5 Books to Devour This Black History Month

If you haven't read these five books, then you may want to consider wedging them into the top slots on your to-be-read list, not just during Black History Month, but each month until you've soaked up every last thought-provoking letter. 

Spend some time with these books for the past they illuminate, the present they elucidate, and the future they foretell. And please comment with additional books you think belong on this list!

1. Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

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Americans like to insist that we are living in a postracial, color-blind society. In fact, racist thought is alive and well; it has simply become more sophisticated and more insidious. And as award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning, racist ideas in this country have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit.

As Kendi provocatively illustrates, racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation’s racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. In shedding much–needed light on the murky history of racist ideas, Stamped from the Beginning offers us the tools we need to expose them—and in the process, gives us reason to hope.

 

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2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with America's fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

 

3. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle's dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast's booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia's descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.


4. Life Upon These Shores by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr., gives us a sumptuously illustrated landmark book tracing African American history from the arrival of the conquistadors to the election of Barack Obama.

Life Upon These Shores focuses on defining events, debates, and controversies, as well as the signal achievements of people famous and obscure. Gates takes us from the sixteenth century through the ordeal of slavery, from the Civil War and Reconstruction through the Jim Crow era and the Great Migration; from the civil rights and black nationalist movements through the age of hip-hop to the Joshua generation. By documenting and illuminating the sheer diversity of African American involvement in American history, society, politics, and culture, Gates bracingly disabuses us of the presumption of a single “black experience.”

 

5. When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

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From one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement comes a poetic memoir and reflection on humanity. Necessary and timely, Patrisse Cullors' story asks us to remember that protest in the interest of the most vulnerable comes from love. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have been called terrorists, a threat to America. But these authors paint a different portrait, one of loving women whose life experiences have led them to seek justice for those victimized by the powerful. In this meaningful, empowering account of survival, strength, and resilience, Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele seek to change the culture that declares innocent black life expendable. Though not explicitly historical in content, this new release offers a firm reminder of how centuries of racist language, thought, and institutions persevere today, and their myriad ramifications on everyday life.