It’s become common place for my wife and I to be asked what books we recommend on various topics. Usually, the topic coincides with a specific date or incident. This year Angela and I have taken the initiative to compile a list of books we recommend for Black History Month. This list focuses on books for adults, Angela will be publishing a list of books we recommend for kids in the coming days.
Before diving into the list I want to be clear that it is impossible to do justice to the contributions of black people and black history in ten books. This list serves mainly as a starting point for the person just entering into the history and experiences of African Americans in America. I have divided the list into three categories: fiction, non-fiction, and contributions to Christian thought. I’ve also only included works by African American authors speaking into the experiences of black people, as well as ensuring there is an even mix of both men and women authors.
Of the three groups fiction has the most books on this list, as well as the most books written by women. The reason is fiction writing, in general, has a unique ability to draw the reader into a narrative in order to help them empathize and feel what the characters feel. Fiction also allows an author to express themselves in more open and honest ways that non-fiction often doesn’t allow.
Beloved is a novel about the on going trauma of slavery. The story revolves around the protagonist, a former slave named Sethe, as she attempts to make a life for herself in Ohio 18 years after slavery. Despite being “free” Sethe is still haunted by her time as a slave on a plantation in Kentucky called Sweet Home. This book is full of poetry, drama, love, suspense, and horror.
The Invisible Man tells the story of a nameless narrator who was raised in the South, has the opportunity to attend a negro college, is kicked out of college, and winds up living in New York. So much of what Ellison writes about the experience of black people in mid-twentieth century America still rings true today. This book is an unflinching look at race in America.
The Color Purple is often remembered as a movie by Steven Spielberg, rather than a book by Alice Walker. Like the movie, the book is about two sisters, Celie and Nettie. The book takes place in the Jim Crow South during the 1940s. Throughout the book Celie writes letters to God about her experiences, but as time goes on she begins to write to her sister Nettie who has become a missionary in Africa. This book is an American class filled with pain, compassion, and inspiration.
Originally written in 1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God was removed from bookstore shelves until 1978 due to controversy about the books use of a strong black female lead. The book focuses on the life of Janie Crawford, a light-skinned African American living in post-slavery America. Janie struggles through three marriages, poverty, and self-discovery. Their Eyes Were Watching God was a book ahead of its time and has been called one of the most important pieces of twentieth century American Literature.
Putting my own bias on the table, the Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of my favorite books of all time. Most people who have gone through the public school system have been exposed to this book sometime between 7th-9th grade. If that was you I strongly recommend giving this book a second read, and if you’ve never read this book, you need to. Malcolm X has been called one of the greatest truth tellers and prophets in American history, and his autobiography shows why. His life story intimately shows how the experience of a black man in America is full of double standards, hypocrisy, at times hopelessness, and a search for identity.
The Warmth of Other Suns was originally published in 2011 and is a historical masterpiece by Isabel Wilkerson. It focuses’ on the great migration of African American’s from the South to the North between 1915-1970. Containing immense historical detail, this book also examines the lives of individual African Americans as they forsook the lives they knew, remaking the American landscape in the search of opportunity.
The Color of Compromise is the newest book on this list. It was published in 2019 and is the best popular level book on American church history examined through the lens of white supremacy. The book explains how American Christians, beginning in the colonial period and ending in the present, have often worked against racial justice. It ends with a call to action against systems of oppression and injustice.
As the title suggests The Cross and the Lynching Tree focuses on the symbols of the crucifixion and lynching in the African American church. Throughout the book Cone explores the interconnectedness between the two symbols and how the cross of Christ powerfully rooted African American faith in knowing God was with them on the lynching tree. The book also uses the two symbols to unpack how theses images shaped the works of Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other African American leaders.
I’m Still Here was published in 2018, making it the second new kid on this list. This book is a powerful account of Austin Channing Brown’s experiences growing up in America’s racialized society. The author gives a first person account of growing up as an African American woman in predominately white spaces. I’m Still Here is a wake up call to evangelicalism that adding ”diversity”to your church’s vision and mission statement doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in ending racial hostility in our society and churches.
Written 30 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Free at Last examines how much of a reality King’s dream has become. Ellis examines the state of African American freedom and dignity in American society. He also walks through major movements in African American culture from from the days of slavery to the end of the twentieth century. Finally, Ellis discusses what he calls a “theological soul dynamic” found within the African American church, which he argues holds the key to realizing King’s dream.
Most “high-level” readers can get through 50 books or more a year, which breaks down to about four books a month. During Black History Month I suggest picking at least one book from each genre so you can gain exposure to a diversity of voices. Throughout the rest of the year you can read the remaining seven books.
Another piece of advice is something I heard Christian Ethicist David Gushee share on his Kingdom Ethics Podcast. Gushee spent about a year committed to only reading works from African American voices. The theme he committed to looking at each book through, which I commend to you is, how do these authors see white Christians based on their experiences? Another way to ask this can be, how do white Christians present themselves to African Americans based on their actions? These questions are especially helpful as more white Christians and predominately white Churches seek to enter into the racial justice conversation.