February is Black History Month, and if you’re looking for a way to educate yourself and expand your knowledge about the accomplishments and contributions of Black people in American history, as well as reflect on the inequalities and injustices that have been done against them, we’ve rounded up 20 books by some of the most brilliant Black authors and historical figures to read throughout the month and beyond.
From Maya Angelou’s classic memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” to the timeless and timely story of a young unarmed Black boy who is killed by a police officer in “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, these 20 books are poignant, captivating, educating and even, in some cases, life-changing.
If you’re looking to further your knowledge even more, there are plenty of incredible podcasts to listen to in celebration of Black History Month as well. Some of our top picks include “Historically Black”, which is hosted by celebrities such as Keegan-Michael Key, Roxane Gay and Issa Rae. Created in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, this podcast features stories based off of personal objects submitted by listeners that “make up their own lived experiences of Black history.”
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A crucial read for Black History Month, “The 1619 Project” is a profound mix of essays, poems and works of fiction from over 50 contributors and 17 authors that explores the deep-rooted legacy of slavery and how its inheritance in 1619 continues to shape every facet of modern American society, its constructs and its democracy to this day. This extraordinary and powerful collection of works is a wonderfully refreshing and enlightening lesson in reframing the country’s history.
‘You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays’ by Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West
From $15.99 at Amazon
This collection of influential essays spans over three decades of work by Zora Neale Hurston, one of the world’s most legendary and celebrated writers from the Harlem Renaissance. In it, readers will find Hurston’s controversial and provocative arguments on enslavement and Jim Crow, feminism, sexism, education and Black history itself. This is one book that is sure to earn a permanent spot on your bookshelf.
From $14.99 at Amazon
Brown’s autobiography is the fascinating story of her rise to power as the first and only female leader of the Black Panther Party. This coming-of-age tale weaves together the political history of the organization with her remarkable accomplishments as the former chairwoman, along with the tumultuous relationships, power struggles, acts of sexism and brutal racism that she experienced along the way.
‘Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Survived Slavery and Became Millionaires’ by Shomari Wills
From $12.49 at Amazon
This book tells the stories of the first six self-made African-American millionaires. After escaping slavery and evading assassination and lynching attempts, lawsuits, and more, these six inspiring African-American entrepreneurs pioneered their way into the highest levels of financial success. This book recounts how their determination, resilience and achievements shaped and altered the social order and influenced both Black and business history.
From $2.99 at Amazon
“Invisible Man” is a thought-provoking and witty story about race that is beautifully narrated by a young, nameless Black man in 1950s America in search of self-knowledge. Readers are taken on a journey from the Deep South to Harlem, where the protagonist experiences horrifying intolerance, cultural blindness and racial bigotry all in an effort to find the true meaning of self-identity.
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In this coming-of-age memoir, acclaimed writer and poet Maya Angelou details her experiences with racism, sexual trauma and violence she experienced as a young girl. Years later, she finds the freedom to heal through great literary works from authors such as William Shakespeare, kindness of others, and ultimately, self-love. This story, the first in a seven-volume series, is an essential reading not only for Black History Month, but for life.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ exceptionally powerful and beautifully written memoir is a series of essays that takes the form of an open letter to his son about race in America. In it, Coates walks readers through his life while exploring his evolutionary thoughts on systemic racism, white exceptionalism and the terrible history of the subjugation of Black people in the United States.
From $9.29 at Amazon
This New York Times bestseller follows the story of Sethe, who is born into slavery and escapes to Ohio. But even after 18 years, the horrendous memories of home still haunt her, along with the ghost of her unnamed baby from her new home who is buried with only the word “Beloved” on her tombstone. This masterfully written tale of endurance, pain, heartache and power is absolute must-read by one of the nation’s most revered Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.
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Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book “The New Jim Crow” was published in 2010, and since then has inspired a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations, cited in judicial hearings and read at schools nationwide. This crucial reading demonstrates the link between slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and racism and is a call to action for modern reform of America’s criminal justice system.
