Memoirs carry the souls of their writers. An author may share their most private secrets, moments of vulnerability, their search for meaning, and more with their audience through the medium of the nonfiction narrative genre. In fact, it is often through the pages of a memoir that readers can observe with the utmost clarity the writer’s journey in discovering their personal identity and place in the world.
As we continue to commemorate the plethora of achievements by African-Americans during this year’s Black History Month, here is our list of seven authors and their memoirs which range from the classics to more contemporary examples for our avid readers!
Marguerite Annie Johnson was born on April 4, 1928. Nicknamed “Maya” by her older siblings, she would go on to amass over fifty-years of experience with poetry and authoring memoirs and autobiographies, all while having an active role in the film industry. Angelou was the recipient of over fifty honorary degrees and several awards over the course of her life.
Maya Angelou would incorporate much of her experiences as a young girl growing up in the early decades of the 1900s into her books, a period where African-Americans were especially prone to being the targets of racism and segregation. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was Angelou’s first memoir to earn her recognition and international acclaim in 1969. It contained a series of recollections from an earlier period of Maya’s life that depicted an image of personal growth amidst childhood trauma and the struggle against racial discrimination.
Maya Angelou would pass away on May 28, 2014, but not before solidifying her place as an extraordinary author within the literary world.
Jesmyn Ward’s talent as a novelist has earned her recognition as the only African-American woman to hold the National Book Award for Fiction, twice. Growing up in Mississippi in the midst of poverty, she would witness the deaths of five men in her life, one of which was her younger brother. In memory of her departed sibling, Jesmyn would dedicate herself to writing and the numerous tragedies that followed her family would serve as inspiration for her memoir in 2013: Men We Reaped.
While her novels are primarily fictitious and reflect the lives of disenfranchised families in rural Mississippi, Jesmyn’s memoir touches upon several issues that plague low-income black households in America. After watching the people around her succumb to drugs or suicide and seeing families torn apart, she finally realized the truth behind the roots of these problems and details her revelations she had experienced at that time.
Jesmyn’s work remains relevant as ever as the signs of inequality can still be observed today. For readers eager to learn more, be sure to have this book on your reading list!
See Ward’s Work: Men We Reaped
Born in the heart of black Chicago on October 17, 1947, Margo Jefferson was the daughter of a socialite and an African-American doctor. Her father was the head of the nation’s oldest black hospital at the time. As a result, Jefferson experienced quite a different upbringing than many of our authors on this list; having the privilege of belonging to the “colored aristocracy.”
In her acclaimed memoir, Margo Jefferson tells the story of her life in the upper-crust of black society, which she had coined “Negroland”, and its seeming contradictions with the perils and tribulations of African-Americans across the rest of the country. She details her life growing up during pivotal moments in history such as the Civil Rights Movement whilst offering a glimpse into her personal world, one that was relatively shielded from the conflict experienced elsewhere.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has amassed quite some experience in the field of journalism talking about cultural, social, and political issues surrounding African-Americans today. As a recipient of the Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Coates has dabbled in several genres over the course of his life, having even worked on a series for Marvel’s Black Panther. However, he is also noted for having published three memoirs detailing moments of life in both journalism, politics, and fatherhood.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is about as relatable to the average American as it gets, and this makes his memoirs all the more valuable in a world teaming with inequality. In Between the World and Me, Coates strives to offer his teenage son the story of his realization to the realities of being black in America and the hardships associated with racial divisions and violence in the nation’s history.
Without a moment of doubt, Barack Obama is the most recognizable figure on our list. Making history as the first black president of the United States of America, the man has also penned several best-selling memoirs that tell the story of his life. Dreams from My Father offers its readers a window to peer into Obama’s years as a young man and his journey through adulthood.
As is tradition since Harry S. Truman, President Obama set out to write A Promised Land, his third memoir, following the end of his term as a means of providing a general account of his presidency while offering the readers his vision for a more democratic and united America. As the former 44th president, a father, and a skillful author in his own right, Obama’s published work should definitely be on your radar of memoirs to check out this month.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr. was a man of many talents; whether it be an actor, singer, comedian, or dancer. He made it his mission to live a life not defined by his “Negro” status, but rather as a man, however, not just any man. Sammy Davis Jr. aspired to be the greatest star on the stage so that his legacy would not be defined by the color of his skin.
In his memoirs, Davis talked about his triumphs and downfalls as he navigated a landscape very much hostile to the black man, and how his successful endeavors faced a myriad of controversy over the course of his career. Nevertheless, his published works serve as an illustration of the black man’s struggles in forging his own path in the world and standing against racism in America. Hopefully it will also provide itself as an inspiration for anyone who chooses to pick up his books and discover more about who Sammy Davis Jr. was, not just as an entertainer, but as a human being.
During the 19th century, Frederick Douglass was at the heart of the abolitionist movement. Born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland, Douglass would escape to New York, becoming a famed abolitionist, orator, and social reformer who penned several memoirs and autobiographies. Frederick was a walking contradiction to the falsehoods perpetuated by slaveholders that African-Americans lacked the intellectual capacity to think and act for themselves. He would come to see knowledge as the key to freedom, as he had been granted the privilege of tutoring during his time in slavery.
Douglass would go on to publish his memoirs split across three best-selling books, each detailing his life as a slave and the moments leading up to his freedom. His eloquent mastery of words and charismatic nature would garner the attention of his peers, propelling him to the forefront of the abolitionist movement as well as the fight for women’s rights at the same time.
As one of the most prominent African-American faces in the nation’s history and a symbol for black American’s fight for self-determination and equality, Douglass’ memoirs are a must-read for all book-lovers this month!
See More Of Douglass’ Work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, My Bondage and My Freedom, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Our mission at Bookstr has always been to provide a spotlight for all authors and to share their work for the bookish world to see. For Black History Month, we’ve taken care to provide a list of some of our favorite aspiring or classical authors, but we encourage you to check out more writers from all the different genres highlighted in our Black History Month series here!