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An Anti-Racist Reading List: Highly Rated Non-fiction Books by Black Authors

No one becomes “not racist,” despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be “antiracist” on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage. - Ibram X. Kendi

By The Bookish ElfPublished 4 years ago 13 min read

Our present moment serves not only as a call to action, but a chance to teach ourselves and our society about the underlying issues that led to the unnecessary murder of George Floyd. The booklist below includes a combination of titles that educate about racism, antiracism, white fragility, and more. In that vein, we've gathered antiracist nonfiction books, memoirs, and histories on the subject of race, written by black authors. While by no means a comprehensive list, these books are a decent place to begin.

Many thanks to everyone who has suggested additional books to feature to the present list via email and social media. we'll still increase it over time. Let us know in the comments what other essential books on anti-racism you'd recommend to your fellow readers.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Publication Year: 2019

The power of this book is that it is both intensely personal and consciously universal. It is part memoir, part social commentary, with hard-won and well-argued definitions of racist and anti-racist thought, action, and policy underpinning both threads. In positioning 'racist' and 'anti-racist' not as two diametrically opposed viewpoints, but as each end of a spectrum, and definitively rejecting the appeal to 'non-racist' neutrality, Kendi offers a framework by which each individual can and should examine their own ways of thinking. Only through a genuine understanding of self and society can change be made possible.

Importantly, Kendi makes clear that this is something that needs work. Each person must strive to develop a consistently reflective and critical mode of thinking and push for sustained, positive, and just action to combat inequality. Perhaps it shouldn't have needed Kendi's honest evaluation of his own struggle with racism and prejudice to make us consider our own, but his candour demands an equally frank response. His call for us to educate ourselves reflects his own journey, providing an outstretched hand for all those on the same path. We must move forwards together. For anyone unsure where to start, right here is a great place.

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young

Publication Year: 2019

Young uses the form of the essay to both tell his own story of growing up black in Pittsburgh AND write about the culture around him. In this brilliant combination of memoir and commentary, Young takes us through his upbringing in a lower-income family, his experiences as a high school basketball star and then struggling college player, through his relationships with women, the world of black barbershops and haircuts, the experience of trying to make enough money to live a middle-class life, and the constant racism that permeates and informs his world.

For whites seeking to understand racial divisions and tension and see a hope for the future, some of the nonfiction books by black authors may seem intimidating or aggressively sharp-edged. Damon Young takes you through that crucible without pulling any punches, but also, because of his willingness to write about his anxieties and mistakes and self-doubts, he allows you to join the journey, knowing that you will never have to experience what he does, and yet, in the end, grateful to have been along for the trip.

Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

Publication Year: 2020

This book describes the history of the Green Book traveling guide for African Americans, chronologically exploring this project's development and impact from the mid-30s through integration. However, this book is also a guide to the author's personal thoughts about a variety of different political and social issues, and the Green Book is often just a backdrop to what she wants to say about later decades' events and contemporary problems.

This was a great examination of the extent of the racial terrorism black people had to face through well into the 20th Century. Too many people think their hardships ended when slavery did, and nothing could be further from the truth.

The author uses the Green Book as a guide to take us through the decades of "The Greatest Generation" and beyond to show us exactly how opposite of "great" this time period was for black people. Segregation, discrimination and racial violence were still rampant for decades during this so called "Greatest Generation". The atrocities and literal murders taking place during this time period make that label so deeply ironic. So much of this is still a problem today and we still have so far to go. Overground Railroad is one of the best nonfiction Books by Black Authors written recently.

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Publication Year: 2016

In Born a Crime, Trevor Noah takes us on a journey from his childhood being born a crime in apartheid South Africa. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison.

This memoir is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man's relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother: his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Publication Year: 2018

Ijeoma Oluo's book is an instruction manual, an autobiography, and a collection of incredible essays all rolled into one. She gives anyone interested in talking about race a manual. It encourages white people to work through racist tropes and mistakes and gives POCs information on how to counter well-meaning but definitely racist arguments.

This is a powerful book about the systemic oppression of people of color in the USA (and other predominantly white countries). Ijeoma Oluo talks about the hardships people of color face, and the danger (and harm) caused by white people caring more about their comfort than the safety and lives of people of color.

