Black History Month, held every February, honors the experiences, contributions, achievements, and struggles of African Americans who have helped shape our nation. In a recent interview with NPR, Sara Clarke Kaplan, executive director of the Antiracist Research & Policy at American University said “there is no American history without African American history.” The Black experience is an indelible part of this country’s past – a past that we can explore through the power of literature.
Books can shed light on hidden histories – whether intentionally buried or slowly forgotten – such as the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 or Black mathematicians working at NASA. Reading can give us a holistic view of our country’s development and reminds us that we always have more to learn.
Explore the lives and legacies of influential Black figures and key moments in history through these handpicked books for all ages.
The ABCs of Black History by Rio Cortez
“B is for Beautiful, Brave, and Bright!” Letter by letter, The ABCs of Black History takes a bold journey through the alphabet of Black history and culture. It’s a story of big ideas – P is for Power, S is for Science and Soul. Of significant moments – G is for Great Migration. Of iconic figures – H is for Zora Neale Hurston, X is for Malcom X. It’s a colorfully illustrated ABC book like no other, and a story of hope and love.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
In this beautifully illustrated picture book, we explore the story of four female African American mathematicians at NASA, known as “colored computers,” and how they overcame gender and racial barriers to succeed in a highly challenging STEM-based career. Based on the New York Times bestselling book and the Academy Award–nominated movie.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford
Aretha Franklin’s string of hit songs earned her the title “the Queen of Soul,” multiple Grammy Awards, and a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But Aretha didn’t just raise her voice in song, she also spoke out against injustice and fought for civil rights. This picture book biography will captivate young readers with Aretha’s inspiring story.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander
Originally performed as a poem for an ESPN program, Alexander’s picture book is a love letter to Black life in the United States. It highlights the unspeakable trauma of slavery, the faith and fire of the civil rights movement, and the grit, passion, and perseverance of some of the world’s greatest heroes. The text is also peppered with references to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. Winner of the Caldecott Medal and Newberry Honor Book.
Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome
When eleven-year-old Langston’s mother dies in 1946, he and his father move from Alabama to Chicago’s Bronzeville. Langston must leave behind everything he cherishes: family, friends, Grandma’s Sunday suppers, even the magnolia trees Mama loved so much. The northern city is loud and hectic, and their kitchenette apartment is just a lonely room with old newspapers covering the holes. At school Langston is tormented for being too country. But his new home has something his old one did not: unlike the whites-only library back home, the George Cleveland Hall Library welcomes everyone. There, hiding out after school, Langston discovers another Langston, a poet whose words are powerful. In one of his poems lies a secret that will bring Langston closer to his mother’s spirit. A heartwarming historical fiction book for children.
And We Rise: The Civil Rights Movement in Poems by Erica Martin
A powerful, impactful, eye-opening journey that explores through the Civil Rights Movement in 1950s-1960s America in spare and evocative verse, with historical photos interspersed throughout. In stunning verse and vivid use of white space, Erica Martin’s debut poetry collection walks readers through the Civil Rights Movement. A poignant, powerful, all-too-timely collection that is both a vital history lesson and much-needed conversation starter in our modern world.
Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by Brandy Colbert
In the early morning of June 1, 1921, a white mob marched across the train tracks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and into its predominantly Black Greenwood District – a thriving, affluent neighborhood known as America’s Black Wall Street. They brought with them firearms, gasoline, and explosives. In a few short hours, they’d razed thirty-five square blocks to the ground, leaving hundreds dead. The Tulsa Race Massacre is one of the most devastating acts of racial violence in US history. But how did it come to pass? What exactly happened? And why are the events unknown to so many of us today? These are the questions that author Brandy Colbert seeks to answer in her nonfiction account of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis
Rosa Parks is one of the most well-known Americans today, but much of what is known and taught about her is incomplete, distorted, and just plain wrong. Authors Jeanne Theoharis and Brandy Colbert shatter the myths that Parks was meek, accidental, tired, or middle class. She reveals a lifelong freedom fighter whose activism began two decades before her historic stand that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and continued for 40 years after.
Revolution in our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon
In this comprehensive, inspiring, and all-too-relevant history of the Black Panther Party, Kekla Magoon introduces readers to the Panthers’ community activism, grounded in the concept of self-defense, which taught Black Americans how to protect and support themselves in a country that treated them like second-class citizens. For too long the Panthers’ story has been a footnote to the civil rights movement rather than what it was: a revolutionary socialist movement that drew thousands of members—mostly women—and became the target of one of the most sustained repression efforts ever made by the U.S. government against its own citizens. National Book Award Finalist and Michael L. Printz Honor Book.
Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture by Emma Dabiri
Through her personal journey, Dabiri gleans insights into the way racism is coded in society’s perception of Black hair – and how it is often used as an avenue for discrimination. Dabiri takes us from pre-colonial Africa, through the Harlem Renaissance, and into today’s Natural Hair Movement, exploring everything from women’s solidarity and friendship, to the criminalization of dreadlocks, to the dubious provenance of Kim Kardashian’s braids. Through the lens of hair texture, Dabiri leads us on a historical and cultural investigation of the global history of racism–and her own personal journey of self-love and finally, acceptance. Deeply researched and powerfully resonant, Twisted proves that far from being only hair, Black hairstyling culture can be understood as an allegory for Black oppression and, ultimately, liberation.
Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor’s Fight For Fairness by Laura Coates
When Laura Coates joined the Department of Justice as a prosecutor, she wanted to advocate for the most vulnerable. But she quickly realized no matter how fair you try to fight, being a woman of color are identities often at odds in the justice system. On the front lines of the legal system, Coates saw how Black communities are policed differently and Black defendants are judged differently. Through revelatory and captivating scenes from the courtroom, Laura Coates explores the tension between the idealism of the law and the reality of working within a flawed legal system.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones
The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning “1619 Project” issue reframed our understanding of American history by placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative. This new book expands on that work, weaving together eighteen essays that explore the legacy of slavery in present-day America with thirty-six poems and works of fiction that illuminate key moments of oppression, struggle, and resistance. The essays show how the legacy of 1619 reaches into every part of contemporary American society, from politics, music, diet, traffic, and citizenship to capitalism, religion, and our democracy itself. Hannah-Jones contextualizes the systems of race and caste within which we operate today and reveals long-glossed-over truths around our nation’s founding and construction—and the way that the legacy of slavery did not end with emancipation, but continues to shape contemporary American life. If you want to opt for a quicker read, check out the original New York Times publication (subscription required).
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America edited by Ibram X. Kendi
Last year marked the four hundredth anniversary of the first African presence in the Americas–and also launched the Four Hundred Souls project, spearheaded by Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Antiracism Institute of American University, and Keisha Blain, editor of The North Star. They’ve gathered together eighty Black writers from all disciplines — historians and artists, journalists and novelists–each of whom has contributed an entry about one five-year period to create a dynamic multivoiced single-volume history of Black people in America. A “choral history” of African Americans covering 400 years of history in the voices of 80 writers.