A Reading Guide To Explore the Black Experience in America
A Reading Guide
The movement we have been witnessing across the United States and all over the world these last few weeks, which was in response to yet another black life taken at the hands of police, has sparked an interest in education and exploration about racism in America and the Black experience in general, particularly among white readers who may not have critically examined these issues before. For example, The New York Times Best Sellers list currently features 13 books about racism, anti-racism, white supremacy, and mass incarceration, as well as memoirs and essays from prominent Black voices about their life experiences.
If you are looking for an alternative to buying your books on Amazon, Literary Hub has a list of Black owned independent bookstores around the country and the African American Literature Book Club offers online sales as well as a directory of Black-owned bookstores. Marcus Books in Oakland, the oldest independent Black bookstore in the U.S., is currently accepting book order requests through this form. Eso Won Books, an independent Black-owned bookstore in Los Angeles, offers online shopping. Malik Books, which another independent bookstore in Los Angeles, specializes in African-American books and offers online shopping as well. Another option is Bookshop, an online bookstore whose mission is to financially support local, independent bookstores. You can order directly from them or search to find a local bookstore to support.
In the COVID-19 era, we can't all be out in the streets, but we can put our economic power to work and take the time to educate ourselves. Hopefully these lists will give you some ideas and spark some powerful conversations within ourselves and externally with our friends and families.
Novels and Stories:
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s magnificent Pulitzer Prize–winning work—first published in 1987—brought the wrenching experience of slavery into the literature of our time, enlarging our comprehension of America’s original sin. Set in post–Civil War Ohio, it is the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who has lost a husband and buried a child; who has withstood savagery and not gone mad. Sethe, who now lives in a small house on the edge of town with her daughter, Denver, her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and a disturbing, mesmerizing apparition who calls herself Beloved.
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. 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?
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
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 Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document from the iconic author of If Beale Street Could Talk and Go Tell It on the Mountain. It consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange
Ntozake Shange's beloved Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo is the story of three sisters and their mother from Charleston, South Carolina. Sassafrass, the oldest, is a poet and a weaver like her mother before her. Having gone north to college, she is now living with other artists in Los Angeles and trying to weave a life out of her work, her man, her memories and dreams. Cypress, the dancer, leaves home to find new ways of moving in the world. Indigo, the youngest, is still a child of Charleston - "too much of the south in her" - who lives in poetry and has the supreme gift of seeing the obvious magic of the world.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, 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.
The Underground Railroad: A Novel by Colson Whitehead
In Colson Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.
The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes
A collection of vibrant and incisive short stories depicting the sometimes humorous, but more often tragic interactions between Black people and white people in America in the 1920s and ‘30s. One of the most important writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes is best known as a poet, but these stories showcase his talent as a lively storyteller. His work blends elements of blues and jazz, speech and song, into a triumphant and wholly original idiom.
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
In her heralded first novel, Gloria Naylor weaves together the stories of seven women living in Brewster Place, a bleak-inner city sanctuary, creating a powerful, moving portrait of the strengths, struggles, and hopes of black women in America. Vulnerable and resilient, openhanded and openhearted, these women forge their lives in a place that in turn threatens and protects—a common prison and a shared home. Naylor renders both loving and painful human experiences with simple eloquence and uncommon intuition.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seemingly slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV—everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde by Audre Lorde
A complete collection of over 300 poems from one of this country's most influential poets. "The first declaration of a black, lesbian feminist identity took place in these poems, and set the terms -- beautifully, forcefully -- for contemporary multicultural and pluralist debate." -- Publishers Weekly
A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter by Nikki Giovanni
In A Good Cry, Nikki Giovanni takes us into her confidence, describing the joy and peril of aging and recalling the violence that permeated her parents’ marriage and her early life. She pays homage to the people who have given her life meaning and joy: her grandparents, who took her in and saved her life; the poets and thinkers who have influenced her; and the students who have surrounded her. Nikki also celebrates her good friend, Maya Angelou, and the many years of friendship, poetry, and kitchen-table laughter they shared before Angelou’s death in 2014.
