The 10 Best Reads For Black History Month

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon.
Black history cannot and should not be relegated to one month. The contributions of Black people to the history of this country — to the history of the world — are far too expansive and significant to be accurately recognized during the shortest month of the year. But, we have Black History Month as something of a historical correction for the countless decades when black contributions were ignored, dismissed, or devalued. What should we read to recognize this month and enrich our understanding of Black history? There is no singular list of recommendations, but here I offer 10 reading opportunities that, I hope, offer empathy and insight into the Black experience.
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Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

In her deeply affecting memoir, Jesmyn Ward chronicles the grief of losing five Black men she loved. In doing so, Ward also reveals the precarious nature of Black life in America. Her story is at once deeply personal and eminently relatable for anyone who lives in Black skin, or loves, mourns or merely cares about difference and the human condition.
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Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

Eula Biss is an elegant essayist, and in this collection she tackles race and class in America with thoughtful, fierce, and well-researched prose. The most striking essay, "Time and Distance Overcome," has remained with me for years. In it, Biss explores the history of lynching through a history of the telephone. Most haunting is how much of American history is darkly intertwined with the subjugation of Black people.
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Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

There are many a novel about slavery, but in Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez focuses on the enslaved mistresses of white slave owners who were taken on vacation to the Tawana House resort in free Ohio. The novel is not perfect, but it is powerful and necessary. Wench reveals the unbearable reach of slavery and the impossible circumstances Black women endured. It will rip your heart out, and you will be the better for it.
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"The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is not a book, but a feature article from The Atlantic, published in 2014. As the title suggests, Coates has written a masterful and convincing argument for reparations in the United States as a means of atoning for what Coates refers to as "compounding moral debts," like slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws and housing discrimination. Whether you agree or disagree with the argument, you will certainly be enlightened.
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Kind One by Laird Hunt

In Laird Hunt’s Kind One, he provocatively examines the complicity of white women in the shame of slavery. Ginny is a woman who has left her family and everything familiar behind to marry Linus Lancaster, a man who claims to be one thing and turns out to be another. He is selfish, abusive, and more talk than action. In their early years of marriage, Ginny befriends two slaves. But, when her husband turns his lecherous attentions to the slave women, Ginny looks the other way and allows her friends to be violated. In her way, she becomes nearly as cruel as her husband. Then, there is a reckoning. The novel reveals how slavery was so pernicious as to make criminals of everyone who owned slaves, and how redemption is rarely a neatly contained process.
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Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial by Joanna Cubbs and Eugene W. Metcalf

Artist Thornton Dial was born in rural Alabama in 1928 and grew up in the segregated South. As an artist, Dial works in multiple media including sculpture, painting, collage, and the manipulation of found objects. The most intense pieces of his work are multi-dimensional collages exploding with texture and color. All of Dial's artwork reflects the influence of his upbringing and how that influence shapes his understanding of the world. Dial's work is incredibly contemporary, taking on race, gender, class, war, and terrorism. His work travels in an exhibit around the country and Hard Truths is an amazing book documenting not only the majority of Dial's art, but also discussing his impact on art and culture. Reading this book offers an excellent opportunity to explore the work of a man who has documented Black history as he lived through it.
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How to Rent a Negro by Damali Ayo

This both funny and serious book rose out of the website of the same name by artist Damali Ayo. How to Rent a Negro uses satire to reveal the absurdities of race relations. Though it was first published in 2005, it remains equally relevant a decade later. (See also: Citizen by Claudia Rankine, a stunning book of lyric poetry that lays bare the microaggressions that are not so micro — the ones that Black people face simply by living their daily lives. And: Prelude to a Bruise by Saeed Jones, a tome of searing poetry about what it means to be Black, gay, Southern and so much more.)
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How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

Kiese Laymon knows how to write raw. He uses his words to cut to the bone of what it means to be Black in America. He uses writing to preserve memory, to bear witness, to offer testimony. Laymon is intersectional in his writing and thinking, revealing how identity is not so simple as to only encapsulate race. We are also men and women or transgender. We are people of faith or we are not. Our lives are shaped by class and where we live. Laymon’s writing forces us to face how who we are critically informs how we move through the world.
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Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans

In her debut short story collection, Danielle Evans writes of a young Black woman realizing she can't sell one of the most indelible parts of herself in the same way her white classmates can. And, of a woman in the throes of a personal crisis goes on a road trip with her young cousin to see an ex-boyfriend perform in North Carolina. And, of a solider returns home only to find that the woman he loves and was never really his, and has found another. No matter the circumstance, Evans writes about Black lives in refreshing ways that also show how Black lives matter even when they are not endangered.
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Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

The United States is but one of many countries with a fraught racial history. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is a novel of great scope and intensity. The disgraces are many — a middle-aged professor who is banished for seducing a student, a daughter trying to atone for historical wrongs on land that is hers, a crime that leaves both father and daughter profoundly changed and at odds. Disgrace looks at inhumanity on both grand and intimate levels and on the whole, the prose will leave you stunned.
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