Introduction: Why Black History Month Is Important?
Black History Month is a time dedicated to honoring the accomplishments of African Americans. There are a number of books that highlight the plight and struggle of African Americans in America. All these books have a powerful impact on our lives and help us to understand the challenges they face every day. In this post, I have listed some books for Black History Month that I found really inspiring and hope you find them interesting as well.
The idea of Black History Month was conceived by Carter G. Woodson, a scholar and historian, in 1926. He wanted to create an annual event that would encourage Americans to study black history and recognize African-American achievements.
The week of February was decided for this purpose because it includes the birthdays of renowned historical figures who struggled for the rights of Black people. Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist who wanted to end the practice of enslaving people and Abraham Lincoln, a former U.S. President led the United States during the Civil War, which was mainly fought on over the enslavement of Black individuals in the country.
In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford proclaimed the second week in February as Black History Week, which was later expanded by President Ronald Reagan to include Black History Month in February.
Today, the month is used as a time for people to not only learn about African American’s history but also it gives them opportunities to rectify past inequalities and injustices that have been done against African-Americans in America’s past.
- BLM: Let’s Support Black History Month Merch
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Reading Recommendations for Black History Month: 30 Must-Read Books
The main purpose of Black History Month is to bring attention to the contributions of Black people in American history. Therefore, I’m sharing a list of some of the best books by Black authors including African-American and non-American that have shaped both Black culture and Black literature. The list includes titles from the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Era, and titles from today’s younger generation of writers sharing modern day realities of being a black person.
This post can serve as a guide to what books you should be reading for Black History Month and also provide the reader with a suggested reading list. It features both fiction as well as non-fiction, modern and classic books by Black authors or black protagonists or both that are must-reads for Black History Month.
1. Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Unfiltered, raw and hauntingly beautiful. On the surface, Open Water is a love story. Beneath the surface, it’s a tale of longing to be truly seen, to own one’s vulnerabilities and love despite them, not in fear of them. It’s a tender poetry, a song to Black art and a celebration of black exuberance.
Narrated in second person, Open Water follows two unnamed protagonists who fall in love, both black and living in London. He is a photographer and she is a dancer. They are fated to be together but their relationship is continually tested by forces beyond their control.
Written with an unparalleled depth of layers and passion, Nelson’s Open Water is a refreshing and nourishing read.
Truly stunning and captivating, Skye Falling celebrates Black, queer joy and pain and emotion and everything in between. The book follows an odd Black woman, Skye, who works out of a suitcase, coming to Philly just between flights around the world. When she was 26 years old, Skye needed cash. Selling her eggs was a lucrative option. Now at 40, she is living her life on her own terms. She has always enjoyed her “doing as I please” approach to relationships until “her egg”, a beautiful young girl named Vicky, shows up claiming to be her biological child.
If you’re looking for a lighthearted (though at times heavy) read with a love story in the background, this book fits the bill perfectly!
3. Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan
Heart-searing and raw, Before I Let Go is Kennedy Ryan’s second-chance contemporary romance with protagonists in their 30’s. The novel follows Yasmen and Josiah whose seemingly rock-solid marriage falls apart. Depressed Yasmen slowly picks up the pieces and they both move on with their lives to find joy again while co-parenting and running a small restaurant together. It’s clear that after being divorced for two years, their connection never lost a spark and that they will always feel drawn to each other. But will their lingering pain stop them from finding the happiness they once had? Was their divorce a mistake?
Jam-packed with emotions that feel incredibly real and prose that’s lush and poetic; the book accentuates the benefits of therapy for both children and adults. Also, it’s amazing to see Black love portrayed in a profound way, as well as to witness a Black man in a vulnerable and sensitive light. Highly recommended for the fans of Colleen Hoover.
4. The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
Beautiful and lyrical, The Sweetness of Water is an astounding example of historical fiction that rings true with timeless human struggles. It’s a story about love, trauma, reconciliation and rebellion, set in the midst of a murky and disordered Post Civil War America. The book unfolds an unlikely bond that forms between two African-American freedmen and a white family living on the threshold of a disenfranchised southern community. The plot dips between quiet contemplative moments and huge events—it’s thoughtful and meditative, tense and bombastic.
A brooding examination of race-relations and identity politics in the face of seismic, societal change, it’s a must-read!
