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9 Fascinating Books for Black History Month

Recent reads that explore the lives of extraordinary African Americans and their legacies

spinner image from left to right four hundred souls by ibram x kendi and keisha n blain then all that she carried by tiya miles then finding me by viola davis
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: One World; Random House; HarperOne; Getty Images)

There are so many wonderful biographies and histories that explore the Black experience in America, but these 9 recent books are particular standouts.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Alicia Miles

Heirlooms embody powerful familial stories, and Miles meticulously takes us through one such story of an inheritance that reveals as much about a maternal ancestry as it does about the history of the United States. In 1852, an enslaved woman gave a sack to her 9-year-old daughter before the girl was sold and the pair were separated forever. That sack, filled with articles that demonstrated a mother’s protection and love, was miraculously passed down through four generations. The book chronicles the unending dangers Black women endured during enslavement, while offering critical lessons on the enduring nature of love.

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Finding Me by Viola Davis

Davis’ 2022 memoir was a huge bestseller, detailing the actor’s rise from a troubled childhood in Rhode Island to beloved Emmy- and Oscar-winning star, most recently of The Woman King. She is frank about her family’s struggles and later the racism and misogyny she faced during her rise to fame in this impressive story of resilience and determination. The self-narrated audio version is particularly well done: Davis, 58, has received loads of kudos for her narration, including a Grammy, and the memoir won audiobook of the year at the Audie Awards, the big industry event dedicated to “recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken-word entertainment.”  

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Simon & Schuster

August Wilson: A Life by Patti Hartigan

As theater critic for The Boston Globe, Hartigan met and interviewed the renowned playwright August Wilson several times before his death from cancer in 2005 at age 60. Her 2023 biography explores his beginnings in Pittsburgh, where he faced racism as a biracial boy (his father was a white man from Germany, his mother African American), and his rise to become one of the most significant 20th-century playwrights in the U.S. He received Pulitzer Prizes for his plays The Piano Lesson and Fences, which was the basis for a 2016 film adaptation starring Denzel Washington (a movie version of another Wilson play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, hit screens in 2020). 

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South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry

Author Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton, writes plainly about the complexities of the U.S. South in this engaging work of nonfiction, a winner of the National Book Award. She takes readers on a tour of the region — including Alabama, where she was born and raised — exploring Southern histories, heroes, cultures and present-day challenges. As the title suggests, she uses her journey to interpret conflicts and contradictions within the nation as a whole. (2022)

Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song by Judith Tick

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W. W. Norton & Company

This deeply researched 2023 biography digs deep into the life of the legendary singer and band leader — “the First Lady of Song” (1917–1996). The book describes a shy young woman who first found success at an amateur-night competition at the Apollo, then went on to a stellar career and acclaim for her stunning vocal talent and improvisational skills, while facing her share of challenges, including rampant sexism within the jazz world. (In May, Fitzgerald fans can look forward to Ella by Diane Richards, a novelization of the singer’s life.) ​

Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo 

Woo tells the true story of William and Ellen Craft, who fled two different enslavers in Macon, Ga., and traveled 1,000 miles to freedom in Philadelphia. Author Woo describes how they hid in plain sight, with light-skinned Ellen dressed as a wealthy Southern, disabled man, and William as her servant. They succeeded, though their pursuers kept pushing them farther north. (2023)  

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux

King: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Eig, the author of 2017’s Ali: A Life, about Muhammad Ali, dives into the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family history, childhood, accomplishments, private life and more — hoping to create “a more intimate kind of biography,” Eig told Library Journal. Obviously, King’s life has been plumbed by countless historians, but King: A Life may rise above those other bios. In The New York Times, Dwight Garner offered a glowing review of this bio, calling it “supple, penetrating, heartstring-pulling and compulsively readable.” Universal Pictures has bought the movie rights, according to Deadline, with Chris Rock set to direct and produce. (2023)

spinner image four hundred souls by ibram x kendi and keisha n blain
One World

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, coedited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

Kendi (author of How to Be an Antiracist) and Blain, president of the African American Intellectual History Society, have produced an innovative examination of 400 years of African American history — beginning in 1619, when the first slave ships arrived, to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. The book operates as a communal diary, with essays and sketches by 90 black writers (poets, historians, journalists, activists, lawyers and more), each concluding with a powerful poem. From Allyson Hobbs’ exploration of racial passing to historian Peniel Joseph’s look at the Black Power movement, this is a diverse and important book. (2021)

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Henry Holt and Co.

Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family by Rachel Jamison Webster

Webster, who is white and works as a creative writing professor at Northwestern University, describes how she discovered at a family reunion in 2016 that she’s related to Benjamin Banneker, the famous African American mathematician, almanac author and astronomer who was hired by Thomas Jefferson to survey Washington, D.C. The book explores that ancestral story — including the fascinating role of Banneker, whose interracial grandparents broke the law to marry each other in the 18th century. (2023)

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