She is eloquent in her explanation and stern when standing up to her ideas. The book is honest and unapologetic, yet the author never tells you what to do. According to her, you can do whatever you want, as long as it's legal. She does, however, offer guidelines to those who honestly believe in racial equality and want to change things for the better. This is one of the most compelling nonfiction Books by Black Authors

Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard

Publication Year: 2019

Beautifully written, intelligent and sensitive essays about the intersection of black and white in America and in the author's life. This was really just lovely, and thought-provoking. The author writes about so many things--living as a black woman in Vermont. Growing up in the South. Her mother and grandmother's lives. Her marriage to a white man. And her twin daughters adopted from Ethiopia--each subject treated with great thought and care.

Bernard's essays are personal but not self-pitying; even the first in which she describes being stabbed for no reason in a coffee shop in New Haven. She talks about being one of the few black people in Burlington Vermont where she teaches African-American studies; of her reaction when one of her white friends admits that Emily is her only black friend. She shares what it is like to be married to a white man, and some of her experiences with motherhood. As the sub-title suggests, she also includes stories from her mother's and grandmother's time as well and links their experiences to hers. This is one of the most effective nonfiction Books by Black Authors that must be added into your antiracist reading list.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Publication Year: 2019

The story of the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of the "Redeemed" South with its virulent white supremacy in the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries is critical to fully understand; the painful state of political and social injustice that persisted throughout most of the 20th century, and whose effects linger today. Only when one comes to terms with the emergence of and magnitude of racially grounded stereotyping of African-Americans from the end of Reconstruction to the civil rights breakthroughs in the 1960's can one fully grasp how great is the blot this era on the purported values and principles of the republic. This is one of the most influential nonfiction Books by Black Authors that you need to read.

Gates tells us how this push toward reestablishing white supremacy was instilled in the public psyche. Much of this focused on dehumanizing African-Americans, usually through ascribing characteristics portraying them as sub human. Commentators on the Old Testament came forth with the preposterous exegesis that held blacks were shunned by God to be a separate species as descendants from Hamm in the Noah tale.

Another idea to justify the low caste of blacks was that human kind was created as separate species, the whites from Adam and Eve and blacks and other races in some other process. Gates also describes how pseudo scientific ideas of the era posited a biological basis for the inferiority of the African race employing such quackery as phrenology and misconstrual of Darwin's theories evolutionary theories that had so recently taken hold in the intellectual world.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

Publication Year: 2018

At its best this book offers a powerful and intimate insight into the black female experience in the United States, forcing us to see the results of white privilege through the personal experiences of Jerkins. On the other hand, it offers an identity politics that almost wants to eschew solidarity from others, proudly rejecting explorations of universal commonalities that can bound struggles to end oppression, preferring to sit in the comfort of a resilient black identity.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper

Publication Year: 2018

This is an excellent memoir/collection of essays about black feminism and the completely justified rage and anger that black women experience. I think this book does a great job of being accessible and not overly academic while also presenting stats and quotes to back up the points being made. Brittney Cooper covers a wide array of topics from pop culture to politics, from Beyoncé to Barack.

Eloquent Rage is a really striking, compelling, dense book that breaks down Black female anger, Black inequality, and the fact that Black women have shown up and continue to show up for everyone and everything, despite no one showing up for them. Brittney Cooper breaks down her points and reconstructs them into powerful arguments that show how America systemically, but also whole groups of people, like white women, continuously lets Black women down. Her writing is at once conversational and accessible but also intellectual and sharp. This is one of the best nonfiction Books by female Black Authors.

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Publication Year: 2019

Gritty, smart, original, Thick is a powerful collection of essays on race and womanhood, especially Black womanhood and the many injustices heaped upon Black women.

Tressie McMillan Cottom shares intimate details of her own life and covers a broad spectrum about her thoughts on racism and white superiority and what is wrong with America today. It is a collection I both enjoyed and found enlightening. The essays cover a range of topics that impact the construction and depiction of Black female identity including how it is depicted in the media, in ‘beauty’ standards, in access to and the provision health care, in academia, on platforms like Twitter, in literature, and many more.

The voices of Black women are the least heard in America and, as Ms. Cottom illustrates, there is much wisdom and insight to be gleaned by actually and finally listening to Black women.  Listen and learn and learn to be better.

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

Publication Year: 2018

Austin Channing Brown starts her story of her life as a black woman in white America by explaining how she got her name: so that when she grew up and applied for jobs, she would get an interview before the possible employer discovered she was African American and thus have a shot at getting the job.

