The Nonfiction To Read For Black History Month

by Kerri Jarema

Black History Month is almost here, and with that comes the celebration of one of the most vibrant and vital cultures in the United States, along with lots of black history books to read. And while many of us have read many memoirs and biographies of the men and women who have long been pillars of Black History in America, there are tons of new, modern nonfiction reads to delve into as well.

While there is no better time to celebrate the diverse lives and incredible work of Black Americans, in our country's current political atmosphere, we also need to do so much more than that. It is time for all of us to look closely at the experience of being black in the U.S. today, and to confront the racial violence, discrimination and hardships that most, if not all, Black Americans are still facing. It is only by being witness to the reality of these issues that we can work to change them. We have a long road of resistance ahead of us, and now is the time to get educated and join the fight for what is right, or risk being left in a past that none of us can be proud of.

The list below is a mix of nonfiction and memoirs that do both — celebrate some the most inspiring Black Americans both past and current, and delve into race relations in the U.S. right now, unflinchingly showing us the harsh facts of our present, and the real hopes for our future.


'We Gon' Be Alright: Notes On Race And Resegregation' by Jeff Chang

In these provocative and powerful essays, acclaimed journalist Jeff Chang takes an incisive and wide-ranging look at the recent tragedies and widespread protests that have shaken our country. Through deep reporting with key activists and thinkers, passionately personal writing, and distinguished cultural criticism, We Gon’ Be Alright delves into #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite, Ferguson and Washington D.C., the Great Migration and resurgent nativism. Chang explores the rise and fall of the idea of “diversity,” the roots of student protest, and the real impact of a century of racial separation in housing. He argues that resegregation is the unexamined condition of our time, and that it is only through its undoing that we can move the nation forward to real racial justice and cultural equity.

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'You Can't Touch my Hair: And Other Things I Still Have To Explain' by Phoebe Robinson

Stand-up comedian Phoebe Robinson's hilarious and affecting essay collection touches on race, gender, and pop culture from her own personal experiences. As a black woman in America, she maintains, sometimes you need to have a sense of humor to deal with the absurdity you are handed on the daily. Robinson has experienced her fair share over the years: she's been unceremoniously relegated to the role of "the black friend," as if she is somehow the authority on all things racial; she's been questioned about her love of "white people music"; she's been called "uppity" for having an opinion in the workplace; she's been followed around stores by security guards; and yes, people do ask her whether they can touch her hair all. the. time. Now, she's ready to take these topics to the page and she's going to make you laugh really, really hard as she's doing it.

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'The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers On The Iconic First Lady And How Her Journey Inspires Our Own' Edited by Veronica Chambers

After eight years of having a strong, powerful, brilliant, iconic black woman in The White House, the nation is missing Michelle Obama more than ever. If you have ever wished you could be even half as amazing as Michelle when you grow up, you will relate to this collection of 16 essays on the former First Lady. Writers including Ava DuVernay, Roxane Gay and even Hamilton's Phillipa Soo, delve deep into what Michelle Obama has meant not only to them personally, but to our culture as a whole. The Meaning of Michelle offers a parting gift to a landmark moment in American history while also continuing a conversation about race, class, marriage, creativity, womanhood and what it means to be American today.

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'Between The World And Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This modern classic is told through a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, in which Coates confronts the notion of race in America and how it has shaped American history, many times at the cost of black lives. Thoughtfully exploring personal and historical events, from his time at Howard University to the Civil War, Coates poignantly asks and attempts to answer difficult questions that plague modern society. He explains that the tragic examples of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and those killed in South Carolina are the results of a systematically constructed and maintained assault to black people; a structure that includes slavery, mass incarceration, and police brutality as part of its foundation. From his passionate breakdown of the concept of race itself to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, Coates sums up the terrible history of the subjugation of black people in the United States. This book will resonate with anyone who has experienced racism, and should be required reading for those who have not.

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'The March Trilogy' by John Lewis

Senator John Lewis was not only one of the major players in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, he is also an American hero who has continued to stand up to injustice into his late 70s...including famously deciding not to attend the inauguration of Donald Trump. His National Book Award winning trilogy of graphic novels shares his life story, from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president. This remarkable, vivid first-hand account of one man's spectacular commitment to justice and non-violence is a must-read for all generations of Americans.

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'They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore And A New Era In America's Racial Justice Movement' by Wesley Lowery

Focusing in on the quest for justice in the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, this book offers both unparalleled insight into the reality of police violence in America and an intimate, moving portrait of those working to end it. Conducting hundreds of interviews on the ground, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled from Ferguson, Missouri, to Cleveland, Ohio; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore, Maryland; and then back to Ferguson to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, and oft-otherwise neglected, corners of America today. By posing the question, "What does the loss of any one life mean to the rest of the nation?" Lowery examines the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs. They Can't Kill Us All is a necessary read that offers more than just behind-the-scenes coverage of the story of citizen resistance to police brutality. It also explains where the movement came from, where it is headed and where it still has to go.

