Books on Black History and Life | Facing History & Ourselves
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Books on Black History and Life

In addition to using Facing History’s teaching resources on Black history, we invite you to deepen your own learning with these groundbreaking titles.

We have seen many landmark events in Black history over the last few years, ranging from the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement to the election of the first Black female Vice President of the United States. Determining how to structure reflection on these subjects in the classroom can be challenging, and one way to get started is to prioritize our own learning through reading.

These books offer vital insight into the richness of Black history and some of the underacknowledged complexities of Black contemporary life. The following titles provide an array of perspectives on these matters and range in format from historical essay and biography to memoir, poetry, young adult, and more.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux | Macmillan 

King: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Vividly written and exhaustively researched, this revelatory new portrait of the preacher and activist who shook the world gives us an intimate view of the courageous and often emotionally troubled human being who demanded peaceful protest for his movement but was rarely at peace with himself. Jonathan Eig casts fresh light on the King family's origins as well as MLK's complex relationships with his wife, father, and fellow activists. King: A Life reveals a minister wrestling with his own human frailties and dark moods, a citizen hunted by his own government, and a man determined to fight for justice even if it proved to be a fight to the death. 

In this landmark biography, Eig gives us an MLK for our times: a deep thinker, a brilliant strategist, and a committed radical who led one of history's greatest movements, and whose demands for racial and economic justice remain as urgent today as they were in his lifetime.


Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power by Simon Balto

During Chicago’s Red Summer riot, patterns of extraordinary brutality, negligence, and discriminatory policing emerged to shocking effect. Those patterns shifted in subsequent decades, but the overall realities of a racially discriminatory police system persisted. In this history of Chicago from 1919 to the rise and fall of Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s, Simon Balto narrates the evolution of racially repressive policing in Black neighborhoods as well as how Black citizen-activists challenged that repression.
- University of North Carolina Press

Crown Publishing Group

Beyond the Shores: A History of African Americans Abroad by Tamara J. Walker

Part historical exploration, part travel memoir, Beyond the Shores reveals poignant histories of a diverse group of African Americans who have left the United States over the course of the past century. Together, the interwoven stories highlight African Americans' complicated relationship to the United States and the world at large.

This is not just about where African Americans stayed or where they ate when they traveled but also about why they left in the first place and how they were treated once they reached their destinations. Drawing on years of research, Dr. Tamara J. Walker chronicles their experiences in atmospheric detail, taking readers from well-known capital cities to more unusual destinations like Yangiyul, Uzbekistan, and Kabondo, Kenya. Tying these tales together is Walker's personal account of her family's, and her own, experiences abroad—in France, Brazil, Argentina, Austria, and beyond.

By sharing the accounts of those who escaped the racism of the United States to try their hands at life abroad, Beyond the Shores shines a light on the meaning of home and the search for a better life.


Light for the World to See: A Thousand Words on Race and Hope by Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander brings forward a powerful and provocative collection of poems that cut to the heart of the entrenched racism and oppression in America and eloquently explores ongoing events. A book in the tradition of James Baldwin’s “A Report from Occupied Territory,” Light for the World to See is a rap session on race. A lyrical response to the struggles of Black lives in our America’s crisis of the centuries of loss, endless resilience, and unstoppable hope.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 Liveright | W.W. Norton & Company

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights by Gretchen Sorin

Gretchen Sorin reveals how the car has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing Black families to evade the many dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road. She recounts the creation of a parallel, unseen world of Black motorists, who relied on travel guides, Black only businesses, and informal communications networks to keep them safe. At the same time, she shows that the car, despite the freedoms it offered, brought Black people up against new challenges, from segregated ambulance services to unwarranted traffic stops, and the racist violence that too often followed.


A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross

Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross offer an examination and celebration of Black womanhood. They reach far beyond a single narrative to showcase Black women’s lives in all their fraught complexities and prioritize many voices: enslaved women, freedwomen, religious leaders, artists, queer women, activists, and women who lived outside the law.
- Beacon Press

Flatiron Books

The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation
By Anna Malaika Tubbs

Berdis Baldwin, Alberta King, and Louise Little were all forced to contend with the prejudices of Jim Crow as Black women. These three extraordinary women passed their knowledge to their children with the hope of helping them to survive in a society that would deny their humanity from the very beginning. They used their strength and motherhood to push their children toward greatness, all with a conviction that every human being deserves dignity and respect despite the rampant discrimination they faced.

