Celebrating Black History Month Books to Read – My 20 Must Reads

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I love to read.  I have been a member of three book clubs in my adult life, and I continue to meet with my current book club once a month.  There is nothing like the power of the written word when written by a great writer.  In February, celebrate Black History Month books by reading any of these 20 picks. From historical fiction to dystopia, biographies to non-fiction there is a great book for everyone to read and learn more about the black experience.

When an author takes a tale and makes it come alive in your mind, it is wonderful.  I once described a particular passage in a book as something that you savour, you hold it in your mind’s eye, and mull it over.  I have read some wonderful books that I thought would be very appropriate for Black History Month.  There are many others but these are the ones that I know well and enjoyed. I hope that you will enjoy them too.

20 Black History Month Books

All of the synopses are from Good Reads. Each book’s rating and number of reviews are shown. If you follow my Goodreads account, you can also see my personal reviews. I have divided this collection up between Contemporary Collections and Classic Collections.

Contemporary Collection

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

4.11 · Rating Details · 163,946 ratings · 17,236 reviews · Nominee for Best Historical Fiction (2022)Nominee for Best Debut Novel (2022)

We can’t choose what we inherit. But can we choose who we become?

In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves.

Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

4.15 · Rating Details · 737,728 ratings · 57,384 reviews · Winner for Best Historical Fiction (2020)

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

3.96 · Rating Details · 66,693 ratings ·7,405 reviews

Washington Black is an eleven-year-old field slave who knows no other life than the Barbados sugar plantation where he was born.

When his master’s eccentric brother chooses him to be his manservant, Wash is terrified of the cruelties he is certain await him. But Christopher Wilde, or “Titch,” is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor, and abolitionist.

He initiates Wash into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky; where two people, separated by an impossible divide, might begin to see each other as human; and where a boy born in chains can embrace a life of dignity and meaning. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, Titch abandons everything to save him.

What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic, where Wash, left on his own, must invent another new life, one which will propel him further across the globe.

From the sultry cane fields of the Caribbean to the frozen Far North, Washington Black tells a story of friendship and betrayal, love and redemption, of a world destroyed and made whole again–and asks the question, what is true freedom?

The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr

3.48 · Rating Details · 6,385 ratings · 905 reviews

When a mudslide strands a train, Baxter, a queer Black sleeping car porter, must contend with the perils of white passengers, ghosts, and his secret love affair.

The Sleeping Car Porter brings to life an important part of Black history in North America, from the perspective of a queer man living in a culture that renders him invisible in two ways. Affecting, imaginative, and visceral enough that you’ll feel the rocking of the train, The Sleeping Car Porter is a stunning accomplishment.

Baxter’s name isn’t George. But it’s 1929, and Baxter is lucky enough, as a Black man, to have a job as a sleeping car porter on a train that crisscrosses the country. So when the passengers call him George, he has to just smile and nod and act invisible. What he really wants is to go to dentistry school, but he’ll have to save up a lot of nickel and dime tips to get there, so he puts up with “George.”

On this particular trip out west, the passengers are more unruly than usual, especially when the train is stalled for two extra days; their secrets start to leak out and blur with the sleep-deprivation hallucinations Baxter is having. When he finds a naughty postcard of two queer men, Baxter’s memories and longings are reawakened; keeping it puts his job in peril, but he can’t part with the postcard or his thoughts of Edwin Drew, Porter Instructor.

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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

4.29 · Rating Details · 226,415 ratings · 21,435 reviews · Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Fiction (2019)

Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

Maame by Jessica George

4.08 · Rating Details · 70,785 ratings · 9,505 reviews · Goodreads Choice Award · Nominee for Best Fiction (2023)Nominee for Best Debut Novel (2023)

Maame (ma-meh) has many meanings in Twi but in my case, it means woman.

It’s fair to say that Maddie’s life in London is far from rewarding. With a mother who spends most of her time in Ghana (yet still somehow manages to be overbearing), Maddie is the primary caretaker for her father, who suffers from advanced stage Parkinson’s. At work, her boss is a nightmare and Maddie is tired of always being the only Black person in every meeting.

When her mum returns from her latest trip to Ghana, Maddie leaps at the chance to get out of the family home and finally start living. A self-acknowledged late bloomer, she’s ready to experience some important “firsts”: She finds a flat share, says yes to after-work drinks, pushes for more recognition in her career, and throws herself into the bewildering world of internet dating. But it’s not long before tragedy strikes, forcing Maddie to face the true nature of her unconventional family, and the perils—and rewards—of putting her heart on the line.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

4.47 · Rating Details · 332,033 ratings · 35,766 reviews · Goodreads Choice Award · Nominee for Best Historical Fiction (2016)

A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.


Gutter Child by Jael Richardson

3.88 · Rating Details · 5,232 ratings · 661 reviews

Set in an imagined world in which the most vulnerable are forced to buy their freedom by working off their debt to society, Gutter Child uncovers a nation divided into the privileged Mainland and the policed Gutter. As part of a social experiment led by the Mainland government, Elimina Dubois is one of just one hundred babies taken from the Gutter and raised in the land of opportunity.