Brown describes her experience of diversity: there is a quota and brochures proudly show that it is being met, but the employee is not listened to and is expected to be patient and understanding of racist statements and acts, educate the offender, and of course, never be angry.

There are so many dope segments in this book. So many places to look towards for understanding and to share with others as a means of highlighting truths of the black experience. Every page forward in this book until the very end was more informative and freeing and space creating and life-affirming than the page before it. Her letter to her son was just beautiful; conjuring Ta-Nehisi Coates and walking in that path of sharing truths from this generation to leave behind for future generations.

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

Publication Year: 2019

Saeed Jones’ memoir is beautiful in its honesty and raw pain you can almost feel. It’s an intense, brutal, loving and heartbreaking roller-coaster ride of a book. He takes us on his journey as he grows into himself and discovers what it means to be a black man, a gay man and a gay black man. You feel the hollowness as he talks about having to hide who he was. But among the pain in this book, you also feel the interminable love of a son for his mother.

His writing is compelling and poetic. He talks about using ‘pen as weapon, page as shield’ when he writes and that’s precisely what he has done in his memoir. Saeed Jones neither apologizes for who he is, nor does he gloss over his experiences to make himself look better. He talks about the racism and homophobia he experienced growing up in the south and how it shaped him as a young man. In the book, he discusses the fear and self loathing he felt and the outlets he used (both healthy and unhealthy) to cope with those feelings. He also talks about growing up with a single mother who worked her butt off to provide for her son and the deep bond they shared.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

Publication Year: 2018

Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ is a previously unpublished work by author Zora Neale Hurston. Although she is best known for her works of fiction, in this book, she writes ‘as a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and folklorist’. In 1927, Hurston spent three months in Plateau, Alabama interviewing Cudjo Lewis, 90, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade.

Hurston records much of Lewis’ story in his own words and dialect as he talks of his capture in 1860 by another African tribe; his sale to and detention by American slavers in a barracoon, an enclosure used to detain slaves; his transport to the United States with more than a hundred other people on the Clotilde, the last American ship to conduct this ‘illegitimate trade’; the horrors of his five and a half years as a slave ‘from 1860 until Union soldiers told him he was free’; and his life after, the desire for land, the building of Africatown, the lives and deaths of his wife and children, and his constant sense of loss and yearning for his home in Africa.

Lewis is a born storyteller making his story fascinating, often horrifying, and poignant. Despite his age, his memory is excellent and, as Deborah G. Plant points out in the introduction, if he gets minor details wrong, his story overall matches objectively known facts. Hurston intersperses his tale with comments about their relationship, the gifts she brings him, the food they share, her growing respect for him, and his emotions as he remembers the life that was stolen from him. She tells it all with compassion and empathy. This is one of the best nonfiction Books by Black Authors.

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

Publication Year: 2018

Following the author's life from his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, to his teaching position at Vassar College, Kiese Laymon's memoir considers what it means to grow up Black, male, and heavy in America. Laymon centers Heavy on his close bond with his single mother, and from that viewpoint he writes succinctly about body image, Blackness, masculinity, trauma, language, education, addiction, and so much more.

The memoir is divided into four parts, each with four sections, all addressed to Laymon's mother, a college professor who struggled to care for herself as she pushed her son to be his best. Laymon is talented at capturing a person's strengths as well as their flaws, including his own, and his prose is rhythmic and full of memorable lines.

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton,  Lara Love Hardin

Publication Year: 2018

Anthony Ray Hinton is an amazing and Godly man. He's a much better person than I am. Anthony Ray Hinton spent nearly 30 years on death row for a murder he didn't commit. This innocent man could have been put to death, for the crime of being black & poor. His trial was a sham, his court appointed lawyer couldn't have cared less, the police told him to his face they didn't care if he was innocent because "If you didn't do it some other nigger did", the prosecutor Robert McGregor, I will only say that I hope he enjoys heat because he's burning in Hell.

What makes the book worth reading is Hinton himself. He is a force of nature. In his foreword, Stephenson mentions that even the guards were supportive of Hinton’s plea for a new trial. And it’s easy to see why. Despite being on death row, Hinton found a way to make the best of a terrible situation. He took the high road in difficult circumstances and looked for the humanity in everyone, including his fellow inmates.

As just one example, he started a book club that led inmates who could barely read to talk about race and justice and other topics. He even became friends with the son of a well known white nationalist who was on death row for killing a black man.


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