These three mothers taught resistance and a fundamental belief in the worth of Black people to their sons, even when these beliefs flew in the face of America's racist practices and led to ramifications for all three families' safety. The fight for equal justice and dignity came above.


Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World
By Cole Brown

Cole has heard it all before—token, bougie, oreo, Blackish—the things we call the kids like him. Black kids who grow up in white spaces, living at an intersection of race and class that many doubt exists. He needed to get far away from the preppy site of his upbringing before he could make sense of it all. Through a series of personal anecdotes and interviews with his peers, Cole transports us to his adolescence and explores what it’s like to be young and in search of identity. He digs into the places where, in youth, a greyboy’s difference is most acutely felt: parenting, police brutality, Trumpism.
- Arcade

City Lights Publishing

Race Man: Selected Works, 1960-2015 by Julian Bond, ed. Michael G. Long

No one in the United States did more to advance the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. than Julian Bond. This collection of his speeches, articles, interviews, and letters constitutes an unrivaled history of the life and times of one of America’s most trusted freedom fighters, offering unfiltered access to his prophetic voice on a wide variety of social issues. A man who broke race barriers and set precedents throughout his life in politics; co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and long-time chair of the NAACP; Julian Bond was a leader and a visionary who built bridges between the Black civil rights movement and other freedom movements.

We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America by Robert T. Chase 

In the early twentieth century, the brutality of southern prisons became a national scandal. Prisoners toiled in grueling, violent conditions while housed in crude dormitories on what were effectively slave plantations. Drawing from three decades of legal documents compiled by prisoners, Robert T. Chase narrates the struggle to change prison from within. Told from the vantage point of the prisoners themselves, this book weaves together untold but devastatingly important truths from the histories of labor, civil rights, and politics in the United States.
- University of North Carolina Press

 Princeton University Press

The Obama Portraits by Taína Caragol, Dorothy Moss, Richard Powell, and Kim Sajet

From the moment of their unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery in early 2018, the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama have become two of the most beloved artworks of our time. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama and Amy Sherald’s portrait of the former first lady have inspired unprecedented responses from the public, and attendance at the museum has more than doubled as visitors travel from near and far to view these larger-than-life paintings.

After witnessing a woman drop to her knees in prayer before the portrait of Barack Obama, one guard said, "No other painting gets the same kind of reactions. Ever."


Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

The story begins in 1619—a year before the Mayflower—when the White Lion disgorges "some 20-and-odd Negroes" onto the shores of Virginia, inaugurating the African presence in what would become the United States. It takes us to the present, when African Americans, descendants of those on the White Lion and a thousand other routes to this country, continue a journey defined by inhuman oppression, visionary struggles, stunning achievements, and millions of ordinary lives passing through extraordinary history. 

Editors Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain have assembled 90 brilliant writers, each of whom takes on a five-year period of that four-hundred-year span. The writers explore their periods through historical essays, short stories, personal vignettes, and fiery polemics.
- One World

Atria/One Signal Publishers

Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells by Michelle Duster

Ida B. Wells committed herself to the needs of those who did not have power. In the eyes of the FBI, this made her a "dangerous negro agitator." In the annals of history, it makes her an icon. Michelle Duster tells the awe-inspiring story of a pioneering woman who was often overlooked and underestimated—a woman who refused to exit a train car meant for white passengers; a woman who brought to light the horrors of lynching in America; a woman who cofounded the NAACP. Wells left an indelible mark on history—one that can still be felt today.


Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit by Mary-Frances Winters

It is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining to continue to experience inequities and even atrocities, day after day, when justice is a God-given and legislated right. And it is exhausting to have to constantly explain this to white people, even—and especially—well-meaning white people, who fall prey to white fragility and too often are unwittingly complicit in upholding the very systems they say they want dismantled.
- Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Centering Black Lives: A Reading List for All Ages

