As a white dude, I’m not entirely sure that I’m the best person to speak on issues like black history, but as a reader, I frequently turn to books to help me understand experiences outside of my own self. In that spirit, here are some books that have helped me grow as a person and some books that I am very much looking forward to reading so I can continue to grow in the future.
The first book I want to recommend for Black History Month is one of my al-time favorites: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, who meet and fall in love as teenagers in Lagos but are separated when Ifemelu comes to the United States to study. It is a wonderful study of the realities of the American dream and the Americanization process, but it’s also a very urgent story about race and gender and Africa. It works on multiple levels, all genius.
Marlon James is a very relevant author for this February because he just released Black Leopard, Red Wolfe–which is described as an African Game of Thrones based on African mythology. If that sounds striking to you, go for that book, but I’m looking to his Man Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, which has been on my TBR since it was shortlisted for that prize and is something I very much hope to get to soon. It’s a proper epic centered around an attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976 and that incident’s aftermath.
I’ve only read one book by Toni Morrison, which seems criminally wrong. I’m on a waitlist for the audio of Beloved at the library, which feels like the most relevant title of hers to get to–although I’m going to wait and see if that’s a book that needs to be read in physical format instead of audio. The Bluest Eye is another book on my TBR that sounds amazing.
Congressman John Lewis is a legendary Civil Rights activist. He’s the last surviving person who spoke at the March on Washington most famous for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” He suffered a fractured skull during the march in Selma. He has a book about those experiences, but what I want to recommend here are his three graphic novels about his life in the Civil Rights movement: March Volumes I-III. They are incredible. And as a bonus, he’s starting another volume of graphic novels later this year.
Zora Neale Hurston is another classic author, but I’m not going for the book she’s most known for (Their Eyes Were Watching God). I’m recommending Barracoon, which is a nonfiction book in which Hurston interviews Cudjo Lewis, who was the only known surviving person at the time to have been brought to the United States as part of the slave trade. I listened to the audiobook last year, which is less than four hours–so this is an easy one to get in and an important story to experience.
You can’t talk about Black History Month without bringing up James Baldwin, who has multiple books that would be good for this list. The one I’m choosing is The Fire Next Time, which is two essays put together to examine the problems faced by African Americans in the 1960s. If you aren’t into essays, try his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell it On the Mountain or If Beale Street Could Talk, which was recently adapted for film, instead.
Getting away from heavy books for a moment, I want to recommend Phoebe Robinson‘s collection of essays Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay. Phoebe is a comedian (she was one half of the Two Dope Queens podcast), so even though she discusses some serious issues relating to race, gender, and money in America, she makes you laugh at the same time.
You can’t go wrong with either of Jesmyn Ward‘s two National Book Award-winning books, but I’d recommend Salvage the Bones first (the other is Sing, Unburied, Sing. Salvage follows a fourteen-year-old girl who is pregnant and living in a poor town in Mississippi, which is about to get hit by Hurricane Katrina. It’s an urgent and poetic story that I highly recommend.
Alice Walker has revealed herself to be an incredibly problematic person through social media, but I’m still going to include The Color Purple on this list. Issues with her aside, I love this book and the way it tells its story. I’ve wanted to reread it for a long time and I feel uncertain about that desire now in light of what I know about her, so I’m going to leave it up to you to decide how you feel about both her and this book.
One book that’s been on my TBR is the Oprah approved Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolue Mbue. This is about a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem and his attempts to make a place for his family. I’ve heard wonderful things about it.
And another book from my TBR pile is The Known World, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for author Edward P. Jones. This is a unique look at the moral complexities around slavery, examining the lives of both white and black slave owners.
Speaking of books that have stamps of approval from both Oprah and the Pulitzer Prize board for fiction, consider Colson Whitehead‘s novel The Underground Railroad. This is the story of Cora, who escapes from a plantation via the titular escape route, which Whitehead reimagines as a literal railroad that operates underground. It’s fascinating and harrowing.
And here we have yet another Oprah-approved novel: Ruby, by Cynthia Bond. A lot of reviews online call this book depressing, but it portrays a very scary time in African American history that we can’t ignore if we’re ever going to become a better society, and it deals with the emotional and physical trauma of being subject to random acts of violence such as lynchings or sexual assault.
Finally, if you like YA fantasy novels, consider Tomi Adeyemi‘s Children of Blood and Bone, the first volume in a fantasy adventure series with black protagonists and, like Black Leopard, Red Wolfe, it’s centered on African folklore. If you like the Harry Potter books, don’t miss these.