In case you were not already aware, February is Black History Month. I think it’s really important that we learn about black history, and not just for one month out of the year. But, this does provide a great excuse to talk about it more and share some books that have helped me learn a lot more about black history, and a few books I’m planning to read this year to continue my own education.
For those of you who don’t already know, I do actually have a college degree in history. Which used to be something fun to brag about. And then I started learning about all of the things I wasn’t taught in school, and a large part of that is actually black history. They say that history is written by the victors, and I’ve learned that’s not totally true. History was written by white men.
Which is why you probably haven’t heard of Bessie Coleman, who was basically the black Amelia Earhart… and she did it first. Or Jeremiah Hamilton, Wall Street’s first black millionaire… who amassed a fortune equivalent to a quarter of a billion in today’s currency by the time he died in 1875, just twelve years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Or that Queen Charlotte was very likely Britain’s first black queen (that’s right, Bridgerton probably didn’t make that up). Or Lewis Latimer, the inventor that developed the filament system to make Edison’s light bulb last more than a few days and therefore actually practical for more than just rich people.
I could keep going, because there are so many black unsung heroes of history. Men and women who absolutely deserve recognition, who changed history, who made our lives better in so many ways we take for granted today (imagine if you had to change your lightbulbs ever two days?). And they had to fight even harder to get there. We should know their names. We should know their stories. We should recognize what they achieved. And this is a good month to be reminded of that.
Let me just preface this by saying that I still have A LOT of learning left to do. I fully acknowledge that I am by no means an expert, and I don’t even feel like I’ve read enough books to put together a list that is even close to comprehensive on this topic. I’m just sharing the books that have taught me the most, and hopefully you can find one or two to add to your own reading list.
Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
I am not even being a little bit facetious when I say this book made me kind of embarrassed of my history degree. Because it’s really not as impressive when I know exactly just how one-sided that education was. Spoiler: I literally have a minor in American history and learned NONE of what was in this book. Not only did this book teach me so many new things – I listened to the audiobook, and kept pausing to reread chapters or passages in the physical copy – it taught me just how much I had learned was wrong. It left me questioning a lot. Like how I took an entire college course on the history of piracy and never learned about a single black pirate (not even Blackbeard’s right-hand man, Black Caesar, who was super cool). It also gave me a necessary kick in the ass to do better about fixing those knowledge gaps on my own.
I’ve actually had a few people talk to me about learning more about black history, and I always tell them to start here. I feel like I should have been taking notes on all of the things I wanted to read more about, because there are so, so many. Yes, this is a fairly large book. And yes, it’s a history book (which can be a little dry, especially when you’re used to reading fiction). But it’s worth it, I promise. This should be required reading. For everyone. I already want to read it again, and it hasn’t even been a year.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This book completely blew me away. It is one of the best pieces of literature I have ever read. And you all know I read a lot. It’s been more than two years since I’ve read this and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I recommend it to people all the time. It’s just an absolutely gorgeous novel, on so many levels. But it’s also one of the books that taught me the most about black history.
Homegoing follows two sisters in Ghana, one of whom marries a British general and stays in Ghana while the other is sold into slavery. And each chapter alternates between their descendants, skipping forward a generation each time. It brilliantly showcases the black experience, both in America and in Ghana from the eighteenth-century to now. And it does all of that while also being just a really great novel and a pleasure to read.
We’re not going to talk about the fact that it still makes me feel like I have accomplished nothing when I remember that this was Yaa Gyasi’s debut. And also that she’s younger than me, and I kind of want to cry because I will never in a million years produce something this incredible. It honestly feels like the masterpiece someone worked for their entire life, not the novel of a woman in her twenties. I haven’t read her second book yet, but mostly because I’m afraid it will make me cry.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
I know a lot of you have probably already read this (and many of you have even recommend it to me already), but it’s absolutely worth reading. This is exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned how many black historical figures we’ve gone decades without knowing. Henrietta Lacks’s story was a bit different in that we don’t know her for her personal achievements – though she was pretty impressive in her own right – we know her for her cells. Which were taken without her knowledge. And used to facilitate the development of basically all modern advancements in medicine.
Henrietta Lacks has undoubtedly, unknowingly, affected every single one of our lives. But she was buried in an unmarked grave. She’s been dead for more than seventy years, but her cells still live on. This is not only the story of one of history’s hidden figures, it is also about how black people have been treated throughout history. I still remember finishing this book and just being really glad that this story was told. Because it deserves to be told. And we should know who Henrietta Lacks was.
What’s Next on My TBR
Like I said, I have a lot of reading left to do. And, thanks to Stamped from the Beginning, I’m kind of ramping up my black history reading this year. These are all books I’m planning to read in 2021, and I’m really excited to learn as much as I can this year. (I definitely a lot more than this on my TBR, but I have other things to read, too. Also, I wanted to keep this post to a reasonable length.)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
This is actually on my reading list for this month (provided I survive my reading experiment project next week), and I’m really excited about it. Because it’s been on my TBR for a while. I don’t think any of us could have lived through the last year or two without becoming fully aware that the civil rights movement isn’t really over. And this book delves into one of the biggest issues: the mass incarceration of black people in America.
I can’t say this issue affects my life in any way. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to learn about. Because everything I have heard about this problem has outraged me, and I want to learn more about how and why we got here, and how we can work towards fixing it. I’ve also just heard great things about this book, and I’m sure I will come out of it with several more things to add to my reading list.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
I came across this book just a few days ago, and it immediately landed on my reading list. Honestly, I just can’t resist the words “forgotten history”. Really though, this is about yet another thing I didn’t know I needed to read about. We all know America was (and pretty much still is) segregated. And many people, including myself, assume that this is because of individual prejudices, income differences, etc. But Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, says that isn’t really true. Government laws and decisions that promoted discrimination are to blame. And they never really went away. Which kind of makes sense, which what little I already know about. It also makes me really mad.
Basically, America was set up to be segregated by the government before the civil rights movement, and it just kind of stayed that way. It’s just one of those parts of history that you don’t learn in school, but everyone should know about anyway. I won’t go into the whole synopsis of this book, but it also looks like this has had a huge effect on the violence that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m honestly getting angry writing about this, but I’ll let you know what happens when I actually read the book.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Alabama to interview the last living person transported to America as part of The Atlantic slave trade, a man named Cudjo. Those interviews led to this book. And I cannot tell you how excited I am to read this (I’m saving it for a reading challenge later in the year, but I might not be able to wait that long). For me, I love learning about history through first and second hand accounts. And I have actually read several slave narratives – basically slave memoirs (weirdly for English classes in college, not history classes). But I’m pretty sure they were all by slaves that were born into slavery.
This just feels like a really unique thing to be able to read and experience, and I honestly think it is going to be an important piece in my own education. I’m going to stop talking about it now, because I really want to forget the book I’m currently reading and just jump into this one.
I hope you enjoyed this post! I did try to keep it short, but I just also love any chance I get to talk about history. I’d love to hear if you’ve read any of these books or if you have any to add to the list.
Are you reading anything for Black History Month this year?