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“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” tells the extraordinary life story of the famed Muslim leader and human rights activist and dives into his perspective of the American Dream, the country’s inherent racism and the growth of the Black Muslim movement.
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This stunning historical account of the Great Migration — the 6-million-strong mass movement immigration of Black Americans out of the feudal South — is nothing short of brilliant. After interviewing more than one thousand people, Wilkerson beautifully tells the story of the times through the lives of three unique people, capturing each of their treacherous journeys to new cities, their hardships and the new lives that they made for themselves and their families for generations to come.
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A No. 1 bestseller, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” follows Janie Crawford, an indefatigable Black woman in the 1930s and her journey through three turbulent marriages towards financial and emotional freedom. This love story is widely considered one of the most important works of twentieth-century American literature and should definitely be at the top of your reading list.
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This Pulitzer Prize-winning book was originally published in 1982 and has become one of the most-loved classic historical fiction novels of all time. The powerful story follows the lives of sisters Celie and Nettie, two Black women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia who were separated as young girls, and their resilience, growth, love and companionship. This trailblazing novel highlights the traumas of domestic and sexual abuse and toxic masculinity and is surely one you won’t want to put down.
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“The Hate U Give” is a heartbreakingly relevant and powerfully moving tale of a teenage girl named Starr who witnesses the fatal shooting of her best friend Khalil by a police officer. This poignant story depicts the protests, media frenzy and impact that his death has on Starr, her family and her community, and emphasizes the need to speak up about injustices and start conversations on racism, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
From $2.99 at Amazon
In this compelling and electrifying story, Colson Whitehead depicts the Underground Railroad as precisely that — a secret network of tracks, tunnels, engineers and conductors. When Cora, a young slave on a plantation in Georgia, escapes with Caesar, another slave from Virginia, they embark on a terrifying journey fleeing from state to state in search of freedom. This captivating tale is both a depiction of the nation’s history of slavery as well as the protagonist’s story of resilience and willpower.
From $11.99 at Amazon
Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half” is a story of race, identity, family and history that will captivate your heart from the very first page. In it, two twin sisters run away from their small Southern Black community at the age of 16 but end up living two exceedingly different lives as adults: One ends up back in the same Southern town with her Black daughter while the other lives a privileged life while secretly passing for white, which her husband and daughter know nothing about. But years later when the twins’ daughters unintentionally cross paths, their worlds collide and secrets begin to unravel.
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Barack Obama’s highly anticipated presidential memoir is introspective, compelling, powerful and intimate. Obama takes readers on a captivating journey from his early political career through his time in the Oval Office, reflecting on pivotal moments, decisions and challenges that shaped his time as the nation’s first Black president. This honest and beautifully written account of life in the White House is one you won’t want to put down.
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This breathtaking novel follows two half-sisters who are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. One sister is married off to an Englishman and lives in a palatial castle while the other is unknowingly imprisoned below her in the dungeons and sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s slave trade. “Homegoing” explores both sisters’ lives and the forces that shape their family history through two threads: One through centuries of warfare in Ghana and the other’s through life in America as a slave all the way up to present day. This stunning tale is surely one not to be missed.
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Released in 1963, this masterfully written book consists of two essays: “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind.” The first explores how racism has shaped America’s history in the form of a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, and the second examines the relationship between race and religion, focusing on the Black Christian church and the Islamic movement during the ‘60s. This classic book is a must-read for understanding race in America today.
‘When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir’ by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
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Khan-Cullors, one of the three co-founding members of the Black Lives Matter movement, beautifully details her coming-of-age story and her rise as one of the new generation’s most prominent social activist leaders for racial equality. Her story of strength, bravery, perseverance and resilience in the face of police brutality and violent racial injustice is one that will inspire you, move you to tears and have you turning each page with bated breath.