February 1st marks the first day of Black History Month, an annual observance honoring the stories, achievements, and struggles of those who are often denied their central role in American history. While the yearly tribute originated in the United States in 1970, the impact has expanded beyond the national level, achieving recognition in Canada, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Ireland.
These 28 days are an opportunity to work towards understanding the importance of creating room for marginalized stories, particularly in a social climate that consistently attempts to silence them. Books are one of the most accessible forms of media when it comes to self-education, making them an ideal entry point for learning specifically about the Black experience and struggle.
I have composed a diverse list of titles for this year’s Black History Month, ranging from black, queer poetry, to memoirs about what it means to grow up Black in America. These are all titles that I have read and have found thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. We all have something to learn from those who chose to write down their stories, and this is just the beginning.
1. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, fiction, 218 pages
I start off with this particular book because it is school-age reading level. Now, at first this may dissuade you from reading, but I vividly remember reading and rereading this book when I was younger. I can still picture it sitting on a bookshelf at home. This book follows the story of three sisters, all growing up in the 1960s and learning about what it was like to exist as Black girls in the middle of the civil rights movement. While this book is written for a younger age group, it deals with themes of racism, Black pride, and family, giving it its spot on this list.
2. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, fiction, 322 pages
This is another palatable and easy-to-read novel, focusing on a young Black girl who is accused of kidnapping while babysitting a white child. The book opens with the incident and then moves on to detail the consequences of the accusation and the guilt exhibited by the family. This book does an extraordinary job of conveying the truth of what it means to be on the receiving end of white guilt and the white savior complex. The point is to feel uncomfortable and to understand why these responses are inappropriate and increase the burden on people of color. I urge you to sit in the ensuing discomfort, if you find yourself feeling it.
3. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, non-fiction, 65 pages
It would be a disservice to omit a work by Adichie, an author who consistently pushes the boundaries of social justice in the literary world. This short, pocket-sized book explodes with rhetoric regarding our understanding of an intersectional feminist movement. Written as a long essay, her anecdotes and analyses demonstrate the power of black, female writers in the realm of literature.
4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, autobiography, 305 pages
This book is the first of seven autobiographical works that Maya Angelou created and elegantly sets the stage for depicting the power of literature in a life of racism and trauma. Dealing with her earliest years, Angelou brilliantly illustrates black childhood through her eyes, allowing readers to step into her world. Through deep analysis of her sufferings, Angelou creates her symbolic central character, creating representation for black girls growing up in America
*Content Warning* Mentions of rape and sexual assault
5. Hunger by Roxane Gay, memoir, 261 pages
Roxane Gay is another author that pushes the boundaries of what it means to truly create impact as an intersectional author. In this memoir, she particularly explores what it feels like to live in an oversized body as a black woman. She writes courageously, blatantly, and cruelly honestly, leaving you with an expectation to rethink your misconceptions regarding the discussed identities.
*Content Warning* Mentions of rape and disordered eating
6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, non-fiction, 163 pages
While I believe that all of the books on this list should be required, this particular book is one that I always recommend. Written as a letter to his son, it would be unfair to describe this book as anything short of immensely powerful. Coates details the realities of coming of age in a society filled with hatred and racism, while simultaneously attempting to forge a path for his son. This book confronts our present society like no other.
7. Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, non-fiction, 290 pages
This is another book that constantly remains on my recommended reading list. I have yet to read another detailed feminist account that so vividly uncovers the intrusion of racism within the feminist movement. Moving through sections on housing, motherhood, poverty, and the education gap, Kendall reveals the irony behind white women’s calls for solidarity within the movement. This book gives voice to the women that the movement forgot.
8. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, memoir, 273 pages
I read this book for a class and I often find myself thinking about it now, a year later. Ward writes an account of her experience with losing five Black men in her life over the span of four years. She allows readers to experience what it was like learning her role as a Black girl in America, and watching those around her be failed in different ways. This story is not one of hope, but one of a dire reality where to be Black in America means to fight for your freedom to live.
9. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, fiction, 245 pages
This book is undoubtedly a classic, dealing with themes of love, race, destiny, and liberation. Following the story of Janie, Hurston works to describe the experience of finding one’s path as a descendant of slaves. While a slightly more difficult read, this novel is meant to be interacted with and questioned, all while showing the reader that identity never disappears.
10. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, fiction, 226 pages
Toni Morrison is another author that consistently shows up on recommended lists. Her stories are never lacking in depth, thought, detail, and importance, while constantly challenging social norms. The novel follows the life of Pecola, as she wishes to have blue eyes. Weaving through the narratives constructed by the many characters, Morrison creates an aura of disturbing confusion, meant to make the reader question our world.
*Content Warning* Mentions of incest, assault, molestation
11. Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, non-fiction, 254 pages
This book is unique because it forces readers to explore their own complicity in the social structure that is white supremacy. Crafted as both an informative book and a reflection tool, Saad creates opportunities for readers to unpack their own biases and face their own misconceptions. Consider truly reading this if you are committed to educating yourself and understanding your role in the bigger issues.
12. Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith, poetry, 106 pages
This compilation of poems left me speechless the first time I read it. An absolutely stunning piece that explores racism, queerness, police violence, and other aspects of the Black experience, Smith creates an indescribable work of art. Take your time with the pieces, and truly seek to understand the feelings behind the words.
While this is not by any means an exhaustive list, I hope that this gives you somewhere to start. All of the titles in this list are linked to four different Black-owned bookstores that are all committed to racial and social justice, because mindful consumption also matters. Make the decision to honor the history that is so often obscured; do not idly stand by and watch the voices be buried.
Bleachers music enthusiast and hammocking fanatic. Hoping to make the world a better place through oxford commas, feminism, and bagels.