5. Palmares by Gayl Jones
Intricate and compelling, Palmares marks the comeback of a great American literary voice. The book tells an ambitious tale of the brutal enslavement of Africans during the Portuguese colonial rule. It reflects their struggle against racism, blending in various aspects of mythology and magical realism. Set in 17th-century Brazil, it recounts the epic journey of a Black woman who escapes to a fugitive slave settlement called Palmares. But freedom comes at a price. Her story brings to life a world highly impacted by conquest and intense, selfish colonial desire.
An amazing book, it’s gripping, multiplicitous, mythic and absolutely one of the worth reading books during Black History Month.
6. Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West
Part mystery, part family drama, Saving Ruby King packs a major punch. The story is a combination of several genres—family saga, literary fiction, and mystery—and it makes a compelling and unique combination. Ruby King’s mother has been murdered. And while some are set to label it as just another South Side of Chicago shooting, those closest to Ruby know that something is amiss. Her best friend Laila is one of those people. She wants to help her friend, especially when it comes to Ruby’s abusive father. But being the pastor’s daughter comes with a certain responsibility. And Laila’s dad wants her to have nothing to do with the situation.
It’s a beautiful entanglement of lives, generational curses and secrets that can literally take you to your grave.
7. Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
A thought provoking and interesting read, Such A Fun Age is one of the must-read books for Black History Month. It follows the Chamberlain family and Emira, their babysitter as they work through the unfolding of events after Emira is wrongly accused of kidnapping the Chamberlain’s child, Briar. Each chapter switches between the perspectives of Emira and Alix Chamberlain, providing the reader with two sides to the story. The book takes a dip into the deeper, seemingly hidden layers of racism, navigating adulthood and the heavy weight of transactional relationships.
Empathetic, wise and sharp, it’s essentially a very entertaining, layered, and tidy story about everyday life and social biases.
8. Black Girls Must Die Exhausted by Jayne Allen
Absolutely brilliant and well-written, Black Girls Must Die Exhausted is a wonderful representation of how hard it is to be a Black woman in the US. Tabitha is in her 30s and is slowly checking everything off her adult checklist. Such as: education, career, down payment for a house and a steady boyfriend. But soon she finds out her biological clock is ticking faster than normal. And now she needs to put her checklist aside and decide what she really wants. Tabby’s journey entertains the reader with an intimate view of the racial experience, contemporary womanhood, and complicated romance. The book also has an equally amazing sequel, Black Girls Must Be Magic.
A truly contemporary story that doesn’t shy away from touching out both the little as well as big things.
9. Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
A refreshingly honest YA read, Little & Lion tells an amazing coming of age story, one which explores a multitude of the complexities of life. From love triangles, to the complexities of navigating race, mental health, and sexual orientation while trying to figure out classes and where to apply for university, the book explores the vast complexities of life as a teenager. At the heart of this story though, is the love two step-siblings share for each other. Written in an accessible way that teenagers and adults can both enjoy, the book is full of diversity that feels natural and relatable.
An examination of self-identification, loyalty and trying to fit in while finding love, it’s an incredibly realistic book that is super powerful and a must-read.
10. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
A bewildering and blistering debut, Freshwater is a multilayered novel that deals with sexual trauma, abuse and self-destruction. It tells the story of Ada as she comes of age in Nigeria and later America, whilst navigating prolonged trauma and fragmenting identities of the self. The author has interwoven the novel with themes of Igbo mythology and Ogbanje spirits. Emezi’s examinations of their own experiences with gender dysphoria and the concept of singular identity versus fragmented identity, and the intersections of spirituality in the human psyche. Emezi’s writing is brilliant; at times feverish and out of control, and at others fluid and emotionally powerful.
Unique, dark and forceful; the book feels so different from other stories and we can’t help but be fascinated by it.
11. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Vivid, gripping, and intensely remarkable, The Mothers is a story about young love, a big secret in a small community and the things that ultimately haunt us most. The story begins with a secret between two young adults, and defines three characters’ lives as they find themselves intertwined for life. Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke are all haunted by their pasts, which influence them on a daily basis. Bennett’s writing style is straightforward—nothing fancy, nothing unique, but well composed and clear. The book poses so many tough but important questions around family, race, friendship, religion and more.
A must-read book for Black History Month, it’s one to go into with an open mind and one that will definitely stay with you for a long time.
12. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad is praised by Barack Obama and also an Oprah Book Club Pick. The narration follows Cora, a slave working on a cotton plantation in Georgia. She decides to risk her life and escape through the swamp together with Caesar in order to leave the state with the help of fellow allies and a secret network of tracks and dark tunnels below the surface. We follow her through different states along her desperate struggle to be free and learn about her—mostly traumatizing—experiences of slavery, racism and white supremacy.