Touchstone Books

The Black Girl Next Door by Jennifer Baszile
Ages 14 and up

The Black Girl Next Door is an engaging and authentic memoir focusing on Jennifer Baszile’s childhood and adolescence as the daughter of a Black middle class family in a predominantly white California suburb in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although the community was “integrated,” she recounts several episodes of everyday racism that she experienced, including from white classmates and teachers. During her childhood and adolescence, Jennifer struggled to define herself as "the Black girl next door" while living out her parents' dreams for Black excellence and high academic achievement. Although her family was often likened to the Huxtables of The Cosby Show, eventually the struggle to be the perfect Black family became an unbearable burden, and her parents' marriage faltered. However, along the way, Jennifer developed resilient strategies that enabled her to successfully navigate her school and neighborhood, despite its lack of inclusivity. Her story provides insight into the challenges that even economically privileged Blacks encounter due to racism.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Ages 10 and up

In this acclaimed memoir, Jacquelyn Woodson shares her childhood memories and reveals the first sparks that ignited her writing career in free-verse poems about growing up in the North and South. She recalls what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow, and her growing awareness of the civil rights movement. Woodson's eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. This engaging book is wonderful to read and discuss with family members or friends. Check out our Facing History's Remote Book Club guide for tips on planning and conducting a book discussion.
- Nancy Paulsen Books

Amistad Press

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael Twitty
Ages 14 and up

In this wide-ranging memoir of Southern cuisine, Twitty explores his ancestry through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom. He touches on the culture wars of who “owns” Southern food, and celebrates the myriad ways food can bring people together across race, class, religion and geography. In it, he states “I dare to believe all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family, but we are family.” Michael W. Twitty is a noted culinary and cultural historian and the creator of Afroculinaria, a blog exploring the culinary traditions of Africa, African America, and the African diaspora.


The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham
Ages 14 and up

In The Home Place, ornithologist, ecologist and Clemson University professor J. Drew Lanham writes expansively about his life and, in particular, his “love affair with nature.” He writes about the influence of his family and community members in Edgefield, South Carolina, and the insights he gleaned about the natural environment by keenly observing it from a young age. A candid and revelatory window on the complicated relationship many African Americans have with the “land” that their ancestors were enslaved upon; Lanham’s story reveals the many avenues of joy and connectedness to the earth, and the creatures on it, that sustain him. Check out this video featuring J. Drew Lanham, "Bird-Watching While Black."
- Milkweed Editions

Simon & Schuster

How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir by Saeed Jones
Ages 16 and up

In this coming-of-age memoir, award winning poet Saeed Jones reflects on his struggle to accept his identity as a young, Black, gay man. Through a series of lyrically crafted vignettes, Jones charts the course of his young life from his birthplace in Memphis to his boyhood home in Texas, and then his pursuit of higher education in Kentucky and New Jersey. He draws the reader into his childhood and adolescence, talks about his calling as a writer, and shares his joys and struggles on the journey to embracing his identity as a Black gay man. Listen to Saeed Jones reflect on identity and acceptance in this NPR interview.


March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Ages 12 and up

Congressman John Lewis was an American icon, and one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice took him from an Alabama sharecropper's farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers on the Selma March to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African American president. He created March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and award winning artist Nate Powell to inspire a new generation of young activists. This vivid first-hand account of John Lewis' lifelong struggle for civil and human rights details his participation in the Selma March, his deep commitment to non-violence, as well as a reflection on how much has and has not changed since the days of Jim Crow.
- Top Shelf Productions

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid
Ages 15 and up

Jamaica Kincaid's book is both a memoir and a frank recounting of the life and death of her brother, Devon Drew, who died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 33. Although written in the 1990s, it takes on renewed relevance during the current dual public health crises of COVID and systemic racism. It is also a story of Kincaid’s family on the island of Antigua, led by the powerful, sometimes intimidating figure of the writer's mother. Her poetic perceptions of the lives of her brother and family comprise an unvarnished account of a life that ended too early, and a reflection about the complex feelings that linger after someone is gone.


Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon Lowery
Ages 11 and up

In this gripping memoir, author Lynda Lowery shares her experiences of participating in the voting rights march of 1965 from Selma to Montgomery as a young teen. Younger by a decade than John Lewis, her voice is one that is not often heard: that of a young high school student involved in the movement. She describes the intimidation and use of racial epithets against protesters during the march, but also the significant role that students played in organizing and carrying out the student protests, often missing school in order to participate. The book includes archival photos and illustrations, and is a great book for a family to read and discuss together as a historical connection to the current student-led Black Lives Matter protests. To hear Lynda describe her experience on the march, check out this video.
- Speak