17 Books You Should Read This Black History Month
Throughout recent history, many people have tried to capture and relate the "black experience," whether through film, television, music, or the written word. Spanning the 20th and 21st centuries, from the regions in Africa to the states in America, the books listed ahead — both fiction and nonfiction — examine topics that have affected black people in the past (as well as today), such as race relations in the United States, slavery, systemic racism, religion, gender roles, identity and individuality, genealogy, crime and punishment, poverty, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. Take a look.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Written in 2009 by Kathryn Stockett, The Help follows three women living in Jackson, MS, during the early 1960s. Aibileen is a black maid who, after over a decade of holding her tongue and keeping her head down, begins to find the courage to stand up for herself. Her friend, Minny Jackson, who is also a maid, has the opposite problem; she speaks her mind too freely and has been fired from nearly 20 jobs. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is a young, aspiring writer who, unlike Aibileen and Minny, is white, wealthy, and oblivious to the racial injustices that surround her.
When Skeeter returns home from college and discovers that the black woman who raised her has gone missing, she takes it upon herself to learn the truth and sees the reality of race relations in America for the first time. With the help of Abilene and Minny, Skeeter defies society's gender and race expectations and writes a book that exposes the mistreatment and injustices of working-class black women in the segregated South.
In 2011, the novel was adapted to a film of the same name, starring award-winning actresses Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, and more.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Winner of the National Book Award, Colson Whitehead's 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, tells the story of Cora, a slave working on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even amongst her own people, Cora finds comfort in Caesar, a new arrival to the plantation. Caesar tells Cora of the Underground Railroad and, together, the two journey across pre-Civil War America in search of freedom. However, with a slave catcher on their trail and danger lurking at every turn, the "promised land" inches further and further away from their grasp.
The New York Times bestseller paints a realistic portrait of the historic relationship between African-Americans and America, as well as how past events affect the present day.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
In 1983, Alice Walker's The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, as well as the National Book Award. The novel, which is comprised of fictional letters and diary entries, tells the story of Celie, an African-American girl growing up in 1930s Georgia. Throughout her childhood, Celie is verbally abused by her mentally ill mother, as well as beaten and raped by her father, which results in the birth of two children. Leaving her younger sister and home behind, Celie is married off at the young age of 14. In her new environment, Celie encounters black men and women who defy expectations and create their own roles, differing from the ones that society has placed them in. Now questioning everything that she's ever known, Celie struggles to let go of the past and embrace the possibility of a better future. The bestseller — which was adapted into an 11-time Academy Award nominated film, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover — features commentary on sisterhood and female relationships, racism, sexism, domestic abuse, sexual assault, religion, and more.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Written by Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun is a Broadway play that premiered in 1959. Set in the South Side of Chicago, the story centers on the African-American Younger family, including matriarch "Mama"; her two children, Walter and Beneatha; as well as Walter's wife, Ruth, and their son, Travis. After the patriarch of the family passes away, the Youngers contemplate how they will divide and spend his $10,000 life insurance check.
Spanning three generations, each Younger has a different notion of what will propel them out of poverty and into a better, more well-respected class. Their conflicting ideals touch upon racial discrimination, African identity, economic and social class, gender roles, and the American dream.
The play was adapted into a film in 1961, and star Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win an Oscar for best actor.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
A young African-American girl growing up during the Great Depression, Pecola Breedlove lives in an Ohio community that associates beauty with "whiteness." This causes Pecola, who is often ridiculed for her awkward appearance, to pray for blonde hair and blue eyes. Now living with a foster family, the story examines Pecola's troubled life in the Breedlove household, including the sexual abuse by her alcoholic father, which results in pregnancy.
Toni Morrison's 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, uses multiple perspectives to remark on issues of race, incest, beauty standards, religion, child molestation, the biases of mass media culture, and more.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart tells the story of Nigerian village leader Okonkwo and his tragic fall from grace. In an attempt to outlive the shame incurred by his cowardly father, Okonkwo relentlessly strives to become a brave, independent, and responsible man. He is first acknowledged as a champion wrestler, and thinking that it is the cause of his success, quickly becomes obsessed with masculinity. Strong, hard-working, wealthy, and powerful, Okonkwo refuses to show any sign of weakness, acting a brute with his wives and children and making questionable decisions as to not be perceived as cowardly. When a village tradition turns deadly, the qualities that once made Okonkwo great soon become his downfall.
The novel also examines the impact of colonialism and loss of cultural tradition.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Winner of the National Book Award in 1953, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is considered to be one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century. The story follows an unnamed African-American protagonist who goes through various stages in his life on a quest for his identity.
From his childhood in the South to his stint at an all-black college to his position of power in a social movement group, the narrator struggles with the ideas of race and individuality. Throughout its narrative, the book addresses black nationalism, the racial policies of Booker T. Washington, Marxism, Communism, education, and personal identity.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The first in a volume of seven, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the autobiography of African-American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Published in 1969, the memoir — which is often categorized as autobiographical fiction — details Angelou's childhood in Stamps, AR, including being raped by her mother's boyfriend at the age of 8, as well as becoming a teen mother at 17.
