These 10 must-read books about remarkable Black Americans feature ministers, boxers, civil rights activists, scientists, entertainers, and politicians. Celebrate Black History Month during the month of February with these biographies and autobiographies of remarkable Black Americans.
1. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson (Editor)
“Written in his own words, this history-making autobiography is Martin Luther King: the mild-mannered, inquisitive child and student who chafed under and eventually rebelled against segregation; the dedicated young minister who continually questioned the depths of his faith and the limits of his wisdom; the loving husband and father who sought to balance his family’s needs with those of a growing, nationwide movement; and the reflective, world-famous leader who was fired by a vision of equality for people everywhere.
“Relevant and insightful, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. offers King’s seldom disclosed views on some of the world’s greatest and most controversial figures: John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Lyndon B. Johnson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Richard Nixon. It also paints a rich and moving portrait of a people, a time, and a nation in the face of powerful change. Finally, it shows how everyday Americans from all walks of life confronted themselves, each other, and the burden of the past-and how their fears and courage helped shape our future.”
2. Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig
“Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in racially segregated Louisville, Kentucky, the son of a sign painter and a housekeeper. He went on to become a heavyweight boxer with a dazzling mix of power and speed, a warrior for racial pride, a comedian, a preacher, a poet, a draft resister, an actor, and a lover. Millions hated him when he changed his religion, changed his name, and refused to fight in the Vietnam War. He fought his way back, winning hearts, but at great cost.
“Jonathan Eig, hailed by Ken Burns as one of America’s master storytellers, sheds important new light on Ali’s politics, religion, personal life, and neurological condition through unprecedented access to all the key people in Ali’s life, more than 500 interviews and thousands of pages of previously unreleased FBI and Justice Department files and audiotaped interviews from the 1960s. Ali: A Life is a story about America, about race, about a brutal sport, and about a courageous man who shook up the world.”
3. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
“In the searing pages of this classic autobiography, originally published in 1964, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and anti-integrationist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Black Muslim movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American Dream, and the inherent racism in a society that denies its nonwhite citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time. The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand America.”
4. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton
“Celebrated for her exploits as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman has entered history as one of nineteenth-century America’s most enduring and important figures. But just who was this remarkable woman? To John Brown, leader of the Harper’s Ferry slave uprising, she was General Tubman. For the many slaves she led north to freedom, she was Moses. To the slaveholders who sought her capture, she was a thief and a trickster. To abolitionists, she was a prophet.
“Now, in a biography widely praised for its impeccable research and its compelling narrative, Harriet Tubman is revealed for the first time as a singular and complex character, a woman who defied simple categorization.”
5. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
“Born into a life of bondage, Frederick Douglass secretly taught himself to read and write. It was a crime punishable by death, but it resulted in one of the most eloquent indictments of slavery ever recorded. His gripping narrative takes us into the fields, cabins, and manors of pre–Civil War plantations in the South and reveals the daily terrors he suffered. Written more than a century and a half ago by a Black man who went on to become a famous orator, U.S. minister to Haiti, and leader of his people, this timeless classic still speaks directly to our age. It is a record of savagery and inhumanity that goes far to explain why America still suffers from the great injustices of the past.”
6. Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks
“Rosa Parks is best known for the day she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, sparking the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Yet there is much more to her story than this one act of defiance. In this straightforward, compelling autobiography, Rosa Parks talks candidly about the civil rights movement and her active role in it. Her dedication is inspiring; her story is unforgettable.”
7. Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout
“Louis Armstrong is widely known as the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century. He was a phenomenally gifted and imaginative artist, and an entertainer so irresistibly magnetic that he knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts four decades after he cut his first record. Offstage he was witty, introspective, and unexpectedly complex, a beloved colleague with an explosive temper whose larger-than-life personality was tougher and more sharp-edged than his worshiping fans ever knew.
“Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout has drawn on a cache of important new sources unavailable to previous biographers, including hundreds of candid after-hours recordings made by Armstrong himself, to craft a sweeping new narrative biography. Certain to be the definitive word on Armstrong for our generation, Pops paints a gripping portrait of the man, his world, and his music that will stand alongside Gary Giddins’s Bing Crosby and Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis as a classic biography of a major American musician.”
8. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
“The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space—a powerful, revelatory history essential to our understanding of race, discrimination, and achievement in modern America.”
9. Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm
“Unbought and Unbossed is Shirley Chisholm’s account of her remarkable rise from young girl in Brooklyn to America’s first African-American Congresswoman. She shares how she took on an entrenched system, gave a public voice to millions, and sets the stage for her trailblazing bid to be the first woman and first African-American President of the United States. By daring to be herself, Shirley Chisholm shows us how she forever changed the status quo. This expanded edition, edited by Scott Simpson, digs deeper with analysis by experts like Donna Brazile and Shola Lynch exploring Shirley Chisholm’s impact on today and tomorrow’s world.”
10. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
“In this lyrical, unsentimental, and compelling memoir, the son of a black African father and a white American mother searches for a workable meaning to his life as a black American. It begins in New York, where Barack Obama learns that his father—a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man—has been killed in a car accident. This sudden death inspires an emotional odyssey—first to a small town in Kansas, from which he retraces the migration of his mother’s family to Hawaii, and then to Kenya, where he meets the African side of his family, confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life, and at last reconciles his divided inheritance.”
Receive top book recommendations directly in your inbox.