A list of book recommendations for Black History Month, along with podcasts and videos to supplement your reading.
February is Black History Month and we’ve put together this special reading list to celebrate and honor the contributions of Black writers throughout history. In addition to this list of stellar books, we have included past podcast episodes and program video recordings for you to engage with before, during, or after you read these titles. These books are also available on our Bookshop.org page.
This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive Black History Month reading list, as there are far too many significant books and writers for one list. Instead, we simply highlight these books and encourage you to explore further, such as visiting the AWM’s special exhibit Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice, on display now. We also recommend the Dark Testament Reading List for more book recommendations. You can also explore additional resources for Black History Month here.
We also want to stress the importance of celebrating Black life and Black writers year-round. Black History Month is great, but we encourage you to continue reading Black writers during all the other months too.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize for her work on The 1619 Project, which “reframed our understanding of American history by placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative…This is a book that speaks directly to our current moment, contextualizing the systems of race and caste within which we operate today. It reveals long-glossed-over truths around our nation’s founding and construction—and the way that the legacy of slavery did not end with emancipation, but continues to shape contemporary American life.”
We were honored when Hannah-Jones joined us at the opening reception for Dark Testament in September 2022 and delivered remarks after exploring the just-opened exhibit. You can watch these remarks below.
Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells by Ida B. Wells
From the publisher: “Ida B. Wells is an American icon of truth telling. Born to slaves, she was a pioneer of investigative journalism, a crusader against lynching, and a tireless advocate for suffrage, both for women and for African Americans…This engaging memoir, originally published 1970, relates Wells’s private life as a mother as well as her public activities as a teacher, lecturer, and journalist in her fight for equality and justice. This updated edition includes a new foreword by Eve L. Ewing, new images, and a new afterword by Ida B. Wells’s great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster.” In July 2020, we hosted Duster for a virtual program to discuss the reissue of her great-grandmother’s autobiography and her enduring legacy.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
From the publisher: “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…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.” Dive further into Baldwin’s impact with Robert Jones, Jr. (The Prophets) who joined the Dead Writer Drama podcast. Or, watch Nicholas Buccola discuss his book The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Jr.a nd the Debate over Race in America.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
From the publisher: “Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide…Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.” Tune into our podcast Nation of Writers for the episode about Angelou with guests Nikki Giovanni and Glory Edim. Then, watch Edim discuss the Well-Read Black Girl essay anthology!
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
From the publisher: “The preeminent American slave narrative first published in 1845, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative powerfully details the life of the abolitionist from his birth into slavery in 1818 to his escape to the North in 1838, how he endured the daily physical and spiritual brutalities of his owners and driver, how he learned to read and write, and how he grew into a man who could only live free or die.” Continue your exploration of Douglass’s life and work by exploring our virtual exhibit Frederick Douglass: Agitator.
In June 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd and other brutalities perpetuated by police, we organized a reading of this memoir to remind us of the depth of the pain and cruelty upon which our country was built, and how far we have yet to go to meet the true hope of equality that Douglass spent his life fighting and writing for. We present this reading in its entirety below featuring contemporary writers, scholars, and activists reading his work.
Passing by Nella Larsen
Larsen probes the meaning of belonging in her well-known novel. The main characters are faced with the dilemma of choosing to live in Black communities, or “passing” for white. Nella Larsen’s powerful, thrilling, and tragic tale about the fluidity of racial identity continues to resonate today and is now a major motion picture starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. In October 2021, we hosted writer-director Rebecca Hall for a discussion about the film, the process of adapting a novel into a screenplay, and the themes of Passing.
Pauli Murray: Shouting for the Rights of All People by Deborah Nelson Linck
From the publisher: “The untold story of Pauli Murray, activist, lawyer, poet, and Episcopal priest, who broke records and barriers throughout her life. Friend to Eleanor Roosevelt, colleague to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and student of Thurgood Marshall, Pauli Murray’s life was nevertheless not always an easy one. Her commitment to fighting for the rights of women and all places her firmly in history. A celebration of her life and its significance, including the role of gender identity in her own journey.” Murray’s life and poetry collection Dark Testament served as the inspiration for our exhibit of the same name, and Murray’s legacy can be explored further in the virtual exhibit Pauli Murray: Survival with Dignity.
