Life·9 min read

16 Essential Books to Read This Black History Month

Essential Books to Read This Black History Month
Feb 15, 2021

February is Black History Month and our bookshelves are taking a walk down memory lane. Listed from newest to oldest, these books illuminate the reality of systemic racism and individual stories of being Black in America throughout history.

“The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation” by Anna Malaika Tubbs 

For when you want a book that celebrates three VIPs from history…

Pub: Feb 2, 2021 

Start here. In this brand new book, Tubbs tells the story of Berdis Baldwin (James Baldwin’s mom), Alberta King (MLK Jr’s mom), and Louise Little (Malcolm X’s mom). It’s a celebration of Black motherhood and a portrait of three incredibly strong women who’ve been erased from the history books. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Surviving the White Gaze” by Rebecca Carroll 

For when you want to explore complex family dynamics...

Pub: Feb 2, 2021 

Rebecca Carroll tells the story of growing up adopted as the only Black person in her small New Hampshire town. When she meets her birth mother, her relationship with her own race becomes even more complicated — her mother is white, and is eager to undermine her daughter’s search for Black identity. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019” edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain 

For when you have extra time on your hands…

Pub: Feb 2, 2021 

Ready to explore four hundred years? Editors Ibram X. Kendi (author of “Stamped from the Beginning”) and Keisha N. Blain tapped 90 Black writers to each tackle a five-year period from 1619-2019. The pieces take on different forms, including short stories, historical essays, vignettes, and more. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson 

For when you want what Oprah’s having…

Pub: 2020 

“Caste,” coming right up. This Oprah’s Book Club pick is a deep dive into the systems that shape our society. She argues that racism isn’t a sufficient term to describe the injustices Black people face, and that there’s a hierarchical infrastructure, in part determined by race, running underneath injustice in America. The level of research and detail in this book will blow you away. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Black Bottom Saints” by Alice Randall 

For when you want something to drink to...

Pub: 2020

Cheers to “Black Bottom Saints.” Alice Randall’s tribute to Black culture in Detroit — from the Great Depression to the 60s — pairs cocktails with its prose. The story centers on a gossip columnist who’s on his deathbed, looking back at the vibrant figures she covered. Each recollection contains its own signature cocktail and signature wit. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé” by Morgan Parker 

For when you’re itching for something about pop culture…

Pub: 2017 

Put a ring on this one. This poetry collection explores Black womanhood and is the kind of book you’ll keep on your nightstand and return to again and again. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race” edited by Jesmyn Ward 

For when you want a follow up to “The Fire Next Time”...

Pub: 2016

It exists. Author and two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward compiled and edited this collection of essays and poems by contemporary writers to speak on racism and race today. It’s intended to be in conversation with (and an update to) Baldwin’s book. The contributors include literary names like Edwidge Danticat, Jericho Brown, Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead 

For when you want to be swept away…

Pub: 2016 

Colson Whitehead will lead the way. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the Underground Railroad is a network of tracks and tunnels beneath the ground in the South, used by slaves to escape. In his crisp prose, Whitehead tells a gripping story while commenting on past horrors. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi 

For if you’ve read “How to Be an Antiracist”...

Pub: 2016 

Ibram X. Kendi has another one up his sleeve. This book, which won the National Book Award, traces the history of how racist ideas took root in the US. With deep research and propulsive storytelling, Kendi uses the lives of five Black American intellectuals — Puritan minister Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and legendary activist Angela Davis — to paint the picture of a collective history. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander 

For when you want a deep dive on prison reform…

Pub: 2010 

“The New Jim Crow'' gives you a new perspective. This book about mass incarceration in America and the way it disproportionately affects Black people has moved far beyond its binding. It has been cited in judicial decisions and inspired the founding of organizations like the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news org all about the criminal justice system. Published in 2010, it’s still making waves more than a decade later. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Beloved” by Toni Morrison 

For when you want to read a classic...

Pub: 1987

Enter: Toni Morrison. “Beloved,” one of her best-known novels (and Pulitzer Prize winner), is a good place to start. The book follows Sethe, an escaped slave living in Ohio. She’s haunted by the figurative ghost of her past and the literal ghost of her baby, who died nameless. Morrison is a master storyteller at the top of her game in this heartbreaking and moving book. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism” by bell hooks 

For when you own a “the future is female” shirt…

Pub: 1981 

Do the reading to back it up. Feminist scholar bell hooks writes about sexism during slavery, racism among feminists, and more. She explores these issues with her signature wit and intellect, reframing assumptions. Expect to text the “mind blown” emoji after reading. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin 

For when you loved “Giovanni’s Room”...

Pub: 1963 

Play another Baldwin hit. James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” is a powerful manifesto that helped give voice to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The two essays in this book — one of which is written as a letter to his nephew — lyrically explore the ways American history has been influenced by race relations. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Selected Poems” by Gwendolyn Brooks 

For when you want a book that broke barriers…

Pub: 1963

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 with her poetry collection “Annie Allen.” This book of selected poems, published during the year of the March on Washington, aggregates some of her best known works, many of them dealing with racial history in the US. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston

For when you’re looking for a good cry…

Pub: 1937 

This book will do the trick. Zora Neale Hurston’s classic is told from the perspective of Janie Crawford, looking back on her life, love, and hardships. From her grandmother’s rape as a young slave woman, all the way to her own three marriages, Janie provides a lens to explore the complexities of the Black female experience. (Amazon, Bookshop)


“Cane” by Jean Toomer 

For when want a book that defies genres...

Pub: 1923 

Add “Cane” to your cart. It's part poetry, part prose, and part play — but all parts powerful. Published in 1923, its innovative structure and descriptions of racial dynamics have made it a classic. Some say Toomer structured it like a circle, moving from South to North and back to South. And like any good road trip, you’ll meet a lot of interesting characters along the way. (Amazon, Bookshop)


PS: If you buy anything from this, theSkimm may get something in return. Oh, and if something’s out of stock, oops, it was there when we published. Thanks. 

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