15 History Books To Read For Black History Month

by Crystal Paul

There are tons of great ways to celebrate Black History Month — parades, movie marathons, trips to the museums — but for the book nerds it’s clearly another great excuse to break out the books. But even then, there are so many great books to choose from!

If you’re one of those history buff book nerds, then you’ve got double the reason to nerd out this month, and plenty of great new black history books to dive into. But maybe you passed your high school U.S. history class with a solid C+ and struggle to remember the difference between George Washington and George Washington Carver. Either way, with the right books, you can celebrate Black History Month this year by doing what you do best: reading.

Black history spans across continents, cultures, and centuries. It is so rich and interesting that there’s something for everyone, and there are tons of black history scholars uncovering new enthralling stories and truths about black history all the time. So, whether you’re into music or politics, social justice or gender studies, there are some seriously brilliant black history books that are so engrossing and accessible (even for those who can't list all the American Presidents in perfect chronological order) that you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time, or else they’ll explode your whole worldview. These are some of them.

1. The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker

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This one isn’t for the faint of heart. A brutal book, The Slave Ship gets into the gritty, unbearable details of what life and imprisonment was like on the slave ships that brought millions of Africans across the Atlantic in chains and vile conditions. We often hear about the brutality of slavery itself, but the horrors of slavery began long before the slave ships ever reached American and Caribbean shores.

2. The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

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As the French Revolution reached its heights, slaves in the French colony of Saint Domingue caught the revolutionary spirit themselves and revolted under the leadership of the famous Toussaint L’Ouverture. The story of the Haitian Slave Revolt that made Haiti the first independent nation in the Caribbean is a fascinating one, and C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins is one of the most classic histories of the rebellion out there.

3. Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination by Alondra Nelson

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The Black Panther Party is famous for its armed resistance against brutality against black Americans, but the party’s work for health education and health care in black communities is little known and less talked about. But with free clinics, awareness campaigns, and social services programs, the Black Panther Party was pretty radical in its fight for health justice.

4. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

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If medical histories are more your thing, you can’t pass this one up. When we think of the many social injustices that black Americans faced throughout history, we think of segregated lunch counters and brutal plantations, but many of the most harrowing stories come from the medical field, in which black bodies were the subjects of unlawful experiments, eugenics, inferior care, unauthorized autopsies, and other horrors.

5. Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America by Peniel E. Joseph

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The Black Power movement is one of the most misunderstood movements in history. Decades of negative media coverage and stereotypes have contributed to that. Here Peniel Joseph dives in deep and shows where and how the Black Power movement diverged from and overlapped with other racial equality movements, from its inception with Stokely Carmichael at the helm to the rise of the Black Panther Party.

6. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

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In discussions about Black nationalist movements, names like Huey P. Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver long held the spotlight. Assata is one of the few books that gave voice to the experiences of black women during this time.

7. Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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Many of the books you’ll find on black history will focus on a particular era or theme. Henry Louis Gates’ Life Upon These Shores is one of the few comprehensive texts of black history in America, particularly the U.S. And it’s a pretty good one too. Try this one if you’re looking for a general overview.

8. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

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History buff or not, you’ve probably either read this one already or it’s on your TBR list. The story of the migration of hundreds of thousands of Black Americans from the South is beautifully and intimately told by Wilkerson here.

9. Blues People by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

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So music’s your thing? Amiri Baraka’s Blues People is one of the classics of black music history in America. Baraka traces black American music to its roots in Africa and American slavery and retraces his steps to take a look at the influence of it on American culture. Read it with the Blues Roots playlist on Spotify playing in the background and a glass of whiskey in your hand..

10. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis

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Speaking of the Blues, you know the ladies did it too, right? Well, they did and they did it while also paving the path toward greater independence, sexual freedom, and feminism for black women.

11. Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis

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Angela Davis is basically a beast when it comes to shining a bright, brilliant light on the lives and politics of black women in history. In Women, Race, and Class she calls out the often overlooked ties and conflicts between the women’s movements and the black American movements in history, showing that movements for women’s rights have often been divided on lines of race and class, and that the only way forward is with a united front.

12. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young

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Part cultural criticism, part prosetry (it's so a thing), part history, The Grey Album is a beast of its own. It’s probably a bit controversial to include it on a list of pure history books, but the book is just too amazing NOT to include. This is the book to pick up if you’re not really sure what aspect of black culture/history/art you’d like to explore. Young looks at everything from literature to music to Black cultural traditions of “storying”. Young is a poet by trade and it shows in this lyrical take on all Black everything. It's a freaking celebration in itself!

13. Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, An Oral History by E. Patrick Johnson

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Sweet Tea sheds light on the real stories and histories of black gay men living in the South that have long been left in the dark, in an effort to correct for the historical neglect and marginalization of black queer voices.

14. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio

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Speaking of the marginalization LGTBQ people in black communities… Bayard Rustin was openly and controversially gay during the Civil Rights era, and was consequently often pushed to the margins and shamefully hidden away in the shadows even as an important leader of the movements and organizations of black liberation.

15. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist

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This isn’t the history of slavery as you heard it in a five-page summary in your high school textbook. This picture of American slavery is, if you can believe it, even more harrowing. Getting at the greed and commercial motivations that drove slavery, Baptist uncovers a surprisingly uglier picture of that horrid institution and it’s undeniable role in the economic development of the United States.

Image: Crystal Paul