But when her Mainland mother dies, Elimina finds herself alone, a teenager forced into an unfamiliar life of servitude, unsure of who she is and where she belongs. Sent to an academy with new rules and expectations, Elimina befriends children who are making their own way through the Gutter System in whatever way they know how. But when her life takes yet another unexpected turn, Elimina will discover that what she needs more than anything may not be the freedom she longed for after all.

Gutter Child reveals one young woman’s journey through a fractured world of heartbreaking disadvantages and shocking injustices. As a modern heroine in an altered but all-too-recognizable reality, Elimina must find the strength within herself to forge her future in defiance of a system that tries to shape her destiny.

Finding Me by Viola Davis

4.57 · Rating Details · 103,968 ratings · 13,879 reviews · Goodreads Choice Award · Nominee for Best Memoir & Autobiography (2022)

In my book, you will meet a little girl named Viola who ran from her past until she made a life-changing decision to stop running forever.

This is my story, from a crumbling apartment in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to the stage in New York City, and beyond. This is the path I took to finding my purpose but also my voice in a world that didn’t always see me.

As I wrote Finding Me, my eyes were open to the truth of how our stories are often not given close examination. We are forced to reinvent them to fit into a crazy, competitive, judgmental world. So I wrote this for anyone running through life untethered, desperate and clawing their way through murky memories, trying to get to some form of self-love. For anyone who needs reminding that a life worth living can only be born from radical honesty and the courage to shed facades and be . . . you.

Finding Me is a deep reflection, a promise, and a love letter of sorts to self. My hope is that my story will inspire you to light up your own life with creative expression and rediscover who you were before the world put a label on you.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

4.46 · Rating Details · 1,028,775 ratings · 66,718 reviews · Goodreads Choice Award · Nominee for Best Memoir & Autobiography (2018)

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.

In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.

Other Reading Collections on the blog:

Classic Collection

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

4.11  ·  Rating Details  ·  246,691 Ratings ·  16,372 Reviews

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author’s girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves’ garden do not bloom. Pecola’s life does change- in painful, devastating ways.
What its vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child’s yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment. The Bluest Eye remains one of Tony Morrisons’s most powerful, unforgettable novels- and a significant work of American fiction.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

4.13  ·  Rating Details  ·  111,086 Ratings ·  6,049 Reviews

Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighbourhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. With this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison transfigures the coming-of-age story as audaciously as Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez. As she follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

4.01  ·  Rating Details  ·  34,646 Ratings ·  2,296 Reviews

Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer’s daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.
Told in these four voices, Small Island is a courageous novel of tender emotion and sparkling wit, of crossings taken and passages lost, of shattering compassion and of reckless optimism in the face of insurmountable barriers—in short, an encapsulation of the immigrant’s life.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

4.27  ·  Rating Details  ·  672,488 Ratings ·  24,618 Reviews

The Color Purple is a 1982 epistolary novel by American author Alice Walker which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. It was later adapted into a film and musical of the same name.
Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on the life of women of color in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The novel has been the frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009 at number seventeen because of the sometimes explicit content, particularly in terms of violence.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

4.40 ·  Rating Details  · 329,448 ratings · 29,361 reviews · Goodreads Choice Award · Nominee for Best Nonfiction (2015)

“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
 
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

3.91  ·  Rating Details  ·  74,396 Ratings ·  4,765 Reviews

An Oprah Book Club selection, Cry, the Beloved Country, the most famous and important novel in South Africa’s history, was an immediate worldwide bestseller in 1948. Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.
The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, “We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony.”
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

3.58  ·  Rating Details  ·  179,873 Ratings ·  7,965 Reviews

Things Fall Apart tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

4.24  ·  Rating Details  ·  38,761 Ratings ·  3,923 Reviews

With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s wilful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

4.45  ·  Rating Details  ·  13,481 Ratings ·  1,664 Reviews

An eBook short.
What does “feminism” mean today? That is the question at the heart of We Should All Be Feminists, a personal, eloquently-argued essay—adapted from her much-viewed TEDx talk of the same name—by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun. With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike. Argued in the same observant, witty and clever prose that has made Adichie a bestselling novelist, here is one remarkable author’s exploration of what it means to be a woman today—and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

4.46  ·  Rating Details  ·  86,319 Ratings ·  6,959 Reviews

Abducted from Africa as a child and enslaved in South Carolina, Aminata Diallo thinks only of freedom—and of the knowledge she needs to get home. Sold to an indigo trader who recognizes her intelligence, Aminata is torn from her husband and child and thrown into the chaos of the Revolutionary War. In Manhattan, Aminata helps pen the Book of Negroes, a list of blacks rewarded for service to the king with safe passage to Nova Scotia. There, Aminata finds a life of hardship and stinging prejudice. When the British abolitionists come looking for “adventurers” to create a new colony in Sierra Leone, Aminata assisted in moving 1,200 Nova Scotians to Africa and aiding the abolitionist cause by revealing the realities of slavery to the British public. This captivating story of one woman’s remarkable experience spans six decades and three continents and brings to life a crucial chapter in world history.

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Margarita Ibbott is a travel and lifestyle blogger. She blogs about travel in Canada, the United States and Europe giving practical advice through restaurant, hotel and attraction reviews. She writes for DownshiftingPRO.com and other online media outlets.