Black History Month may soon be ending, but these varied perspectives on Black history are worth reading year-round.
With only 28 days each year devoted to reflecting on the history and contributions of Black Americans, it’s impossible to fit in the full scope of the Black experience in America. But while bestselling books like The 1619 Project, Four Hundred Souls, How the Word Is Passed, and The Warmth of Other Suns have expanded our understanding of our collective trajectory since the first slave ships reached American shores, there are many other narratives to explore.
Credit: Bold Type Books; Simon & Schuster; Penguin Random House
Whether reflecting on our tumultuous but still growing political impact or our indelible influence on pop culture, there is an abundance of written and visual accounts of our rich and varied history. With that in mind—and in no particular order—we’ve compiled a list of fifteen historically relevant books guaranteed to inspire any month of the year.
Race Man: Selected Works, 1960-2015 by Julian Bond (City Lights Publishers, 2020)
Credit: City Lights Publishers
When we talk about civil rights icons, Julian Bond should always be part of the conversation. The former member of the Georgia House of Representatives was also co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and longtime chairman of the NAACP, and at all times a fierce advocate for Black liberation in America. Notably, Bond believed that a full freedom project must also include equal rights for women and those who identify as LGBTQ+, making him a thinker and activist well ahead of his time. In 2020, Bond’s expansive worldview was captured in an anthology of his writings, aptly titled Race Man.
Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon (Penguin Random House, 2021)
Credit: Penguin Random House
While the civil rights movement proved a watershed moment for Black liberation in America, perhaps no organization was as dynamic and threatening to America’s status quo as the Black Panther Party. As a socialist movement that used the Second Amendment to not only assert a right to self-defense but expose the United States government’s own hypocrisy, the Black Panthers presented a vision of Black nationalism and collective power and responsibility that continues to hold promise today. Kekla Magoon‘s analysis of this oft-underestimated movement provides new perspective on the Panthers for young and mature adults alike.
Black: A Celebration of a Culture by Deborah Willis (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
Credit: Simon & Schuster
The influence of Black culture in America is both extensive and stunning in its scope. This coffee table-worthy collection curated by Deborah Willis from the Smithsonian archives captures myriad aspects of Black culture through history,”from every time period from the birth of photography to the birth of hip-hop,” as noted by its synopsis. Featuring five hundred photographs, this visual tribute to Black history is a gorgeous reminder of the brilliance and resilience of a people.
The Great Mrs. Elias: A Novel Based on a True Story by Barbara Chase-Riboud (Amistad, 2022)
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction—and even more often, truth makes for great fiction. Artist and author Barbara Chase-Riboud helped turn the mythology of Thomas Jefferson on its head in her 1979 bestseller Sally Hemings: A Novel, a fictionalized account of the very real enslaved woman who bore seven of the founding father’s children. This February, Chase-Riboud published another work of historical fiction based on the true but largely unknown story of Hannah Elias, once considered the richest Black woman in America—to those who knew she was Black. Come for the intriguing narrative; stay to learn about this mysterious figure in American history.
Ebony: Covering Black America by Lavaille Lavette (Rizzoli, 2021)
As the pioneering publication capturing Black life in America, the 77-year-old Ebony magazine, started by John H. Johnson in 1945, is now a part of Black history itself. While the magazine has undergone substantial changes over its nearly eight decades, its culture-shifting legacy is undeniable. With contributions from celebs like Gabrielle Union, Venus Williams and Diddy, Lavaille Lavette‘s Ebony: Covering Black America is a lasting tribute to the magazine many of us grew up seeing on our coffee tables, destined for a place of pride on those tables once again.
The New Negro Aesthetic: Selected Writings by Alain Locke, edited by Jeffrey C. Stewart and Henry Louis Gates (Penguin Random House, 2022)
Photo: Penguin Random House
Alain Locke was one of the preeminent and most prolific voices of the Harlem Renaissance, giving voice to what was then considered “The New Negro” in a post-Reconstruction America. The country’s first Black Rhodes Scholar, Locke was a philosopher and academic who both positioned Black creativity as a freedom project of that era and mentored many of its luminaries. Also same sex-loving, Locke was among the first to publicly challenge Black Americans to act in the interest of self-affirmation rather than validation from the white gaze, making this compilation of his essays as relevant today as a century ago.
