February is Black History Month, and while the stories of Americans of color deserve reading year-round, this annual observation is a good reminder to make room in our To Be Read piles for a diversity of voices and experiences. Not sure where to begin? We’ve compiled a list of titles by and about black Americans, from the Bas Bleu shelves as well as other sources. Is this list comprehensive? Not by a very, very, very long shot. It’s merely a jumping-off point for bluestockings looking to broaden their literary horizons!
Jefferson’s Daughters, Catherine Kerrison: In 1998, a DNA analysis confirmed the genetic link between Thomas Jefferson’s male line and the descendants of Sally Hemings, who was a slave in Jefferson’s household. Though the test results flamed the fires of an already simmering controversy, historian Catherine Kerrison suggests Jefferson’s relationship with his slave wasn’t exactly a secret during the Founding Father’s lifetime. This in-depth biography explores the lives of Jefferson’s three daughters: Martha and Maria, his children by his white wife, and Harriet, his only daughter by the enslaved Hemings. Their disparate lives during our country’s formative years—and the racial barriers and legal abuses legislated by otherwise independence-minded colonial leaders—makes this deep dive into American history a must-read.
Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings, Phillis Wheatley: Born in Africa and sold into slavery around age eight, Phillis Wheatley learned to read and write under the tutelage of her owners in Boston. She began to write poetry at age fourteen, and, with the publication of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she became the first published African American. The book stirred debates over slavery, and abolitionists hailed her work as proof that slaves could be “civilized” and flourish in society. Today, you can read her poetry—which includes hymns and elegies—as well as her letters in this single-volume collection.
Never Caught, Erica Armstrong Dunbar: Speaking of slaveholders who became president of the United States, this National Book Award finalist provides readers with a new perspective on America’s first president, George Washington. In 1796, Martha Washington’s slave Ona Judge escaped from the presidential mansion in Philadelphia. The Washingtons—who found clever ways to circumvent state abolition laws—pursued Judge for several years before the president’s death in 1799. Judge avoided recapture her entire life, and her “very rare and personal perspective” on slavery and our country’s first “first family” forms the backbone of this fascinating work.
Beloved, Toni Morrison: In 1988, Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this literary masterpiece, the hauntingly beautiful tale of the runaway slave, Sethe, who murders her own infant rather than have the child subjected to the bondage that nearly destroyed her mother. Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, which frequently crops up on banned-books lists around the country, offers its own poetic yet blistering portrait of the damage inflicted by racism in America. Frankly, Morrison’s entire canon is a marvel, which is probably why she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, only the second American woman after Pearl S. Buck to do so.
Darktown, Thomas Mullen: Bas Bleu was “born” in Atlanta, and the ATL has been home to our editorial office for more than twenty years, so we jumped at the chance to read this whodunit inspired by the city’s first black police officers. As a tension-filled murder mystery, in which three rookie cops navigate police corruption to solve a young woman’s murder, Darktown more than stands on its own. But it doubles as a sobering history lesson about the ever-present dangers and daily humiliations that African-Americans endured during Jim Crow, as they endeavored to claim equality in a nation determined not to grant it.
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson: Beginning in 1915 and lasting until well into the mid-twentieth century, nearly six million African-Americans left the rural South for urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. Clocking in at more than six hundred pages, this deep dive into the causes and consequences—economic, political, social, and cultural—of the Great Migration is as sweeping as it is compelling, thanks in no small part to the fact that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people as part of her research.
I Am Martin Luther King, Jr., Brad Meltzer: Parents often struggle to discuss racism and discrimination with their young children, even though studies have shown that racism is a learned, not innate, trait in humans. This children’s book about the civil-rights leader pulls double duty as a kid-appropriate introduction to America’s racial turmoil as well as a mini-biography of one of our nation’s most prominent and influential citizens. It’s become a storytime staple for the two young children of Bas Bleu reviewer AG, who says Brad Meltzer’s book “has been a wonderful introduction to civil rights history—and has spurred some important and meaningful conversations at our house.”
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates: Since its publication in 2015, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today” has spurred controversy and conversation. Written as a letter to his teenage son trying to understand racial injustice and find his place in a hostile world, the book focuses not on heartwarming triumph, but on fear, questioning, and the importance of struggle, even when success seems futile. There is little reassurance to be found in these pages, but you will encounter abundant challenges to thought, action, and perception for all Americans.
The Home Place, J. Drew Lanham: Growing up in South Carolina, the son of schoolteachers who moonlighted as farmers, J. Drew Lanham was fascinated by the wildlife that shared his “home place”—deer, turkeys, raccoons, insects, frogs, birds, and more—on land once worked by his enslaved ancestors. As an adult, he became a birder, naturalist, and conservationist. Yet as a black man, his presence in those overwhelmingly white hobbies and fields of study made him something of a “rare bird” himself. This compelling memoir celebrates nature, family, cultural history, and personal identity, “a remarkable meditation on nature and belonging” and “a riveting exploration of the contradictions of black identity.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward: If this author’s name is new to you, you’re in for a treat! Since even before its publication in September 2017, Sing, Unburied, Sing has been one of the book world’s most talked-about novels, a lyrical combination of family epic, bildungsroman, and ghost story. Sing, Unburied, Sing won Ward the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, making her the first woman to win that prestigious literary award twice; she won it the first time in 2011, for her novel Salvage the Bones, about a working-class family struggling to survive during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
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