Skip to content

Must-Read Books About the African American Experience

Top picks suggested by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

henry louis gates recommends books

From Left: Stephanie Berger; Crown; UNC PRESS; W. W. NORTON; BELKNAP PRESS; SIMON & SCHUSTER; Penguin Press/AARP

There have been some stellar books about Black history, as well as memoirs by and biographies of prominent African American leaders, including Barack Obama's A Promised Land, the bestselling nonfiction book of 2020. A new one to add to your reading pile: Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (Feb. 16), about the complex role the church has played in the lives of African Americans over 400 years. It's a companion to the fascinating PBS documentary of the same name that Gates (also host of the PBS series Finding Your Roots) wrote, produced and hosts (Feb. 16 and 17; check local listings).

With Black History Month just beginning, we asked the famed historian to share with us his favorite recent books about the Black experience in America. See his recommendations and explanations below.

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie Glaude Jr. (2020)

"James Baldwin's prophetic voice is a go-to for so many of us searching for revelation in our bruising times, and in this lyrical odyssey, Glaude takes us on his own journey in discovering and rediscovering the genius of this most essential essayist who never flinched in confronting the tragic dimensions of race in America."

Begin Again book cover


Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight (2018)

"This is the definitive biography of the most influential African American leader of the 19th century, covering his obscure birth in enslavement through his central role in the freedom struggle that culminated in the Civil War and Emancipation. It continues through his later career as a powerbroker during Reconstruction and fierce critic of lynching and the drawing of the color line in the dawning Jim Crow era. There's a reason David won the Pulitzer Prize for this heroic effort, and it's certain to stand the test of time."

Frederick Douglass book cover

Simon & Schuster

The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner (2020)

"In our own uncertain, deeply fractured times, Eric shines a light on three of the most consequential legacies of the American Civil War: the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. Not only were they pivotal to redefining the meaning of freedom and citizenship after centuries of racial slavery; they created a foundation for a broader human rights struggle that remains our charge today. It is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the underpinnings of our democracy."


The Second Founding book cover

W.W. Norton

May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem by Imani Perry (2018)

"A leading scholar in the field of African American studies today, Imani gives us the fascinating backstory to Black America's national anthem, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ written by the author and NAACP visionary James Weldon Johnson, and set to music by his talented brother, John Rosamond Johnson."

RELATED: Test your knowledge of African American leaders and events


May We Forever Stand book cover

UNC Press

Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War by Vince Brown (2020)

"Here is the epic story of the largest slave uprising anywhere in the eighteenth century's British Atlantic world, with harrowing accounts of the origins and dimensions of the trans-Atlantic trade and the array of forces combining to make the island of Jamaica a battleground, long before our own Civil War.”


Tacky's Revolt book cover

Belknap Press

AARP Membership -Join AARP for just $12 for your first year when you enroll in automatic renewal

Join today and save 25% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life. 

Also of note:

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020). A brilliant dissection of how skin color has been used as an arbitrary tool to build an unjust hierarchy in the U.S.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les and Tamara Payne (2020). The winner of the National Book Award, a richly detailed biography about the life of the Nation of Islam spokesman and civil rights icon.

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 coedited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (2021). Essays and sketches by 90 black writers — poets, historians, journalists, activists, lawyers and more — each concluding with a powerful poem.

Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix by Philip Norman (2020). A reverent biography filled with priceless anecdotes about Hendrix's stunning talent.

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham (2020). A biography of the great civil rights leader who passed away last year.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018). The former first lady's bestselling memoir, recounting her life story from her upbringing in Chicago through her years in the White House.

Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.'s Life and Win the 1960 Election by Stephen and Paul Kendrick (2021). The dramatic story of the civil rights leader's imprisonment, JFK's role in freeing him, and how the incident may have changed the course of history.

Christina Ianzito writes about health, travel and entertainment for AARP. Previously, she worked for Capital Style magazine and wrote frequently for The Washington Post. She is the recipient of a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.