Black Pulp: Genre Fiction in the Shadow of Jim Crow by Brooks E. Hefner (University of Minnesota Press, 2021)
Credit: University of Minnesota Press
Pulp fiction wasn’t just for white folks. In academic Brooks E. Hefner‘s exploration of “a rich archive of African American genre fiction from the 1920s through the mid-1950s,” he reveals Black pulp fiction to be a creative response to the suppression of the era and a vehicle for imagining what racial justice in America might look like. As the fight for equality evolves in tandem with a new era of Black speculative fiction, fans of Lovecraft Country to the films of Jordan Peele can connect those contemporary works to their origins in this study of how it all began.
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1985)
Photo: Knopf Books for Young Readers
If you know, you know—and this award-winning picture book is a classic for a reason. Virginia Hamilton‘s retelling of two dozen Black American folktales is gorgeously illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, the first of several similar collaborations created to affirm and educate children on the beauty and unbreakable spirit of Black people from our arrival on America’s shores. Almost 40 years after its publication, The People Could Fly is a classic that continues to inspire.
Race Against Time: The Politics of a Darkening America by Keith Boykin (Bold Type Books, 2021)
Credit: Bold Type Books
Keith Boykin is one of the preeminent political pundits of our time, having devoted decades of his life to the preservation of American democracy, including from inside the Clinton administration. From that vantage point, Boykin has been in a unique position to witness firsthand the long game being played by the GOP, as well as what is at stake if Black Americans do not take their elected leaders to task. In this historical chronicle of the political response to an increasingly diverse America, the bestselling author calls his readers to action, as well.
A Black Women’s History of the United States by Dania Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross (Penguin Random House, 2020)
Credit: Penguin Random House
As Black History Month ends, Women’s History Month begins—and those of us who live at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood have often felt as if we’ve fallen through the cracks. But as Dania Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross illustrate, Black women have been foundational in the building of America. Highlighting a full spectrum of Black femme voices, a Black Women’s History of the United States makes clear our impact as well as our complicated relationship with a country many of us have chosen to love in spite of itself.
Black Eden: The Idlewild Community by Lewis Walker and Benjamin C. Wilson (Michigan State University Press, 2002)
Credit: Michigan State University Press
Black Americans have always formed our own institutions and communities in response to oppression and segregation in America. Among them is Idlewild, the storied Michigan resort community which emerged post-Emancipation and became a beacon for Black society and entertainers (not to be confused with the fictional Georgia-based film of the same name). Black Eden revisits Idlewild’s development and eventual demise, as well as the promise its history still holds as an example of Black ingenuity.
Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives edited by Dana Canedy, Damien Cave, Darcy Eveleigh, and Rachel L. Swarns (Running Press Book Publishers, 2017)
Credit: Running Press Book Publishers
Culled from the The New York Times archives, the series of photographs published as “Unpublished Black History” became a point of intrigue for readers when it debuted in 2016. As many of the images captured pivotal moments in Black history, legitimate questions were also raised as to why they’d remained hidden for decades. For these reasons, the photographic history compiled in Unseen: Unpublished Black History is not only a visual feast but a social commentary on how representations of Black life are too often suppressed and therefore, unseen.
Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins (HarperCollins, 2020)
Pivoting away from the provocative takes that made her first collection of essays, This Will Be My Undoing, a bestseller, Morgan Jerkins embarked on a different journey, retracing her family’s origin story from South Carolina’s Gullah Island back to her own upbringing in New Jersey. In the process, Jerkins excavates some of the lesser known but no less uncomfortable truths about the history of Black people in America, and how they continue to impact our lives to this day.
There Is a River: The Struggle for Black America by Vincent Harding (Mariner Books, 1993)
Credit: Mariner Books
As a friend and contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr. who also served as the inaugural director of Atlanta’s King Center, late civil rights activist Vincent Harding had firsthand knowledge of that era’s history. However, it was back to the era of enslavement that the award-winning author and historian reached for There Is a River, a book lauded as a comprehensive study of the origins of the Black American experience, identity and ongoing fight for freedom.
Black Futures by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (Penguin Random House, 2020)
Credit: Penguin Random House
Black history may be February’s theme, but a healthy and thriving Black future remains our goal. Editor-activists Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham spearheaded this rich anthology of Black thought and creativity, recruiting a broad range of Black perspectives across genres in a collective contemplation of who we are, what we’ve experienced, and where we might go.
Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).
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