10 Books to Read for Black History Month

10 Books to Read for Black History Month

When Mr. M and I were in Memphis two weeks ago, we had the opportunity to go to the National Civil Rights Museum. It was an awe-inspiring afternoon, and we could have spent so much longer than the 3 hours we spent working our way through the museum.

The older I get, the more I am conscientious and appreciative that we take time to commemorate black history. It is unfortunate that we a) have to make a conscious effort to do so and b) that we relegate it into one month when it all should be integrated into America’s history. Although my husband was not born in America, he shows a deep understanding and appreciation of acknowledging the pain that encompasses the black community in American history, which has helped open my eyes to do so as well.

So what do you do if you don’t live an area of have any African-American/black friends? You can read! This is why I love books. It has helped open my eyes to to worlds that I would not have known otherwise. Today I’ve compiled 10 books to read during black history month. And let me make a disclaimer: I have not read all of these books yet. Almost all of them are on my bookshelf at home, and I am halfway through several of them. A few of these recommendations came from Mr. M, and a few of them came from NPR (because Fresh Air is my jam!)

10 Books to Read During Black History Month (2)

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 The Hate You Give – Angie Thomas

I just started this book last night and already got tears in my eyes during the first chapter. This is the perfect book club book – especially if everyone in your book club is white. This book is so important to read – especially during this era.

“Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

I fell in love with Zora Neal Hurston in my 20th century American literature class in college. Her short story, “Sweat” introduced me to her strong characters and the nuanced way she weaves love and life and insecurity amongst her characters.

“Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.”

Beloved – Toni Morrison

This is a book I have picked up several times and never finished, but it is on my list of books to read this month during Black History Month. Toni Morrison is such a praised author, and her protagonist – who used to be a slave, brings us into her world of living post-slavery but still struggling with her identity.

“Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.”

Between the World and Me – Ta Nehisi Coates

This is also on my list to read this month, and I’m already bracing my heart. I got this book for Mr. M a couple years ago, and I have listened to several interviews and podcasts with Ta Nehisi Coates since. He speaks in such a raw and vulnerable way; I can understand his cynicism, but it also hurts to read if you’re a sensitive soul. 

“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. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. 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 this 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.”

Any and All Maya Angelou Autobiographies (Letters to My Daughter Listed Below)

I am really jealous because my husband lived in Winston-Salem once and heard Maya Angelou speak at the library before she passed away. I fell in love with Maya Angelou’s poetry and autobiographical works in college, and I think she intertwines pain and beauty in the same sentence in such a spectacular way.

“Dedicated to the daughter she never had but sees all around her, Letter to My Daughter reveals Maya Angelou’s path to living well and living a life with meaning. Here in short spellbinding essays are glimpses of the tumultuous life that taught Angelou lessons in compassion and fortitude: how she was brought up by her indomitable grandmother in segregated Arkansas, taken in at thirteen by her more worldly and less religious mother, and grew to be an awkward six-foot-tall teenager whose first experience of loveless sex paradoxically left her with her greatest gift, a son.

Whether she is recalling lost friends such as Coretta Scott King and Ossie Davis, extolling honesty, decrying vulgarity, explaining why becoming a Christian is a “lifelong endeavor,” or simply singing the praises of a meal of red rice, Maya Angelou writes from the heart to millions of women she considers her extended family.”

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

It’s hard to think of the Color Purple without thinking of Oprah, but this is a classic in African-American literature. 

“Published to unprecedented acclaim, The Color Purple established Alice Walker as a major voice in modern fiction. This is the story of two sisters—one a missionary in Africa and the other a child wife living in the South—who sustain their loyalty to and trust in each other across time, distance, and silence. Beautifully imagined and deeply compassionate, this classic novel of American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life.”

Letters from Birmingham Jail – Martin Luther King Jr

Did you think I was going to list books to read during Black History Month without mentioning Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr? This is a short, but deep read from the profound MLK.

“The Letter from Birmingham Jail, also known as the Letter from Birmingham City Jail and The Negro Is Your Brother, is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King Jr. The letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. It says that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. Responding to being referred to as an “outsider,” King writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.”

The Color of Water – James McBride

I picked this book up last year, intrigued as I will be a white mother to black children one day. I loved reading about James McBride’s life and how he struggled with his identity, but was enveloped by the love of his mother. 

“Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician, and son, explores his mother’s past, as well as his own upbringing and heritage, in a poignant and powerful debut, The Color Of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.

