As we continue to celebrate Black History Month during the month of February, these 10 essential books to read during Black History Month document the history, accomplishments, and injustices of Black Americans, from slavery and present-day mass incarceration, to the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the unforgettable stories of the first Black business titans. You’ll want to place on your TBR list all 10 of these essential books to read during Black History Month.
1. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written By Herself by Harriet A. Jacobs
“One of the most memorable slave narratives, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl illustrates the overarching evil and pervasive depravity of the institution of slavery. In great and painful detail, Jacobs describes her life as a Southern slave, the exploitation that haunted her daily life, her abuse by her master, the involvement she sought with another white man in order to escape her master, and her determination to win freedom for herself and her children. From her seven years of hiding in a garret that was three feet high, to her harrowing escape north to a reunion with her children and freedom, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains an outstanding example of one woman’s extraordinary courage in the face of almost unbeatable odds, as well as one of the most significant testimonials in American history.”
2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness 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; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.”
3. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine
“In late August 1619, a ship arrived in the British colony of Virginia bearing a cargo of twenty to thirty enslaved people from Africa. Their arrival led to the barbaric and unprecedented system of American chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the source of so much that still defines the United States.
“The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning ‘1619 Project’ issue reframed our understanding of American history by placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative. This new book substantially expands on that work, weaving together eighteen essays that explore the legacy of slavery in present-day America with thirty-six poems and works of fiction that illuminate key moments of oppression, struggle, and resistance. The essays show how the inheritance of 1619 reaches into every part of contemporary American society, from politics, music, diet, traffic, and citizenship to capitalism, religion, and our democracy itself.”
4. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
“In this beautifully written masterwork, the Pulitzer Prize–winnner and bestselling author of Caste 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.”
5. A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story by Elaine Brown
“Elaine Brown assumed her role as the first and only female leader of the Black Panther Party with these words: “I have all the guns and all the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within. Am I right, Comrade?” It was August 1974. From a small Oakland-based cell, the Panthers had grown to become a revolutionary national organization, mobilizing black communities and white supporters across the country—but relentlessly targeted by the police and the FBI, and increasingly riven by violence and strife within. How Brown came to a position of power over this paramilitary, male-dominated organization, and what she did with that power, is a riveting, unsparing account of self-discovery.”
6. You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays by Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West
“You Don’t Know Us Negroes is the quintessential gathering of provocative essays from one of the world’s most celebrated writers, Zora Neale Hurston. Spanning more than three decades and penned during the backdrop of the birth of the Harlem Renaissance, Montgomery bus boycott, desegregation of the military, and school integration, Hurston’s writing articulates the beauty and authenticity of Black life as only she could.”
7. 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. Described by The New York Times Book Review as ‘sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle…all presented in searing, brilliant prose,’ The Fire Next Time stands as a classic of literature.”
8. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White
“Living with the dual burdens of racism and sexism, slave women in the plantation South assumed roles within the family and community that contrasted sharply with traditional female roles in the larger American society.
“This revised edition of Ar’n’t I a Woman? reviews and updates the scholarship on slave women and the slave family, exploring new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender and comparing the myths that stereotyped female slaves with the realities of their lives. Above all, this groundbreaking study shows us how black women experienced freedom in the Reconstruction South―their heroic struggle to gain their rights, hold their families together, resist economic and sexual oppression, and maintain their sense of womanhood against all odds.”
9. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
“Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
“Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin.
“Championing human rights in the face of violent racism, Patrisse is a survivor. She transformed her personal pain into political power, giving voice to a people suffering inequality and a movement fueled by her strength and love to tell the country―and the world―that Black Lives Matter.”
10. Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Survived Slavery and Became Millionaires by Shomari Wills
“Between the years of 1830 and 1927, as the last generation of blacks born into slavery was reaching maturity, a small group of industrious, tenacious, and daring men and women broke new ground to attain the highest levels of financial success. Nearly all the unforgettable personalities in this amazing collection were often attacked, demonized, or swindled out of their wealth. Black Fortunes illuminates as never before the birth of the black business titan.”
Related: 13 Inspirational Quotes From Black Women Writers and 10 Must-Read Books About Remarkable Black Americans
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