There is no list of reading material books that could ever encompass the complexity of Black history and the underpinnings of systemic racial injustice. But if you’re looking to educate yourself on the history of racial inequality and the Black Lives Matter movement, these books are a good place to start. … It’s a start, not a panacea.
Here’s a shortlist of titles — nonfiction and fiction — to explore.
“When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
One of the most important and enduring books of the 20th century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost 30 years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong Black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.
“My People are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain” by Aaron Dixon
In an era of stark racial injustice, Aaron Dixon dedicated his life to revolution, founding the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968 at age 19. In My People Are Rising, he traces the course of his own radicalization, and that of a generation. Through his eyes, we witness the courage and commitment of the young men and women who rose up in rebellion, risking their lives in the name of freedom. My People are Rising is an unforgettable tale of their triumphs and tragedies, and the enduring legacy of Black Power.
“So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
Widespread reporting on aspects of white supremacy–from police brutality to the mass incarceration of Black Americans–has put a media spotlight on racism in our society. Still, it is a difficult subject to talk about. How do you tell your roommate her jokes are racist? Why did your sister-in-law take umbrage when you asked to touch her hair–and how do you make it right? How do you explain white privilege to your white, privileged friend?
“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times best seller list.
Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by Michelle Alexander’s unforgettable argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it”.
“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin
At once a powerful evocation of his early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice to both the individual and the body politic, James Baldwin galvanized the nation in the early days of the civil-rights movement with this eloquent manifesto. The Fire Next Time stands as one of the essential works of our literature.
“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism” by Robin DiAngelo
The New York Times best-selling book exploring the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged, and how these reactions maintain racial inequality.
“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
“Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower” by Brittney Cooper
So what if it’s true that Black women are mad as hell? They have the right to be. In the Black feminist tradition of Audre Lorde, Brittney Cooper reminds us that anger is a powerful source of energy that can give us the strength to keep on fighting.
“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson
In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of Black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.
“Native Son” by Richard Wright
Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be Black in America.
“Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism” by bell hooks
A classic work of feminist scholarship, Ain’t I a Woman has become a must for all those interested in the nature of Black womanhood. Examining the impact of sexism on Black women during slavery, the devaluation of Black womanhood, Black male sexism, racism among feminists, and the Black woman’s involvement with feminism, hooks attempts to move us beyond racist and sexist assumptions. The result is nothing short of groundbreaking, giving this work a critical place in every feminist scholar’s library.
“The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North” by Brian Purnell & Jeanne Theoharis
Jim Crow was not a regional sickness, it was a national cancer. Even at the high point of twentieth century liberalism in the North, Jim Crow racism hid in plain sight. Perpetuated by colorblind arguments about “cultures of poverty,” policies focused more on black criminality than black equality. Procedures that diverted resources in education, housing, and jobs away from poor black people turned ghettos and prisons into social pandemics. Americans in the North made this history. They tried to unmake it, too.
“White Rage” by Carol Anderson
As Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in August 2014, and media commentators across the ideological spectrum referred to the angry response of African Americans as ‘black rage’, historian Carol Anderson wrote a remarkable op-ed in the Washington Post showing that this was, instead, ‘white rage at work. With so much attention on the flames,’ she wrote, ‘everyone had ignored the kindling.’