The son of a black minister and a woman who would not admit she was white, James McBride grew up in “orchestrated chaos” with his eleven siblings in the poor, all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. “Mommy,” a fiercely protective woman with “dark eyes full of pep and fire,” herded her brood to Manhattan’s free cultural events, sent them off on buses to the best (and mainly Jewish) schools, demanded good grades, and commanded respect. As a young man, McBride saw his mother as a source of embarrassment, worry, and confusion—and reached thirty before he began to discover the truth about her early life and long-buried pain.

In The Color of Water, McBride retraces his mother’s footsteps and, through her searing and spirited voice, recreates her remarkable story. The daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox rabbi, she was born Rachel Shilsky (actually Ruchel Dwara Zylska) in Poland on April 1, 1921. Fleeing pogroms, her family emigrated to America and ultimately settled in Suffolk, Virginia, a small town where anti-Semitism and racial tensions ran high. With candor and immediacy, Ruth describes her parents’ loveless marriage; her fragile, handicapped mother; her cruel, sexually-abusive father; and the rest of the family and life she abandoned.

At seventeen, after fleeing Virginia and settling in New York City, Ruth married a black minister and founded the all- black New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in her Red Hook living room. “God is the color of water,” Ruth McBride taught her children, firmly convinced that life’s blessings and life’s values transcend race. Twice widowed, and continually confronting overwhelming adversity and racism, Ruth’s determination, drive and discipline saw her dozen children through college—and most through graduate school. At age 65, she herself received a degree in social work from Temple University.

Interspersed throughout his mother’s compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty, his flirtations with drugs and violence, and his eventual self- realization and professional success. The Color of Water touches readers of all colors as a vivid portrait of growing up, a haunting meditation on race and identity, and a lyrical valentine to a mother from her son.”

The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander

Mr. M recommends this book be put on the list. While it is not a novel, this is another must-read for white people in the 21st century. I haven’t read it yet, but it is also on my to-read list.

“By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to a permanent second-class status—even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. In the words of Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, this book is a “call to action.”

When They Call You a Terrorist – Patrice Khan-Cullors

I heard about this book from an NPR segment a couple of weeks ago. It just came out last month, and I am anxious to get my hands on it. Although I have not heavily followed the Black Lives Matter movement, I do believe in standing in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters in a nonviolent way. I am curious to read more on Patrice Khan-Cullors and how she co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement.

“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 in truth, they are 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.”

10 Books to Read During Black History Month

What books would you add to the list?

What was once Illegal

hugs and lattes

Pai and I enjoyed a leisurely brunch (at 2pm. . .) since I had the day off. Before I started dating Pai, I didn’t give Martin Luther King a lot of thought. I studied slavery throughout the colonization of America up until the Civil War and read all about the Civil Rights movement growing up in school, but none of it resonated with me as much because I grew up an upper-middle class white girl. To me, MLK was a just great guy who brought to our attention the horrors of racial inequality and racism.

In the middle of college I started dating Pai. I had always been attracted to men with darker skin. I’m not 100% sure why, but maybe it was because Will Smith swooned my eleven year old heart as I watched reruns of Fresh Prince of Belair until the wee hours of the morning.

Pai is a sociologist, so he studies why people act the way they do, and lets me peek into his mind as he unpacks his thoughts and theories.

One afternoon before we were officially “dating” he and I went on a run together through downtown. We walked the last mile back to my car hand in hand. It was the first and last time I felt people staring as they passed us. I had lots of different thoughts running through my mind.

What are people thinking when they pass us? 

Is it okay for us to be doing this in somewhat-rural East Tennessee?

What if someone gets angry and runs up on the sidewalk?

Ok. . .  that last one was dramatic, but I often think of worst case scenarios. I decided right then and there that I wasn’t going to pay attention to the looks we would get when we are together. I’m sure I’ll have to re-remind myself of this one day when I’m alone at the grocery store with my adorable caramel skinned babies.

As Pai prayed for brunch today, he thanked God for Martin Luther King and the path he foraged for people in the United States. 60 years ago, it would have been illegal for Pai and I to be together. It would have been wrong for us to go to the same restroom, or even drink out of the same drinking fountain. I can safely say that it was quite safe to drink after him. And kiss him. (But only for me. No one else is allowed to kiss him.)

MLK Day used to just be a day that enabled me to enjoy a long weekend. Nowadays I am thankful for the sacrifice Martin Luther King made along with his family and the countless of civil rights activitsts that stood by his side.

My heart breaks for all of the racial inequality and the whispers of pain that still course throughout the American community because of the injustices of racism that are still obvious today.

As white Americans, we don’t want to say, “We don’t see color.” Color is important. We want to embrace each other’s heritage. We want to celebrate the differences in culture, differences in skin tone, and differences in the way we communicate.

Color is important.

Love is important.

Nayyirah Waheed