Essential History Reads
Over the past year, plenty of provocative, powerful, new historical nonfiction has hit the shelves. We’ve picked out our 9 essential choices to put on your radar this Black History month — and to read well beyond it. These books can open eyes and change minds. All are available for purchase.
Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
This posthumously published book by one of the great American writers is framed as a conversation with the man known as the last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. Barracoon is heartbreaking and fascinating in equal measure, a superb addition to Hurston’s remarkable bibliography.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Sure, the very nature of this enormously successful memoir is history-making — it’s the first-ever written by a black First Lady — but Becoming is bigger than that, casting a wider gaze. The book’s first third is dedicated to Obama’s upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, a portrait of a working-class family driven to see her succeed.
Black Is the Body by Emily Bernard
Bernard’s lyrical book details traumas and pain from decades past to interrogate the nuances of her own life: growing up black in the South, marrying a white man from the North, and surviving a violent attack which unleashed the storyteller in her.
Frederick Douglass by David W. Blight
The first Douglass biography in several decades may also be the definitive one. Among 2018’s most celebrated books in any genre, Frederick Douglass tells a thorough, compelling story over nearly 800 pages, offering a complicated and rousing portrait of one of the 19th century’s most important American voices.
Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib
This deeply personal book from the poet and essayist revisits A Tribe Called Quest from multiple angles, exploring the revolutionary hip-hop group’s history, cultural importance, and artistic power.
The New Negro by Jeffrey C. Stewart
This massive, National Book Award-winning biography brings to life Alain Locke, the founder of the Harlem Renaissance in astonishing detail, paying great homage to his intellectual brilliance and his creative spirit. It’s the kind of epic nonfiction which introduces you not just to one person, but the entire world around him — and how he changed it.
One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson
All of the books on this list have present-day implications, but perhaps none moreso than this charged dive into voter suppression from the Chair of African American Studies at Emory University. One Person, No Vote looks at this history of this anti-democratic tactic, particularly its racist roots.
Showtime at the Apollo by Ted Fox
Working off of Fox’s 2014 nonfiction book, this graphic history illustrated by James Otis Smith brings Harlem’s legendary theater to gorgeous life. It’s a fizzy, entertaining, jubilant window into a space where so many artists became icons, overcoming hate and ignorance. It’s an essential guide to one of New York City’s greatest cultural institutions.
The World According to Fannie Davis by Bridgett M. Davis
Novelist Bridgett M. Davis turned to nonfiction in what started out as the story of her mother, who ran an illegal Numbers game in Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s. But this memoir turned out to be much more: a panorama of African-American communities in this era, the resolve they demonstrated and the restrictions put upon them in their pursuit of the American dream. It’s a family story of nationwide scale.