8 books to read for Black History Month and beyond
By: Bethany Porter, Librarian and Collection Development Analyst
(Ed. Note: all titles mentioned in this post can be found here.)
If you work in a public library, (or a school, or a university), you know how important diversity in literature is. Representation is essential when it comes to ensuring that a group of people feel welcome and included in a community. I choose at least one book every February to expand my knowledge of the African American experience in America. I have been considering which one I will select to celebrate this Black History Month, and have compiled an excellent list of titles to share with you.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
You probably read this one in high school, but it’s definitely worth revisiting. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, became a member of the abolitionist movement, and spent his life fighting for equality.
If you haven’t heard of Roxane Gay yet, you should check out her Twitter feed right now. I’ll give you a moment.
I finished this book in two short sittings. It’s is packed full of women who live beautiful, tragic, and difficult lives. The stories are short, but the characters will stay with you for a long time. Trigger Warning: The stories in the book are drawn from Roxane Gay’s own experience with sexual assault. This is not by any means a light read, but it is an eye-opening collection that gives insight as to what it’s like to be a black woman in America.
The Bluest Eye
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, and one of her most memorable. The main character in this novel is a young black girl whose only wish is for her eyes to be blue. Morrison takes questions about what it means to be black and meshes them together with questions about what it means to be beautiful.
If you’re looking for more recent Toni Morrison, check out God Help the Child. Morrison is a powerhouse when it comes to beautifully writing about race. You can’t go wrong with any of her titles!
Movie Buffs: This one’s for you. I have not seen the film yet, but it is next on my list. This is an incredible story of the black, female mathematises who helped launch the United States into the Space Race. I love a good story about strong, intelligent women, and this one does not disappoint.
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
I was late to the bandwagon when I read this one, but if you haven’t gotten to it yet, you really should. Henrietta Lacks, now famous to scientists as HeLa, was a poor tobacco farmer from Virginia who was incorrectly treated when she went to the hospital with cervical cancer in 1951. Her doctor took a sample of her cancer cells, and these cells have been multiplying and are still used in medical testing today.
Rebecca Skloot does an amazing job of inserting humanity into what was previously seen as a sterile, pragmatic cell sample. Henrietta’s family was never reimbursed for the cell samples that have been shared between scientists worldwide, but thanks to this book, Henrietta now has a face, a name, and a legacy.
The New Jim Crow
I would like to encourage everyone to read this. It will make you uncomfortable, and it will not be a light read. It is, however, an incredibly important aspect of today’s society that needs to be acknowledged. Michelle Alexander is a lawyer and civil rights scholar. She explains that, while the U.S. claims to be a colorblind nation, that there is still a ton of work to be done. She argues that the U.S. criminal justice system targets young black men, by charging these people with crimes that are ignored when committed by people of other races, or by erroneously slapping on felony charges (and stripping away the right to vote).
This book is incredibly controversial, but Alexander backs up her anecdotes with facts and figures. This is a book that could be used to generate significant and vital conversations.
Between the World & Me
I must confess, I haven’t read this one yet. I choose at least one book to celebrate Black History Month every year, and this is the one I have chosen this year. Between the World and Me has been on every list since its release in 2015. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a series of essays to his son that recognizes how deeply race has shaped American history. It is spurred on by love for Coates’ son. I’ve heard the audiobook is excellent, and that this is one title that every teenager in America needs to read.
Chimanada Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria, emigrated to the United States, and has earned degrees from John Hopkins and Yale Universities. She often writes about immigrant and refugee experiences in America, which is exactly what Americanah is about. This novel is about Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman whose country is ruled by a military dictatorship. She decides to move to the United States to study, and ends up writing a blog about race in America.
Adichie shifts flawlessly between Ifemelu’s story and the life of Obinze, who is stuck in Nigeria for a time. This novel weaves these two lives together, and despite taking place on three different continents, depicts just how small our world really is. If this book doesn’t make you want to create a united world, I don’t know what will.
What will you and your patrons be reading this February? Let me know! I am always accepting recommendations.