We recommend two podcast episodes to complement your reading. The first is an episode of AWM Author Talks with Deborah Nelson Linck, author of the book. The second is an episode of Dead Writer Drama with Barbara Lau, Executive Director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway play produced by a Black woman. The play is considered one of the most influential in American history, as it not only has remained popular, but also opened the door to a wave of Black playwrights. The play’s success also gave Hansberry access to fame and fortune, which she used to support Black causes. We recommend tuning into the live recording of the episode of Dead Writer Drama about Hansberry, with guest Soyica Diggs Colbert, author of Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry.
Sing, Aretha, Sing! by Hanif Abdurraqib, illustrated by Ashley Evans
From the publisher: “As a performer and a civil rights activist, the Queen of Soul used her voice to uplift freedom fighters and the Black community during the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement…With Hanif Abdurraqib’s poetic voice and Ashley Evans’s dynamic illustrations, Sing, Aretha, Sing! demonstrates how one brave voice can give new power to a nation, and how the legacy of Aretha Franklin lives on in a world still fighting for freedom.” Both Abdurraqib and Evans joined us online in February 2022 to discuss the book.
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon yo Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry
From the publisher: “Weaving together stories of immigrant communities, contemporary artists, exploitative opportunists, enslaved peoples, unsung heroes, her own ancestors, and her lived experiences, Imani Perry crafts a tapestry unlike any other. With uncommon insight and breathtaking clarity, South to America offers an assertion that if we want to build a more humane future for the United States, we must center our concern below the Mason-Dixon Line.”
The winner of the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction, we had the honor of hosting Perry at the American Writers Festival in May 2022 to discuss this book with Dawn Turner. You can listen to the podcast episode of that conversation here or watch the video recording below.
Taught By Women: Poems as Resistance Language by Haki R. Madhubuti
From the publisher: “In these new and selected poems Madhubuti, places us in lyrical proximity to a legacy of women whose lives he honors with heartwarming verses and timeless reverence. Each poem is a vivid portraiture of the ‘magnificent energy’ emanating from a rainbow of Black women. In this mosaic collection of poetry, Madhubuti celebrates the luminous spirits of women whose visible ‘greatness’ has left an indelible mark on his life’s work…Madhubuti sings their struggles and praises with pitch perfect precision, every note an empowering song and unforgettable melody.” Dr. Madhubuti joined us online in May 2021 to discuss the book.
Teaching Black History to White People by Leonard N. Moore
From the publisher: “With Teaching Black History to White People, which is ‘part memoir, part Black history, part pedagogy, and part how-to guide,’ Moore delivers an accessible and engaging primer on the Black experience in America. He poses provocative questions…and Moore insists that embracing discomfort is necessary for engaging in open and honest conversations about race. Moore includes a syllabus and other tools for actionable steps that white people can take to move beyond performative justice and toward racial reparations, healing, and reconciliation.” Moore discussed his book at the American Writers Festival in May 2022.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston wrote this novel, in part, to highlight limitations women face. She examined the intersection of gender, race, and class within Black communities through a series of relationships in the book. Some critics thought that Hurston was promoting stereotypes, which caused a rift with some of her fellow writers. Perhaps most famously, one of these rifts was with fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, as discussed in the very first episode of Dead Writer Drama. Yuval Taylor, author of Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal, joined our hosts to discuss this iconic feud. Listen to the episode here.
Who’s Black and Why?: A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Andrew S. Curran
From the publisher: “The first translation and publication of sixteen submissions to the notorious eighteenth-century Bordeaux essay contest on the cause of black skin—an indispensable chronicle of the rise of scientifically based, anti-Black racism…accompanied by a detailed introduction and headnotes written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Andrew Curran, each essay included in this volume lays bare the origins of anti-Black racism and colorism in the West.” Curran discussed the book in May 2022 with biological anthropologist Nina G. Jablonski.
Your Legacy: A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History by Schele Williams, illustrated by Tonya Engel
From the publisher: “Beginning in Africa before 1619, Your Legacy presents an unprecedentedly accessible, empowering, and proud introduction to African American history for children. While your ancestors’ freedom was taken from them, their spirit was not; this book celebrates their accomplishments, acknowledges their sacrifices, and defines how they are remembered—and how their stories should be taught.” Williams discussed Your Legacy with Arionne Nettles at the American Writers Festival in May 2022.