This week we’d like to take a slightly more serious turn and focus on African-American history month, before February slips away from us. Because we’re all about books, we’d like to share some of the books we think are important and notable in black history. In the few years that I’ve been teaching American history, I’ve used some of these books in the classroom. Others I read while I was still in school. Don’t be daunted by heavy subject matter, or indifferent to the history. These books represent so much in black history and culture – each for different reasons.
The Warmth of Other Sons, Isabel Wilkerson – Focusing on a few individuals and their own experiences, she tells the tale of the Great Migration, which involved millions of African Americans moving out of the rural south. In order to escape the segregated south, they endured so much – violence, discrimination, poverty. This story is beautifully, painfully told through these voices.
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander – Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University, takes on the controversial topic of mass incarceration. Comparing this experience to a new wave of segregation, in which African American men have lost their constitutional rights en masse. This is a provocative subject, and not all will agree with her argument, but it is backed up by an immense amount of research, making it hard to disagree.
My Bondage and my Freedom, Frederick Douglass – A leader in the abolitionist movement, Douglas is one of just a few freed slaves who were able to write about their own experience. First published in 1855, it details his own experience in becoming a free man. A few years earlier, he had written Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and here had described his desire to become a free man.
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison – Morrison, who has become a unique voice in African-American literature, won a Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1993. Telling the story of Pecola Breedlove a young black girl who longs to be someone else, the title of the book becomes a metaphor for a better life.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou – Another important voice in African American literature, she first published this book in 1969. Long known as a talented poet and writer, this book is autobiographical, following her departure from the south. Leaving Arkansas for St Louis, where she is sexually assaulted at a young age. She eventually makes her way out west, to San Francisco.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X – Written with the help of Alex Haley (who wrote Roots), Malcolm X tell his story of escaping poverty, serving time in prison, converting to Islam, and becoming a leader in the somewhat militant Black Revolution. He was a revolutionary, and his assassination in 1965 was a dark time in the era of the Civil Rights movement.
Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington – Born a slave in Virginia a few years before the start of the Civil War, Washington was an important leader in the early Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr would later be compared to him, as they both had a non-violent, non-confrontational approach to their leadership in the movement. Not only was he able to overcome his past and lack of early opportunity, he was able to educate himself, and help many others achieve that same dream.
They are worth the read, worth the time, and deserve recognition. This is no way a definitive list, these are just some of our favorites. Black history and culture should be celebrated every day, all year round. The month of February is a special time of reflection and remembrance. Through these voices, the tale of African American history is told – through slavery, segregation, discrimination, and violence.