15 Black Stories to Read Beyond Black History Month
With only 28 days a year devoted to reflecting on the history and contributions of Black Americans, it is impossible to register for the full breadth of the Black experience in America. But while bestselling books like The 1619 Project, four hundred souls, How the word got aroundand The warmth of other suns have broadened our understanding of our collective trajectory since the first slave ships reached American shores, there are many more stories to explore.
From reflecting on our tumultuous but ever-increasing political impact to 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.
When it comes to civil rights icons, Julian Bond should always be part of the conversation. The former member of the Georgia House of Representatives was also a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and longtime president of the NAACP, and at all times an outspoken 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 running man.
While the civil rights movement proved a watershed moment for black liberation in America, perhaps no organization was as dynamic and threatening to the American status quo as the Black Panther Party. As a socialist movement that used the Second Amendment not only to assert a right to self-defense, but also to expose the United States government’s own hypocrisy, the Black Panthers presented a vision of black nationalism and power and of collective responsibility that continues to deliver today. Kekla MagoonAnalysis of this often underestimated move offers a new perspective on the Panthers for young and adult adults.
The influence of black culture in America is both vast and astonishing in its magnitude. This collection worthy of a coffee table curated by Deborah Willis from the Smithsonian’s archives captures myriad aspects of black culture through history “from every period, from the birth of photography to the birth of hip-hop,” as its synopsis notes. With five hundred photographs, this visual tribute to black history is a magnificent reminder of the brilliance and resilience of a people.
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction – and even more often the truth makes for great fiction. Artist and author Barbara Chase Riboud contributed to overturning the mythology of Thomas Jefferson on his head in his 1979 bestseller Sally Hemings: A Novel, a fictionalized account of the very real slave woman who bore seven of the founding father’s children. Last 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 – for those who knew she was black. Come for the intriguing narrative; stick around to learn more about this mysterious figure in American history.
As a pioneering publication capturing black life in America, the 77-year-old Ebony Magazine, launched by John H. Johnson in 1945, is now part of black history itself. While the magazine has undergone substantial change over its nearly eight decades, its legacy of culture change is undeniable. With contributions from celebrities like Gabrielle Union, Venus Williams and Didi, Dishclothit’s Ebony: Covering Black America is an enduring homage to the magazine many of us grew up seeing on our coffee tables, destined to regain pride of place on those tables.
The New Negro Aesthetics: Selected Writings by Alain Locke, editing by Jeffrey C. Stewart and Henry Louis Gates (Penguin Random House, 2022)
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 post-Reconstruction America. The nation’s first Black Rhodes Scholar, Locke was a philosopher and scholar who both positioned black creativity as a freedom project of that era and mentored many of its luminaries. Also a love of the same sex, Locke was among the first to publicly challenge black Americans to act in the interests of self-affirmation rather than validation of the white gaze, making this compilation of his essays as relevant today as it was a century ago.
Pulp fiction wasn’t just for white people. Academic Brooks E. Hefnerit’s exploring “a rich archive of African-American genre fiction from the 1920s to the mid-1950s”, it reveals that Black Pulp fiction is a creative response to the era’s suppression and a vehicle for imagining what might look like racial justice in America. As the struggle for equality evolves alongside a new era of black speculative fiction, fans of Lovecraft Country to the films of Jordan Peele can link these contemporary works to their origins in this study of how it all began.
The People Could Fly: Black American Folktales by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1985)
If you know, you know, and this award-winning picture book is a classic for a reason. Virginia HamiltonThe retelling of two dozen Black American folk tales is beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, the first of several similar collaborations created to affirm and educate children about the beauty and unbreakable spirit of black people upon our arrival on American shores. Almost 40 years after its publication, people could fly is a classic that continues to inspire.
Keith Boykin is one of the most eminent political experts of our time, having devoted decades of his life to the preservation of American democracy, including within the Clinton administration. From this vantage point, Boykin has been in a unique position to witness firsthand the long game played by the GOP, as well as what’s at stake if black Americans don’t take their elected leaders to task. In this historical chronicle of the political response to an increasingly diverse America, the bestselling author also calls his readers to action.
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 like slipped through the cracks. But like Dania Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross illustrate, black women have played a fundamental role in building America. Highlighting a full spectrum of black female voices, a History of Black Women in the United States highlights our impact as well as our complicated relationship with a country that 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)
Black Americans have always formed our own institutions and communities in response to oppression and segregation in America. Among them is Idlewild, Michigan’s famous resort community that emerged after emancipation and became a beacon for black society and artists (not to be confused with the fictional film based in Georgia of the same name). black eden revisits the development and eventual demise of Idlewild, as well as the promise its story still holds as an example of black ingenuity.
Taken from the archives of the New York Times, the series of photographs published under the title “Unpublished Black History” became a subject of intrigue for readers when it debuted in 2016. As many of the images captured pivotal moments in the black history, legitimate questions have also been raised. why they had remained hidden for decades. For these reasons, the photographic history compiled in Invisible: Untold Black History is not just a visual feast, but a social commentary on how representations of black life are too often suppressed and therefore invisible.
Moving away from the provocative takes that made his first collection of essays, It will be my loss, a bestseller, Morgan doublets embarked on a different journey, tracing her family’s origin story from Gullah Island in South Carolina to her own upbringing in New Jersey. In the process, Jerkins delves into some of the lesser known but no less uncomfortable truths about black history in America and how they continue to impact our lives to this day.
As a friend and contemporary of Martin Luther King jr. who was also the first director of the King Center in Atlanta, late civil rights activist Vincent Smith had direct knowledge of the history of that time. However, it was during the time of slavery that the award-winning author and historian reached for There is a rivera book hailed as an in-depth study of the origins of black American experience, identity, and the ongoing struggle for freedom.
Black Futures by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (Penguin Random House, 2020)
Black history may be the theme for February, but a healthy and prosperous black future remains our goal. Writers-activists Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham spearhead this rich anthology of black thought and creativity, recruiting a wide range of black perspectives across genders in a collective contemplation of who we are, what we’ve been through, and where we might go.
Maiysha Kai is theGrio’s Lifestyle Editor, covering all things black and beautiful. Her work is inspired by two decades of 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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