A heart wrenching story of unbelievable grief of people who were denied their humanity.
13. Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney
If you are interested in celebrating Black History Month with a good non-fiction book, do check out Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney. This educational book provides insight on the environmental justice movement. It uncovers why African Americans are so underrepresented in nature, environmentalism and outdoor recreation by bridging the fields of environmental history, critical race studies, cultural studies, and geography. It’s a book that offers a critical analysis of the relationship between race and the environment. It also highlights the complex dynamics that emerge from that unique synthesis.
If you’re a nerdy, outdoorsy person with a heart for equality and change, this is the book for you!
14. Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
Daring and unforgettable, Queen Sugar is an intimate story of mother-daughter reinvention, resilience, and hope set against the backdrop of the contemporary South. It narrates the return of Charley Bordelon, an African American single mother who unexpectedly inherits eight hundred acres of sugarcane land in Louisiana. However, she soon learns that cane farming, especially in the Deep South, is white man’s business. Now she must struggle to balance the overwhelming challenges of a farm in decline while maintaining the demands of family and the startling desires of her own heart. The book was also adapted to a Cable series in 2016.
It’s highly recommended if you’re looking for uplifting yet realistic contemporary books for Black History Month.
15. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Extremely powerful and intense, Just Mercy is an eye opening account into the problem with America’s criminal justice system. It’s a thought-provoking memoir of a young lawyer, who fights for justice for the wrongly condemned people. The book takes you on the journey with him fighting for justice in the case of Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Idealistic, brilliant, and compassionate, Stevenson’s book has been likened to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s truly a heart wrenching, amazing, powerful and important work of nonfiction.
A must-read book if you want to know more about systemic racism from the perspective of a lawyer.
16. Rooted In The Earth by Dianne D. Glave
In Rooted In The Earth, Dianne D. Glave—an environmental historian—debunks the myth that a strong connection to nature and the outdoors is incompatible with a black identity. Glave employs her storytelling skills to re-create black naturalists from the past, charting the history of African Americans’ engagement with the environment while emphasizing the distinct preservation-conservation aspect of black environmentalism. This book is not only for personal progress, but also for the future of the world. In fact, it is a breakthrough, a significant first step toward getting back into nature.
A brief but in-depth look at African-American environmental history, it’s one of the must-read books for Black History Month.
17. Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson
Fabulous and enthralling, Backseat Saints is Jackson’s absorbing and rewarding fourth novel. It features a young woman who has to decide whether to try to make life work with her mercurial, abusive husband or listen to her gut which is telling her that she has got to go. Staying might kill her but leaving means confronting the abusive father she left behind and the mother who abandoned her as a child. Jackson tackles very serious topics with honesty and sensitivity. Her style and southern wit make the book an enjoyable, entertaining read despite some tough subject matter.
This book is highly recommended for fans of contemporary Southern literature, feisty female characters who are still figuring everything out, and those who love a good read with twists and turns.
18. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
A true achievement of voice and storytelling, The Book of Night Women resonates with both profound honesty and a uniquely contemporary spirit. Lilith was born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Jamaica around the end of the eighteenth century. Even before she is born, the slave women who surround her sense a terrible force that they—and she—will learn to revere and fear. It’s a book that tackles a lot of issues with slavery, race relations and gender. In fact, every character James has created has a rich internal life and history that has led them to what they are and that is what is so engrossing, despite the horror.
A shocking once in a lifetime read, this book is a complicated triumph. It’s indeed one of the most recommended books for Black History Months.
19. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Poetry by Camille T. Dungy
A superb anthology, Black Nature is dedicated to African American poets’ nature writing. To enhance our understanding of nature poetry and African American poetics, Camille T. Dungy has chosen 180 poems from 93 poets that present unique perspectives on American social and literary history. Slave poets, Reconstruction poets, Harlem Renaissance poets, Black Arts Movement poets, and late twentieth-and early twenty-first-century African American lyrical traditions are all represented. The book provides you a better understanding of black people’s relationship with the land and what was lost as a result of Jim Crow.
This is more than a collection of poetry; it is the history of a people forced to live in a strange area and the story of their increasing affinity with the land over the generations.
20. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A historical fiction set in 1960s Nigeria during the civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun depicts the sad, difficult, uplifting, and, at times, hopeless lives of three primary protagonists: a houseboy, a stunning woman, and a brilliant writer. As they navigate the ever-shifting borders of danger, temptation, and love, their lives become increasingly intertwined, all while their world is ripped apart by the horrors of war and violence that surround them. Each character is uniquely flawed, yet relatable in some way. And although being imaginary, they all elicit the reader’s full sympathy.
Incredibly informative, heart-rendering and beautifully written, it’s truly one of the greatest books for Black History Month.
21. Salvation by Bell Hooks
A stunning look at the transformative power of love in the lives of African Americans, Salvation is written from both cultural and historical perspectives. Whether it’s the history of slavery, partnerships and marriage in Black life, the prose and poetry of Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, the liberation movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, or hip hop and gangsta rap culture, Hooks tells us what love has to do with it all. She successfully combines W.E.B. DuBois’ passionate politics with fresh, current insights to present new ideas that will heal our country’s scars from a culture of hate.
An outstanding work of art, it helps us cure and demonstrates how to build cherished American communities.
22. The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara
A complex and compelling book, The Salt Eaters is Bambara’s first novel that won the American Book Award alongside the Langston Hughes Society Award and more. The story follows Velma Henry’s healing ceremony—conducted by the healer of the district Minnie Ransom—after an attempted suicide. She is resisting the process, too caught up in her past to accept a way forward. It’s a dense novel over the course of a day with a huge cast of characters inhabiting a single community. The writer has also utilized stream of consciousness technique at some points, successfully blending the external and internal worlds.
One of the best books for Black History Month, it deals a lot with the question of wellness and how we can achieve it.
23. Sula by Toni Morrison
Brilliant and lyrical, Sula is a story of friendship between women and social norms. It focuses on the black women of an Ohio neighborhood and their struggles for survival in a hostile society and identity in a racist world. Following the lives of two childhood friends, Toni Morrison takes us to The Bottom, a slice of community carved by Black folk, where Nel and Sula grew up. Loss and death are no strangers to The Bottom, but Nel and Sula get more than they bargained for; while simultaneously navigating the journey from girlhood to womanhood. Sula leaves town and Nel stays. After ten years, Sula returns without the warmest welcome and Nel’s table has been violently shaken.
A quick read, but full of the pain, struggle, and darkness one can expect from Toni Morrison.
24. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Absolutely fantastic and heartwarming, The Bluest Eyes is one of the best books for Black History Month. The standards of beauty set by society makes a child of 11 years, wish for blue eyes just because she wants to be seen, to be visible. This book is extremely heavy and deals with many triggering topics, such as abuse, rape, discrimination, and many more issues. Toni’s writing is beautifully descriptive and keeps you on toes the whole time. She truly captures themes of pain, self-hatred, and the effects of racism and poverty during the ‘40s via the viewpoint of the main characters. Her writing is so poetic and fully encompasses every single human emotion.
This book will break your heart but honestly you will be thankful that you came across this gem.
25. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Eloquent and deeply moving, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings unapologetically unravels the ugliness of class-based, discriminatory societies. It’s a memoir that follows Maya’s childhood and upbringing in the South during the time of the Jim Crow laws. She discusses the segregation, general racism that she experienced, and her broken familial structure. It’s an authentic true story that takes us through the pain and joy of the younger years of Maya Angelou. Her writing is both emotive and precise, wistful and self-aware, gut-wrenching and full of hope.
A must-read book to understand the plight of most African Americans, what they’ve been and are still going through.
26. Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Charismatic, brilliant, and courageous, Soul On Ice is the controversial essay collection from Eldridge Cleaver, civil rights activist and member of the leadership of the Black Panther Party. Though he endured much in his younger years—Southern racism, crime, imprisonment—he was able to educate himself while imprisoned and turn his life around. The book’s core assumption is the difficulty of identifying as a black soul who has been “colonized” by an oppressive white civilization that projects its brief, restricted vision of life as everlasting truth.
This book is an engrossing read. It’s a mixture of essays and memoir, ranging from the prison system, race relations, sexuality, masculinity, and religion.
27. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley
A crucial read for Black History Month, The Autobiography of Malcolm X confronts the ugly truth about the violence and hatred woven into the very fabric of the United States. The book recounts Malcom X’s childhood to adulthood chronologically, examining the impacts of education, government interference in his family, and his own spirituality on his values. Haley’s writing is quick and engaging. And as you’re reading you can almost see Malcolm X pacing around Haley, passionately recounting his life experience. The narrative ends a couple of weeks before his death. Then Haley’s epilogue picks up where he stops, describing his last days on earth, his assassination, and the consequences for himself and his family.