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'The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl' by Issa Rae

Before Issa Rae's long-anticipated HBO show Insecure premiered and started getting nominated for Emmy awards, there was her web show and memoir, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Her first book is a collection of humorous essays on what it’s like to be unabashedly awkward in a world that regards introverts as hapless misfits, and black as cool. Being an introvert in a world that glorifies cool isn’t easy. But when Issa Rae is that introvert — whether she’s navigating love, work, friendships, or “rapping” — it's always entertaining. Rae covers everything from cybersexing in the early days of the Internet to deflecting unsolicited comments on weight gain, from navigating the perils of eating out alone and public displays of affection to learning to accept yourself. A reflection on her own unique experiences as a cyber pioneer yet universally appealing, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl is a book no one should miss.

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'Redefining Realness: My Path To Womanhood, Identity, Love And So Much More' by Janet Mock

In 2011, Marie Claire magazine published a profile of Janet Mock in which she stepped forward for the first time as a trans woman. That article turned her into an influential and outspoken public figure and a desperately needed voice for an often voiceless community. In this book, Mock offers a bold and inspiring perspective on being young, multicultural, economically challenged, and transgender in America. This powerful memoir follows Mock’s quest for identity, from an early, unwavering conviction about her gender to a turbulent adolescence in Honolulu that saw her transitioning during the tender years of high school, self-medicating with hormones at fifteen, and flying across the world alone for sex reassignment surgery at just eighteen. With unflinching honesty, Mock uses her own experience to impart vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of trans youth. Redefining Realness provides a whole new outlook on what it means to be a woman today, and shows as never before how to be authentic, unapologetic, and wholly yourself.

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'The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness' by Michelle Alexander

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander maintains that the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. And that, although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status like their grandparents before them. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges all of us to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

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'My Life, My Love, My Legacy' by Coretta Scott King

Published posthumously in January 2017, the life story of Coretta Scott King—wife of Martin Luther King Jr., founder of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and singular twentieth-century American civil rights activist—is told fully for the first time here. Born in 1927 in the Deep South, Coretta Scott King had always felt called to a special purpose. One of the first black scholarship students recruited to Antioch College, a committed pacifist, and a civil rights activist, she was an avowed feminist—a graduate student determined to pursue her own career—when she met Martin Luther King Jr. She was promptly thrust her into a maelstrom of history throughout which she was a partner, a marcher, a negotiator, and a crucial fundraiser in support of world-changing achievements. Scott King's story is about love, family, and the independent-minded black woman in twentieth-century America.

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'We Should All Be Feminists' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become a preeminent writer on the black experience in Africa with her fiction books Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, but her TED Talk turned essay about feminism has spoken to men and women the world over. With humor and levity, Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering a nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike. Argued observant, witty and clever prose, this is an exploration of what it means to be a woman today—and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.

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'The Sisters Are Alright: Changing The Broken Narrative Of Black Women In America' by Tamara Winfrey Harris

The Sisters Are Alright explores the damaging stereotypes of black women that persist to this day through newspaper headlines, Sunday sermons, social media memes, cable punditry, government policies, and hit song lyrics. Winfrey Harris maintains that African American women suffer under three main stereotypes—servile Mammy, angry Sapphire, and lascivious Jezebel. In the '60s, the Matriarch, the willfully unmarried baby machine leeching off the state, joined them. This book delves into marriage, motherhood, health, sexuality, beauty, and more, taking sharp aim at pervasive stereotypes about black women. It counters warped prejudices with the straight-up truth about being a black woman in America. “We have facets like diamonds,” she writes. “The trouble is the people who refuse to see us sparkling.” This is a book that will affirm any choice a modern black woman chooses to make with her own life, relationships and sexuality. After all, this book asks, what's wrong with black women? And the answer is, not a damn thing!

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'Hidden Figures: The American Dream And The Untold Story Of The Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race' by Margot Lee Shetterly

The book that inspired the record-breaking, award-winning film, Hidden Figures tells the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program. Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a group of bright, talented African-American women that included Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to help write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world.

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'Citizen: An American Lyric' by Claudia Rankine

A collection that includes essays, images and poetry, Claudia Rankine's Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often heralded "post-race" society. Rankine recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, or seeming slips of the tongue, and some are more intentional offensives aimed in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV...everywhere, and all the time. Rankine discusses how the accumulative stresses of these aggressions can affect a person's ability to speak, perform, and even to stay alive. This is a provocative meditation on race that is exceedingly relevant in our modern times.

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