Black History Month was established in the early 1900s as a week in February dedicated to commemorate influential people and events in the history of the African Diaspora. The week eventually turned into a month long celebration that takes place annually (it is celebrated in October in the United Kingdom). There are a number of classic books written by black authors that deserve a glorious spot in the limelight, but we have listed just a few favorites to honor black history. Let us know what you would add!
Native Son by Richard Wright
Native Son is a poignant reflection of life for African-Americans facing inner-city struggles and extreme poverty. A young black man in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, is sent to jail after killing a white woman. Rather than delving into Bigger’s crime and what punishments hey may or may not deserve, Wright focuses on how society shaped and influenced Bigger. His fate was essentially sealed when he was born black in America. The message about the devastating effects of institutionalized racism in Native Son is harrowing and regrettably enduring.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
Johnson’s fictional ‘autobiography’ of a young biracial man living in the post-Reconstruction era in America is an intriguing look at what it is like to be able to pass as either white or black. The protagonist, referred to throughout the story as the “Ex-Colored Man” experiences American Racism at it’s worst, including a lynching. He makes a choice to refer to himself as white, out of fear and dispirited belief that the future was bleak for African-Americans. Consequently, he grapples with his choice to “pass as white” as he watches black culture simultaneously flourish and struggle within the country.
The Collected Poems by Langston Hughes
This incredible compilation features over 860 of Hughes’ poetry. The famous activist and innovator of jazz-poetry is well known for his inspiring poems, such as “Let America Be America Again,” “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” and “I, Too, Sing America.” Hughes is a passionate writer, who covers topics ranging from prejudice to religion to growing up. He was one of the most prominent contributors to the Harlem Renaissance and reading his work feels like experiencing a small slice of history. His poetry is timeless and absolutely mesmerizing.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
Set in central Florida, Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the independent and powerful Janie Crawford. As a poor, black woman living in the south during the early 1900s, the odds are severely against Janie; but, she is determined to find her footing, combating abusive relationships and a slew of prejudice. Hurston wrote the novel in part as a protest against W.E.B Du Bois’s Racial Uplift Program, which he intended to improve the image of African Americans. Hurston was amongst the black women (and men) who felt the Uplift Program completely muted black female sexuality.
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Curtis offers a heart-warming, comical story about a fun-loving boy, Bud, living during the Great Depression in Flint, Michigan (which regrettably has been in the news a lot recently.) Told through the endearing voice of 10-year-old Bud, the novel shows how the naive boy must mature faster than other boys his own age who don’t face the standing issues of racism. Despite losing his mother and never knowing his father, and growing up in poverty as an African-American, Bud holds his head high. Bud, Not Buddy is a revitalizing story that ignites a bit of a hopeful spirit in the reader.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is an incredible woman. The Bluest Eye is her first novel, which she wrote as a full-time teacher at Howard University and as single mother with two young boys. The story is chilling and deals with a number of issues facing black women, including the controversial and taboo topics of incest and child molestation. The story focuses on a young black girl who longs for blonde hair and blue eyes, praying that a change in her appearance will change her world. Morrison wrote the novel to detail issues of beauty and feelings of ugliness that black women face, amid a number of issues.
Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals
In 1957, just after Brown v. Board of Education, the monumental Supreme Court ruling that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Melba Pattillo Beals joined eight other black students as the first to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. The students, who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, faced unprecedented hate speech and crimes. Their story seems unreal, and yet it occurred just over sixty years ago. Beals’ memoir details how courageous and determined each student was, and the remarkable support that came from one another and their families.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
In collaboration with Alex Haley, Malcolm X wrote an absolutely astonishing autobiography of his life of struggle and growth while facing extreme prejudice in America. He is a man both fiercely loved and hated, and often misunderstood, but his autobiography clearly explains why he behaved and believed in certain things at various points of his life. He was a complex man, but undoubtedly a devoted human rights activist. He chronicles his journey from ignorance, to hate-mongering, to becoming an enlightened thinker. This autobiography will likely change many people’s perceptions of Malcolm X, who writes with refreshing honesty.
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