February is Black History Month. It’s the one month of the year dedicated to remembering, studying, and reflecting on African-American culture and the troubled history of race relations. And, for book readers, that means finding meaningful books that can drive intelligent conversations on the subject.Today, we’ve compiled a list of 9 titles to study, understand, and celebrate the perspectives of African American history and culture. From memoirs to fiction to poetry, this list has something for everyone.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
1963 was a particularly turbulent time for the Civil Rights Movement. The Birmingham Campaign engaged conversations between white civic leaders and the SCLC about forced desegregation. Set to this backdrop, the Watson family – a black family from Flint, MI – take the family to visit Grandma Sands in Birmingham, AL. Byron, the eldest son, is a “juvenile delinquent”, and his parents think some time with Grandma Sands will do him some good. However, they arrive just in time to experience the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing first hand.Click here to buy.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Puple is not a new novel. A modern classic, it won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award when it was first published. Since then it’s received both film and Broadway adaptations. The novel focuses on two African American women from rural Georgia, and it addresses the extreme sexism and racism experienced by black women. The novel is often the target of censors due to the graphic depiction violence.Click here to buy.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
We all know the Underground Railroad. It’s a requirement of American History. But what if the Underground Railroad wasn’t a metaphor? What if it was an actual subway for runaway slaves with real engineers, conductors, and stations? Now, as two slaves escape bondage to ride the Underground Railroad, a relentless slave catcher picks up their trail. That’s the idea Colson Whitehead has in his modern classic The Underground Railroad. Click here to buy.
Native Son by Richard Wright
The Civil Rights Movement was still in its infancy during the 1940s. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t African Americans driving an impetus for change. Native Son is a remarkable protest novel and commentary on the state of race in America in the 1940s. The story focuses on Bigger Thomas, a young African American man in Chicago’s South Side, and his reliance on the wealthy, white Dalton family. Eventually, due to the societal pressures exerted by his position in the Dalton household, he murders Mary and attempts to cover up the crime. Click here to buy.
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, was first published in 1968, and it remains poignant today. Born to poor sharecroppers, Anne Moody grew up in rural Mississippi in the shadow of Antebellum America. However, through highschool and college, she becomes a member of the NCAA and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. She details her role in organizing the Congress of Racial Equality and participates in the 1963 Wollworth’s sit in. She details the violent racism she experienced at the hands of white Mississippians and sexism from fellow activists.Click here to buy.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Written only a few years after Native Son, Ralph Ellison penned Invisible Man due to the disillusion with the Communist Party he shared with Wright. But don’t be put off by the communist association. Ellison addresses Booker T. Washington’s vision for civil rights and integration, the invisible black community, the need to lose racial identities to adapt to societal pressures, and the failure of the Communist Party to incorporate African-American struggles into their struggle for egalitarian equality.Click here to buy.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a complex autobiography by Maya Angelou. In it, Angelou describes her childhood in Stamps, AR. The book is both an autobiography and a coming-of-age tale. She addresses unfortunately common themes of young black women in the south: racism and sexual violence. However, Maya Angelou is able to rise above her experiences to define her identity as a dignified and independent black woman.Click here to buy.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah provides a broader perspective on black identity, culture, racism, and even the African Diaspora. Adichie uses the narrator’s blog to detail the politics of race and racism in America. She also explores themes such as the lasting effects of colonization on the African continent and immigration in the modern African Diaspora. Despite touching such complex topics, Americanah is an engaging and delightful love story that spans continents.Click here to buy.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes
No discussion of African-American literature is complete without the addition of Langston Hughes. Hughes was an influential leader of the Harlem Renaissance of the ‘20s and ‘30s. He helped defined the African-American identity and firmly establish its diverse culture to the American public. His works depicted realism of working class blacks, as well as the divisions and prejudices based on skin color in the black community.Click here to buy.