Political Essays and Nonfiction:
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Widely heralded as a “masterful” (Washington Post) and “essential” (Slate) history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law offers “the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation” (William Julius Wilson).
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis
In these newly collected essays, interviews, and speeches, world-renowned activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis illuminates the connections between struggles against state violence and oppression throughout history and around the world. Reflecting on the importance of black feminism, intersectionality, and prison abolitionism for today's struggles, Davis discusses the legacies of previous liberation struggles, from the Black Freedom Movement to the South African anti-Apartheid movement. She highlights connections and analyzes today's struggles against state terror, from Ferguson to Palestine.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
In her searing collection of essays, Mikki Kendall takes aim at the legitimacy of the modern feminist movement arguing that it has chronically failed to address the needs of all but a few women. Drawing on her own experiences with hunger, violence, and hypersexualization, along with incisive commentary on politics, pop culture, the stigma of mental health, and more, Hood Feminism delivers an irrefutable indictment of a movement in flux. An unforgettable debut, Kendall has written a ferocious clarion call to all would-be feminists to live out the true mandate of the movement in thought and in deed.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram X. Kendi takes readers through a widening circle of antiracist ideas—from the most basic concepts to visionary possibilities—that will help readers see all forms of racism clearly, understand their poisonous consequences, and work to oppose them in our systems and in ourselves. Kendi weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science with his own personal story of awakening to antiracism. This is an essential work for anyone who wants to go beyond the awareness of racism to the next step: contributing to the formation of a just and equitable society.
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
Far too often, Black women’s anger has been caricatured into an ugly and destructive force that threatens the civility and social fabric of American democracy. But Cooper shows us that there is more to the story than that. In Brittney Cooper’s world, neither mean girls nor fuckboys ever win. But homegirls emerge as heroes. This book argues that ultimately feminism, friendship, and faith in one's own superpowers are all we really need to turn things right side up again.
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad
This eye-opening book challenges you to do the essential work of unpacking your biases, and helps white people take action and dismantle the privilege within themselves so that you can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on people of color, and in turn, help other white people do better, too. Based on the viral Instagram challenge that captivated participants worldwide, Me and White Supremacy takes readers on a 28-day journey, complete with journal prompts, to do the necessary and vital work that can ultimately lead to improving race relations.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund. Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by Michelle Alexander’s unforgettable argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth by Dána-Ain Davis
A troubling study of the role that medical racism plays in the lives of black women who have given birth to premature and low birth weight infants. Black women have higher rates of premature birth than other women in America. Even professional, middle-class black women are at a much higher risk of premature birth than low-income white women in the United States. Dána-Ain Davis looks into this phenomenon, placing racial differences in birth outcomes into a historical context, revealing that ideas about reproduction and race today have been influenced by the legacy of ideas which developed during the era of slavery.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
How do you tell your roommate her jokes are racist? Why did your sister-in-law take umbrage when you asked to touch her hair–and how do you make it right? How do you explain white privilege to your white, privileged friend? In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo guides readers of all races through subjects ranging from intersectionality and affirmative action to “model minorities” in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life.
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color Edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa
Originally released in 1981, This Bridge Called My Back is a testimony to women of color feminism as it emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Through personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art, the collection explores, as coeditor Cherríe Moraga writes, “the complex confluence of identities—race, class, gender, and sexuality—systemic to women of color oppression and liberation.”
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.
White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge was frustrated with the way that discussions of race and racism are so often led by those blind to it, by those willfully ignorant of its legacy. Her response, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, has transformed the conversation both in Britain and around the world. Examining everything from eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance, from whitewashed feminism to the inextricable link between class and race, Eddo-Lodge offers a timely and essential new framework for how to see, acknowledge, and counter racism.
Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis
A powerful study of the women’s liberation movement in the U.S., from abolitionist days to the present, that demonstrates how it has always been hampered by the racist and classist biases of its leaders. From the widely revered and legendary political activist and scholar Angela Davis.
