Wednesday, January 30, 2013

7 Modern Black History Books That Should be Required Reading

Book blogs and publishers have started recommending Black History Month titles, but those titles tend to be imprint/publishing-house specific. There's nothing wrong with that, but it means that some titles might escape your notice. I love big books, but I especially adore giant books about black history, which I read for fun. So, there will be at least one other list like this before February is out. But for now...

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration This is one of my favorite books from the past 20 years. I can't recommend it enough. Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees. As a work of superior journalism, it has few peers. You've certainly heard about the Great Migration before and maybe your grandparents or parents told you all you need to know. But the narrative power and style of Isabel Wilkerson as applied to more than 1,000 interviews is educational and inspirational nonetheless. Here's my Q&A with her from 2010 ahead of her appearance at the Texas Book Festival.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
There were some big questions that remained unanswered in Marable's book, but it's still an incredible biography. I'm sad that he didn't live to see its publication. My 2011 Q&A with Zaheer Ali.

Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter
This was worth reading to find out more about the woman beyond her "Ain't I a Woman" speech. Not only did she bare her breasts in public in the context of this speech, since her audience was treating her like she was a man, but she was also a shrewd marketer of her image. The photograph we associate most with her says beneath it, "I sell the shadow to support the substance."

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom This is one of my favorite biographies in the past decade, in addition to Alice Walker: A Life and Wrapped in Rainbows, the biography of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd. Catherine Clinton writes about Tubman not just as the Moses of her people, but also as a woman who was married multiple times, including once when she was past retirement age, and adopted many children with her last husband.

At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire 
I was profoundly moved by reading this thorough history of black women like Rosa Parks and learning a fuller history of how sexual assault was used against them (us) in the racist South. It was jarring and well-researched. In comparison to most black history lessons and stories, it was far more nuanced. 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
There isn't a black person in American who is unaffected by the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration of black men and women in our country. Michelle Alexander's important book shows just how bleak modern incarceration is and how racism impacts not just prisoners and ex-convicts but society at large. 

Disintegration by Eugene Robinson
A lot has been made of the post-racial nature of America - are we or aren't we? Eugene Robinson doesn't answer that, and for good reason - instead he looks at how black America has become so diffuse that its impact from decades past, mainly during America's segregated era, has disintegrated along class and geographical lines.