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Must-Read Books About the African American Experience

Top picks suggested by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

spinner image 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.

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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."

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."

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."

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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."

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.”

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