Books for Young Adults:
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Justyce McAllister is a good kid, an honor student, and always there to help a friend—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
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. 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.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
An ode to "Put the Damn Guns Down," this is New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds’s electrifying novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother. At each stop on an elevator ride, someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. Long Way Down is a fast and furious, dazzlingly brilliant look at teenage gun violence.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America, and inspires hope for an antiracist future. It takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel, and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited.
Books for Small Children:
A is for Activist [Board Book] by Innosanto Nagara
A is for Activist is an ABC board book written and illustrated for the next generation of progressives: families who want their kids to grow up in a space that is unapologetic about activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and everything else that activists believe in and fight for. The alliteration, rhyming, and vibrant illustrations make the book exciting for children, while the issues it brings up resonate with their parents' values of community, equality, and justice.
Antiracist Baby [Board Book] by Ibram X. Kendi
With bold art and thoughtful yet playful text, Antiracist Baby introduces the youngest readers and the grown-ups in their lives to the concept and power of antiracism. Providing the language necessary to begin critical conversations at the earliest age, Antiracist Baby is the perfect gift for readers of all ages dedicated to forming a just society. From the National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.
Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship written by Irene Latham and Charles Waters and illustrated Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
Two poets, one white and one black, explore race and childhood in this must-have collection tailored to provoke thought and conversation. How can Irene and Charles work together on their fifth grade poetry project? They don’t know each other . . . and they’re not sure they want to. Irene Latham, who is white, and Charles Waters, who is black, use this fictional setup to delve into different experiences of race in a relatable way, exploring such topics as hair, hobbies, and family dinners.
Dream Big, Little One by Vashti Harrison
Featuring 18 trailblazing black women in American history, Dream Big, Little One is the irresistible board book adaptation of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. Among these women, you’ll find heroes, role models, and everyday women who did extraordinary things – bold women whose actions and beliefs contributed to making the world better for generations of girls and women to come. Whether they were putting pen to paper, soaring through the air or speaking up for the rights of others, the women profiled in these pages were all taking a stand against a world that didn’t always accept them.
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry
Zuri’s hair has a mind of its own. It kinks, coils, and curls every which way. Zuri knows it’s beautiful. When Daddy steps in to style it for an extra special occasion, he has a lot to learn. But he LOVES his Zuri, and he’ll do anything to make her — and her hair — happy. Tender and empowering, Hair Love is an ode to loving your natural hair — and a celebration of daddies and daughters everywhere.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don’t own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty—and fun—in their routine and the world around them. This energetic ride through a bustling city highlights the wonderful perspective only grandparent and grandchild can share.
Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison
An important book for readers of all ages, this beautifully illustrated and engagingly written volume brings to life true stories of black men in history. Among these biographies, readers will find aviators and artists, politicians and pop stars, athletes and activists. The exceptional men featured include writer James Baldwin, artist Aaron Douglas, filmmaker Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, lawman Bass Reeves, civil rights leader John Lewis, dancer Alvin Ailey, and musician Prince.
Rosa written by Nikki Giovanni and illustrated by Bryan Collier
Fifty years after her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus, Mrs. Rosa Parks is still one of the most important figures in the American civil rights movement. This tribute to Mrs. Parks is a celebration of her courageous action and the events that followed. Award-winning poet, writer, and activist Nikki Giovanni's evocative text combines with Bryan Collier's striking cut-paper images to retell the story of this historic event from a wholly unique and original perspective.
Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o
Sulwe has skin the color of midnight. She is darker than everyone in her family. She is darker than anyone in her school. Sulwe just wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything. In this stunning debut picture book, actress Lupita Nyong’o creates a whimsical and heartwarming story to inspire children to see their own unique beauty.
We Are Shining written by Gwendolyn Brooks and illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist
Marking the 100th birthday of U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, this powerful picture book is a celebration of the diversity of our world. This life-affirming poem is now illustrated for the very first time, with stunning, vibrant images. A story of our shared humanity, Gwendolyn Brooks honors the beauty of our world and the many different people in it. Brooks speaks to all children of the world in this moving poem about acceptance, stressing that every child should have the opportunity for a shining future and offering hope for a better tomorrow.