Black people have used literature to understand both the cruelty and the joy of the world around them. This is true across the African diaspora, where people of color have lived. Their words have been used in some of the most important fights against racism and other forms of discrimination, as well as colonialism. And they’ve told beautiful, unforgettable stories about how Black people live, love, and fight to stay alive.
On this list of books that are important for Black History Month, you’re likely to find some books that you already know and love. Then you might also see books and authors that you didn’t know about before. It’s our hope that this list will help you learn more about the Black literary canon and find out more about the diaspora.
A Promised Land
A Promised Land is Barack Obama’s fourth book. This time, he talks about his political career, from when he ran for office to when he was in the White House. It was a New York Times best-seller, and Obama said this book gives “an honest account of my presidency, the forces we face as a country, and how we can heal our divisions and make democracy work for everyone.”
Just as I Am: A Memoir
Cicely Tyson was alive. The actress, artist, and muse died at the age of 96, but while she was here, Tyson had a very interesting life. People will get a real look at Tyson’s life “without the glitter and garland,” she says in her memoir, “Just As I Am.”
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
Among Audre Lorde’s most famous works is Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. It is Lorde’s memoir and a love letter to the black women who were in her life at the same time. It is said that with this book, Lorde helped start a new type of memoir called “biomythography,” which combines history with biography, and myth with myths.
Lorde says that “Women who work together as friends and lovers are called “Zami.” Carriacou is an island in the Grenadine Islands. Lorde’s mother came from Carriacou when she was a child.
New York Times best-selling author Janet Mock’s memoir about growing up as a multiracial, low-income, and transgender girl in Hawaii is an important one. Mock, who is also an advocate for transgender people’s rights, tells her story in the book. It’s important for people to read this book. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring, and it shows how Mock came to accept her own identity and bravely claim space for herself.
Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion
St. Martin’s Press
Tania Ford is a style and pop culture expert. She talks about how black women’s style has changed over time, from afros and dashikis in the 70s to hip-hop-influenced looks from 1990 and beyond. Ford wrote Dressed in Dreams as a love letter to black women and their clothes.
Little & Lion
At home in Los Angeles, Suzette isn’t sure who she is or what her dreams are. She also doesn’t know where she wants to go. Her long-term crush Emil and her stepbrother Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, start dating again as soon as she gets back into her old life and tries to help him get better. Then Suzette starts to fall for someone else, who happens to be the same girl her brother likes.
Little & Lion is a beautiful coming-of-age book for young adults that talks about love, identity, mental illness, friendship, and family. It’s also a story about a Black Jewish girl, which isn’t very common in the genre.
This is the first book by a Ghanaian-American author called Yaa Gyasi. In it, readers learn about the descendants of an Asante woman named Maame through her two daughters, half sisters who are separated. One of the sisters, Effia, married the British governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle. Her sister, Esi, is tortured and held prisoner in the slave dungeons right below her, where she is kept in chains. These two families are separated by the cruelty and complexity of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Homegoing is about them.
Assata: An Autobiography
Assata is written from Cuba, where she has been granted asylum. She talks about Assata Shakur’s journey to becoming a revolutionary. Shakur talks about a lot of different things in her life, but she talks a lot about the aftermath of the New Jersey State Turnpike shooting, which led to Shakur being convicted and imprisoned for killing a police officer (although she later escaped and fled to Cuba). Black Liberation Army member Shakur is a well-known former member, and her story is important for understanding how Black people in the United States fight back against oppression.
The Mothers is a book about missed chances and how the possibilities of all that can’t stay with us for ever, but that doesn’t make them any less important. It’s a summer romance between Nadia Turner, 17, and Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son, who has to work at a diner because of a football injury. They fall in love, and their relationship grows even more intense as they get to know each other. When Nadia gets pregnant, she keeps it a secret from the rest of the world. In the years to come, that secret could ruin everything Nadia and Luke and Aubrey have worked so hard for.
I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying
Bassey Ikpi, a Nigerian-American immigrant who used to be a slam poet, tells her story in a series of short essays. She talks about how mental illness and Bipolar II Disorder have affected her life. I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying is a book about being honest, but also about how our minds influence our views.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Mildred D. Taylor
During the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a book about how people lived in southern Mississippi. It won the 1977 Newbery Medal for best picture book. A 9-year-old girl named Cassie Logan learns that racial terror is just the way of life she must learn to deal with in order to live.
But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies
Akasha Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith
if you want to learn more about Black feminist scholarship, you need to read this book. To understand how anti-Blackness and gender discrimination work together to shape the lives of Black women, this anthology is important. Alice Walker, Michelle Wallace, and the Combahee River Collective all write in it.
The New Jim Crow
Often, it is called “Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book about how the U.S. has ruined communities of color through mass incarceration is known as the “Bible” of criminal justice reform. It sparked a lot of social movements against this modern-day form of slavery. If you want to understand how slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and racism are linked in the United States, you need to read this book.
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle
Angela Y. Davis
She shows that people all over the world fight against state violence and oppression in the same way. This book includes essays, interviews, and speeches by Angela Y. Davis. People who are oppressed around the world should work together, especially Black Americans and Palestinians. This is a very brave book.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Sing, buried or not, Sing is almost a perfect book. Most of it takes place on a dangerous road trip through Mississippi to the notorious maximum security prison, Parchman, which is known for being very dangerous. When this book is set in the twenty-first century, it shows us that the racial terror that happened in the past is still very much alive.
Under the Udala Trees
When a person decides to live an independent and open life, there are many risks. Under the Udala Trees is a powerful book that talks about war and coming of age.
Because of the civil war in the newly independent country of Nigeria, Ijeoma, 11, is sent away to a safe place. She meets another girl from a different ethnic group, and they fall in love. Ijeoma quickly learns that she must hide this part of herself in order to stay alive. At what cost?