February is Black History Month, and if you’re looking for a way to celebrate, we’ve rounded up 15 epic books by some of the most brilliant African American authors and historical figures to read throughout the month.
From Maya Angelou’s classic memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” to the timeless and timely story of a young unarmed Black boy who is killed by a police officer in “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, these 15 books are poignant, captivating, educating and even in some cases life-changing.
If you’re looking to further your knowledge even more, there are plenty of incredible podcasts to listen to in celebration of Black History Month as well. Some of our top picks include “Historically Black,” which is hosted by celebrities such as Keegan-Michael Key, Roxane Gay and Issa Rae. Created in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, this podcast features stories based off of personal objects submitted by listeners that “make up their own lived experiences of Black history.”
Scroll down to check out 15 essential books to read during Black History Month.
‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou
In this coming-of-age memoir, acclaimed writer and poet Maya Angelou details her experiences with racism, sexual trauma and violence she experienced as a young girl. Years later, she finds the freedom to heal through great literary works from authors such as William Shakespeare, kindness of others and, ultimately, self-love. This story, the first in a seven-volume series, is an essential reading not only for Black History Month but for life.
‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ exceptionally powerful and beautifully written memoir is a series of essays that takes the form of an open letter to his son about race in America. In it, Coates walks readers through his life while exploring his evolutionary thoughts on systemic racism, white exceptionalism and the terrible history of the subjugation of Black people in the United States.
‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison
This New York Times bestseller follows the story of Sethe, who is born into slavery and escapes to Ohio. But even after 18 years, the horrendous memories of home still haunt her along with the ghost of her unnamed baby from her new home who is buried with only the word “Beloved” on her tombstone. This masterfully written tale of endurance, pain, heartache and power is an absolute must-read by one of the nation’s most revered Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.
‘The New Jim Crow (Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness)’ by Michelle Alexander
Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book “The New Jim Crow” was published in 2010 and since then has inspired a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations, been cited in judicial hearings and read at schools nationwide. This crucial reading demonstrates the link between slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and racism, and is a call to action for modern reform of America’s criminal justice system.
‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley’ by Malcolm X
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” tells the extraordinary life story of the famed leader and human rights activist and dives into his perspective of the American Dream, the country’s inherent racism and the growth of the Black Muslim movement.
‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’ by Isabel Wilkerson
This stunning historical account of the Great Migration — the 6 million-strong mass movement immigration of Black Americans out of the feudal South — is nothing short of brilliant. After interviewing more than a thousand people, Wilkerson beautifully tells the story of the times through the lives of three unique people, capturing each of their treacherous journeys to new cities, their hardships and the new lives that they made for themselves and their families for generations to come.
‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston
A No. 1 bestseller, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” follows Janie Crawford, an indefatigable Black woman in the 1930s and her journey through three turbulent marriages toward financial and emotional freedom. This love story is widely considered one of the most important works of 20th-century American literature and should definitely be at the top of your reading list.
‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book was originally published in 1982 and has become one of the most-loved classic historical fiction novels of all time. The powerful story follows the lives of sisters Celie and Nettie, two Black women in early 20th-century rural Georgia who were separated as young girls, and their resilience, growth, love and companionship. This trailblazing novel highlights the traumas of domestic and sexual abuse and toxic masculinity, and it’s surely one you won’t want to put down.
‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas
“The Hate U Give” is a heartbreakingly relevant and powerfully moving tale of a teenage girl named Starr who witnesses the fatal shooting of her best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. This poignant story depicts the protests, media frenzy and impact that his death has on Starr, her family and her community, and emphasizes the need to speak up about injustices and start conversations on racism, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead
In this compelling and electrifying story, Colson Whitehead depicts the Underground Railroad as precisely that — a secret network of tracks, tunnels, engineers and conductors. When Cora, a young slave on a plantation in Georgia, escapes with Caesar, another slave from Virginia, they embark on a terrifying journey fleeing from state to state in search of freedom. This captivating tale is both a depiction of the nation’s history of slavery as well as the protagonist’s story of resilience and willpower.
‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half” is a story of race, identity, family and history that will captivate your heart from the very first page. In it, two twin sisters run away from their small Southern Black community at the age of 16 but end up living two exceedingly different lives as adults: One ends up back in the same Southern town with her Black daughter, while the other lives a privileged life while secretly passing for white, which her husband and daughter know nothing about. But years later when the twins’ daughters unintentionally cross paths, their worlds collide and secrets begin to unravel.
‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama
Barack Obama’s highly anticipated presidential memoir is introspective, compelling, powerful and intimate. Former President Obama takes readers on a captivating journey from his early political career through his time in the Oval Office, reflecting on pivotal moments, decisions and challenges that shaped his time as the nation’s first Black president. This honest and beautifully written account of life in the White House is one you won’t want to put down.
‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi
This breathtaking novel follows two half sisters who are born into different villages in 18th-century Ghana. One sister is married off to an Englishman and lives in a palatial castle, while the other is unknowingly imprisoned below her in the dungeons and sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s slave trade. “Homegoing” explores both sisters’ lives and the forces that shape their family history through two threads: one through centuries of warfare in Ghana and the other’s through life in America as a slave all the way up to present day. This stunning tale is surely one not to be missed.
‘The Fire Next Time’ by James Baldwin
Released in 1963, this masterfully written book consists of two essays: “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and “Down at the Cross — Letter From a Region of My Mind.” The first explores how racism has shaped America’s history in the form of a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, and the second examines the relationship between race and religion, focusing on the Black Christian church and the Islamic movement during the ‘60s. This classic book is a must-read for understanding race in America today.
‘When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir’ by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Khan-Cullors, one of the three co-founding members of the Black Lives Matter movement, beautifully details her coming-of-age story and her rise as one of the new generation’s most prominent social activist leaders for racial equality. Her story of strength, bravery, perseverance and resilience in the face of police brutality and violent racial injustice is one that will inspire you, move you to tears and have you turning each page with bated breath.