This book is a must-read for every person who wants to know about the civil rights movement and the slavery.
28. A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley
Fascinating and intensely powerful, A Different Drummer is set in an imaginary state in the south of the USA, between Mississippi and Alabama. The book traces the narrative from the advent of a boatload of African slaves until a weekend in the 1950s, when one black farmer destroys his land and home, and flees the state. Over the weekend, the state’s entire black population follows him, making it the only state in the Union without a single black resident. Each chapter is in charge of a different individual. Their struggle to comprehend and articulate what they are seeing really adds to the book’s impact.
It’s a brilliantly written book, making the reader want to fly through it, but contains depths beyond even the multiple re-read.
29. Another Country by James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s extraordinary novel, Another Country is an essential American story—one that does not shy away from portraying the brutality and hypocrisy of society. The story revolves around a group of individuals whose lives get entangled with each other on account of friendships or sexual relations. It begins with Rufus Scott, a black jazz musician scavenging the streets of New York whilst trying to come to terms with the end of his last relationship. Then, Baldwin takes the reader on a ride through New York in the 50s exploring love, friendship, jealousy, violence. The book explores various themes like interracial relations, queer relations, male violence, etc.
One of the greatest books for Black History Month, it touches on really (then) controversial issues which are still important today.
30. The Outsider by Richard Wright
Brilliantly envisioned and terrifyingly prescient, The Outsider is an epic investigation of the sad foundations of criminal conduct. It tells a gripping narrative of a black man’s desire to flee his past and build a new life in Harlem. Cross Damon is a man at odds with both society and himself. He is a man who yearns for peace yet carries dread and destruction with him. He abandons concepts and lays his final hope on love, having rejected religion, the past and current order of society, the suggested totalitarian alternative, and the similar unrestrained violence of his own conduct as a “free” man.
An essential piece of fiction that portrays racism in America and its tragic repercussions in raw and brutal words.
31. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Exciting, frustrating, and appalling, Invisible Man is one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century. The book portrays an unnamed protagonist’s journey from the Deep South to Harlem. Along the way he encounters and witnesses the horrifying effects of racial bigotry. The reader accompanies the narrator throughout his journey and learns what life is like as a Black person in the 1950s United States. Ellison has beautifully crafted the story that continues to be both indicative of reality and quietly hopeful. This is one of those rare novels that have drastically changed the shape of American literature.
Absolutely heartbreaking and classic, it’s definitely one of the must-read books for Black History Month.
32. The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher
Outstanding and intensely intriguing, The Conjure-Man Dies is the first documented mystery to feature a black detective. The story follows one of Harlem’s ten Black police detectives, Perry Dart, as he examines the corpse of African conjure-man, N’Gana Frimbo. He is determined to solve the intriguing mystery alongside Dr. Archer, a physician from across the street. We also meet Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins, two local youngsters who, eager to rid themselves of suspicion of murder, conduct their own investigations. The story feels much like Sherlock, but with a relevant twist. Fisher’s witty novel is a wonderful time capsule of one of the most exciting moments in the history of Black literature, with a thrilling storyline and brilliantly depicted characters.
If you’re a lover of mysteries and African folktales, this book is for you.
33. The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman
A quintessential Harlem Renaissance novel, The Blacker the Berry is known for its commentary on colorism. Emma Lou Morgan hates her complexion, not because it’s black, but because it’s too dark. No one in her family, teachers, or friends can console or encourage the loathed and rejected adolescent. Emma Lou, eighteen years old, leaves her home in Idaho in search of love and acceptance on a journey that eventually brings her to the famed Harlem Renaissance neighborhood. The novel was first published in 1929, and almost a century later, the narrative still has a powerful impact. It hits the nail on the head regarding color coding and prejudice prevailing in the Black community.
A classic gem from the Harlem Renaissance, this is one of the most recommended books for Black History Month.
Conclusion: Wrap-Up of What You Should Read During Black History Month
The purpose of Black History Month is to bring into consideration the achievements of black people in American history. It is also a time to reflect on how far we have come as a society since our ancestors came to America.
However, there are many books that one can read during this time, I highly recommend reading famous classical books by Black authors and some African American books that changed the game. However, if you’re into horror genre, you may enjoy these Southern Gothic novels. You may also check some famous short poems by Langston Hughes.