The coming-of-age story also tackles issues such as race relations in a pre-Civil Rights-era South, poverty, identity, murder and violence, sexual assault, and literacy among minorities.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler's historical science-fiction novel Kindred was first published in 1979. On her 26th birthday, African-American writer Dana is inexplicably plucked from her Los Angeles home in 1976 and thrust into early 19th-century Maryland. After saving the life of a young boy named Rufus, Dana seamlessly returns to the California home that she shares with her white husband, Kevin. Following the first incident, Dana and Kevin repeatedly bounce from the modern day West to various years in pre-Civil War South. All the while, Dana interacts with Rufus, the son of a plantation owner, and Alice, a slave; both are revealed to be her ancestors. Dana struggles to grapple with the abhorrent realities of slavery, including master-slave relationships, rape, illiteracy, broken families, and more. Yet, while trying to understand her family history and rid it of injustices, she threatens to eradicate her own existence in the future.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Published in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain was the first work of African-American writer and critic James Baldwin. The semi-autobiographical novel, which launched his career, tells the story of John Grimes, a teenager living in 1930s Harlem. The stepson to an abusive, religious fanatic, John experiences a spiritual and sexual awakening that conflicts with the morals of the Pentecostal church, his family, and the black community. While the novel sheds light on Baldwin's childhood, it also examines racial stereotypes, sexual identity, as well as the negative and positive aspects of the relationship between the church and African Americans during the early 20th century.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley
Alex Haley's 1976 novel Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an African teen kidnapped from his Gambian home and sold into slavery in an 18th-century United States. Throughout his life, Kunta Kinte struggles to accept his fate, constantly trying to escape, incurring the wrath of masters, auctioneers, and hunters and refusing to interact with the other slaves. It isn't until he falls in with Bell, a black cook, that he finally begins to understand that his past life is forever behind him. The story then follows the life of his daughter, Kizzy, as well the five generations that come after her. Over the decades, Kunta's descendants struggle to find their place as blacks in America but ultimately persevere.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning work became an international phenomenon, sparking the 1977 television miniseries, as well as the more recent 2016 History Channel miniseries.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
A recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison has written nearly a dozen books detailing the black experience, including 1977 novel Song of Solomon. As a youth, Macon "Milkman" Dead III is spoiled, selfish, and emotionally closed off. The emotional baggage and drama of his family threaten to taint Milkman even further. However, after reaching adulthood, Milkman travels to learn of his family's origins. The history surrounding the previous generations opens his eyes, but those around him get caught in the crosshairs of his personal transformation.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, main character Janie Crawford recounts her story. In a series of flashbacks, Janie describes her relationship with three different men over the course of her life, from adolescence to late adulthood. During each relationship, Janie discovers something new about herself and goes through life experiences that permanently shape her perspective and personality.
Set in early 20th-century Florida, the novel was originally rejected for its strong black, female protagonist. Now considered to be an essential piece of women's literature, as well as African-American literature, the book's themes of liberated women, race, and gender roles are praised.
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Native Son author Richard Wright tells his life's story in his 1945 memoir, Black Boy. Throughout his childhood in the South, Wright struggles to find his place in his family and community. However, his mischievous nature, self-proclaimed atheism, and intellectual curiosity isolate him from others. Later in life, Wright moves to Chicago, where he becomes surrounded by brutal violence, crime, and even more racism. Still searching to find his place in the world, he becomes a member of the Communist Party, though that presents challenges of its own. Black Boy is an honest, eye-opening depiction of the social injustices of the time and how race relations in America can stunt the discovery of one's identity.
Native Son by Richard Wright
Richard Wright's Native Son follows the tragic life of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas. An African-American youth living in Chicago's South Side in the 1930s, Bigger dreams of breaking away from his impoverished life and making something of himself. However, he is thwarted by his own fears and makes all of the wrong decisions, leading to a life of crime, rape, and murder.
Though the novel doesn't condone any of Bigger's horrific actions, it examines the hopelessness felt by inner-city youths of the time, as well as the inevitability of his downfall caused by a system of racial injustices and stereotypes.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
Written by Civil Rights activist, sociologist, and cofounder of the NAACP W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk examines race and ethnicity in the Untied States during the turn of the 20th century. First published in 1903, the collection of essays addresses topics such as the Freedmen's Bureau, the ideologies of Booker T. Washington, the importance of higher education, the concepts of the "color line" and "double consciousness," black oppression, and equal rights. The widely read text is often acknowledged as the foundation of African-American literature.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A critically acclaimed novel, Americanah follows Ifemelu and Obinze, two teenagers who fall in love in a Nigeria ruled by a military dictatorship. Ifemelu escapes to America, where she experiences racism for the first time and struggles to adapt to her new identity. Meanwhile, prevented from entering the country after 9/11, Obinze seeks refuge in London, living the dangerous life of an undocumented immigrant. Fifteen years later, both shaped by their various experiences, the two lovers reunite in a democratic Nigeria and question whether, with their new identities and ideologies, their previous flame can be reignited.
The national bestseller was written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist whose 2012 Ted Talk "We Should All Be Feminists" was famously sampled in Beyoncé's 2013 song "Flawless."