of the most admired figures in American history, and he helped prove that love can overcome hate. King tells his own story in this autobiography, highlighting what he stood for and why he stood so strongly for his people.
Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America
During the Jim Crow south and on the cusp of the civil rights movement, traveling in the United States as a Black American was treacherous. This book is the first of its kind to analyze the history of a famous travel guide for Black motorists, the Green Book.
The Green Book listed hotels, restaurants, and gas stations safe for Black people. It was a courageous feat to be featured in the Green Book, and Overground Railroad seeks to celebrate the stories of those who put their names in the book and stood up to the ugly beast of segregation.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019
This New York Times Bestseller details the four-hundred-year journey of African Americans from 1619 to current times, exploring the past’s effects on the present and future. This retelling of the vicious history of American culture explores a multitude of topics through historical essays, short stories, and personal vignettes.
Notes of a Native Son
Written by a young James Baldwin in the 40s and 50s, Notes of a Native Son features a series of essays detailing what it meant to be Black in America in the years leading up to the civil rights movement.
Listed at #26 on The Guardian’s list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time, an Amazon description for this must-read memoir details, “With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ to a sobering ‘Journey to Atlanta.'”
His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope
The 2020 passing of civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis sparked solidarity with his slogan, “Cause good trouble,” and what it meant to be a force for positive change. Lewis was most known for his efforts during the Selma march when he and dozens of other Black civilians were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge when they protested for the right to vote.
Through many years of activism and nonviolent protests, Lewis has become an inspiration and mentor for other notable leaders, such as the recently elected Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. This book tells Lewis’s life story, and how he became the great leader he was.
Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880
In this crucial tale, W.E.B. Du Bois chronicles the fate of Black Americans after the Civil War ended and the emancipation of the enslaved people, and what reconstruction was honestly like for those Americans.
This book is hailed as a classic, as Du Bois is one of the greatest intellects of the time. This analytical tale is a crucial part of Black history because it tells the story of the people who helped create America as we know it today. If you’re looking for Black history books that bust myths and tell hard truths, this is a crucial entry for your reading list.
African American Medicine in Washington, D.C.: Healing the Capital During the Civil War Era
Some of the most forgotten characters of the Civil War are the medical staff of Black Americans that took care of fallen soldiers and other important war participants.
Written by Heather M. Butts JD MPH MA, this riveting tale dissects the service of the medical staff that helped defend the Union during the Civil War. These brave staffers created a foundation for African Americans by African Americans through Washington’s Freemen’s Hospital, which eventually became the Howard University Medical Center.
These physicians formed the National Medical Association — the largest and oldest organization representing African American doctors and patients. This book has become one of the most inspiring Black history books by highlighting the medical staff that took care of people during one of the most chaotic times in American history.