It feels reductive even to say it, but I’m devastated by George Floyd’s heinous murder by a police officer while his colleagues watched, Breonna Taylor’s murder in her own home during an illegal raid at the wrong house, and all the stories that follow a similar narrative of police profiling Black Americans and abusing power with impunity. Not to mention what these events say about our country’s systemic, deeply ingrained racism and how little progress we’ve made despite having such a long time to make it.
Many people and organizations have compiled book lists of thought-provoking and eye-opening titles to inform, educate, shape your thinking, and amplify the voices of Black writers. Reading is a critical way to understand the experience of others and challenge biases. Roxane Gay has spoken often and eloquently about this, about how literature can uniquely engender empathy. I think all of us in the book blogging community could share instances of how reading has singularly opened our eyes to experiences and patterns we hadn’t previously understood. That’s invaluable, and it’s one way we can work towards transcending the horrific current state of race relations in this country.
In keeping with my forever mission to boost nonfiction, I want to put a spotlight on some nonfiction-specific reading lists with titles that help to better understand Black experiences, become anti-racist, and celebrate these writers and their contributions. I’d like to add to it as I come across other lists or new ones get published, so please feel free to send any lists and recommendations my way so I can update this.
And this list of nonfiction resources is nowhere near exhaustive — just some I’ve been bookmarking in recent days and wanted to put out there.
The National Book Review’s list of 10 memoirs everyone should read for Black History Month is a good starting point as these are all pretty well-known titles, but that might make them easy to overlook. Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped are two that have lingered on my to-read list for too long.
An Anti-Racist Reading List: 20 Highly Rated Nonfiction Books by Black Authors – This Goodreads list includes some titles that have gotten a lot of coverage plus some you don’t hear about as often, like Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which Katie at Doing Dewey has written beautifully about.
Napa Bookmine, an independent new and used bookstore in California, has compiled a lengthy and growing antiracist reading list, topped with a handy selection of Black-owned bookstores around the country to support.
13 great books about the black experience in America – This LA Times list of nonfiction titles to read during the George Floyd protests includes a lengthy list of authors to explore further.
Tempe Denton-Hurst’s list for New York magazine of the 21 best books for budding Black feminists has a fantastic nonfiction selection with titles I haven’t come across much elsewhere.
CNET’s list of books and films to help people of all ages learn about systemic racism and violence skews heavily toward nonfiction and documentaries, including some children’s titles.
The Cut picked 13 books you should read about black lives, including Claudia Rankine’s award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric, Kiese Laymon’s highly-praised Heavy, and essays from bell hooks and Audre Lorde.
The Los Angeles Public Library has an excellent and comprehensive list of “nonfiction books about African American history and the African American experience“.
Off the Shelf’s list of 8 must-read memoirs written by black women includes several celebrity perspectives, like Grace Jones, Tina Turner, comedian Patricia Williams, and supermodel Pat Cleveland, as well as writer and Black intelligentsia member Jessica B. Harris. (I want to read all of these!)
Bustle has a well-rounded list of 13 Modern Nonfiction Books To Read For Black History Month that includes popular memoirs by Phoebe Robinson and Issa Rae, titles focused on the flaws of the justice system, writers on Michelle Obama, and the graphic-novel memoir March trilogy of Senator John Lewis.
The Literary Elephant compiled a massive list of, among other things, resources for donations, petitions, legal and political action, and of course, books, here. It’s a thoughtful and helpful go-to resource.
The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture released a reading list of “essential titles about Black life and the struggle for freedom. In honor of the Schomburg Center’s 95th anniversary this year, the 95 books on the list represent titles that the Schomburg Center and the public turn to regularly as activists, students, archivists, and curators.”
I am nowhere near as well or widely read as I’d like to be; I apologize that my offerings in Black nonfiction are neither as diverse nor as numerous they could and should be. I want to do better. But here are some important stories I can share, all of which address Black experiences through different lenses (justice, mental health, immigration, family sagas, slavery, cooking and restaurant culture, etc.) and have been eye-opening for me in this ongoing process of listening and learning.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson — The best recommendation I know for really understanding the inherent inequality of our broken justice system. A secondary recommendation is The Sun Does Shine, which I haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet but features the experience of one of the men Stevenson helped, Anthony Hinton, who was finally released after years of incarceration for a crime he didn’t commit.
The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael W. Twitty
Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston
I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying: Essays, by Bassey Ikpi
Notes From a Young Black Chef, by Kwame Onwuachi
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
Survival Math: Notes On An All-American Family, by Mitchell S. Jackson
The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay
The World According to Fannie Davis, by Bridgett M. Davis
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby
Thick and Other Essays, by Tressie McMillan Cottom
Whether you’re at home or protesting, stay safe and healthy, and above all, hopeful. We’re talking, we’re listening, and we have to just keep going.