Human Rights

7 books for Black History Month

Black history month books

A selection of tales that convey the larger history of black Americans in literature. Image: Penguin Random House

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As the US and Canada celebrate Black History Month – eight months before the Europeans – Penguin have released a list of essential reading; taking in everything from the untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s black daughter, to a study of the fluidity of racial identity, written almost 90 years ago.

Thomas Jefferson had three daughters – two white and free, one black and enslaved. Martha and Maria received a convent school education but found their options limited by the laws and customs of early America. Harriet Hemings, meanwhile, escaped slavery with the assistance of Jefferson, for an uncertain future. Looking at these women’s divergent paths, Catherine Kerrison asks: “Why do the discredited ideologies of gender and race continue to control and separate Americans so powerfully?”

An alternative telling of American history that celebrates the lives and achievements of African American and Latin American men and women: from Crispus Attucks, to César Chávez, and Martin Luther King Jr. Paul Ortiz chronicles the impact of the Haitian Revolution, and the Mexican and Cuban Wars of Independence on the development of social democracy in America.

Black No More by George S. Schuyler, Introduction by Danzy Senna

“What would happen if all black people in America turned white?” This satire of America’s obsession with race, written in the 1930s, tells the story of black insurance man Max Disher, who undergoes a procedure that makes him the permanently white Matthew Fisher, allowing him to become an important member of a white supremacist group.

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

With the backdrop of Black Lives Matter comes this trilogy of graphic novels chronicling the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s. The author, John Lewis, a congressman and civil rights icon, tells the story of his education in the art of principled dissent or, as he puts it, “necessary trouble”. March begins and ends with scenes from the march Lewis led in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday, after state troopers and the police attacked non-violent protesters.

Best known for his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison wrote political and social essays, which critics say put him up there with America’s literary gods. These essays offer a commentary on questions of race; as well as an exploration of literature, folklore, jazz and culture, and the nature and quality of lives that black Americans lead.

Passing by Nella Larsen

First published in 1929, Passing explores the fluidity of racial identity through the tale of Clare Kendry, a woman whose light-coloured skin enables her to "pass over" to white society; and her childhood friend, Irene Redfield, who has chosen to remain within the African American community, an early example of what later came to be called black pride.

The Souls Of Black Folk (with “The Talented Tenth” and “The Souls of White Folk”) by W. E. B. Du Bois, Introduction by Ibram X. Kendi

W. E. B. Du Bois made famous the concepts of "the colour line", in reference to racial segregation; "the veil" that separated black and white populations; and "double-consciousness", to describe the conflict felt by black Americans, always judging themselves through the eyes of a racist, white society. Combining history and autobiography, he reflects on the magnitude of American racism and charts a path against oppression.

The Blacker the Berry… by Wallace Thurman, Introduction by Allyson Hobbs

One of the most controversial works of the Harlem Renaissance, The Blacker the Berry... addresses prejudice within the black community. It follows the plight of a young woman who feels rejected for her skin colour even by her lighter-skinned family and friends. Moving to New York City, she hopes to be accepted in the vibrant scene of Harlem in the 1920s.

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, Angela Flournoy

A character-led novel that examines the experiences of working-class and poor African Americans, the importance of black music to black life, the beauty of black language and the trap of respectability. A tale of family life, each character provides an example of how the protagonist, Sandy, might navigate his world.

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