10 Books to Read for Black History Month
Back in 2017 when I first moved to NYC, I had no idea the education I was about to get. I think it’s a given that no matter how prepared you think you are for NYC, it’s still going to backhand you and blow smoke in your face.
Dave and I were feeling good about our move and feeling very confident in our apartment hunt. We thought we could afford a halfway decent apartment in a nice neighborhood. Yeah, we were wrong. Once you factor in utilities and other expenses, things are more expensive than you realize. Not to mention we just couldn’t find a building that would allow three dogs! Our dogs are literal angels. They don’t even bark! I guarantee my three are more well-behaved than most people’s one, but you can’t make a landlord believe that. We had to expand our search, which led us to looking at Brooklyn and Harlem. We finally found an apartment we liked in Harlem that would allow three dogs and we pounced. No negotiating, we’ll take it! We later found out that we were paying much more than we should have and there were a lot of NYC apartment questions we didn’t ask. We were noobs. Man, the lack of natural light in that apartment was the worst. I felt like I was working in the dark all day. And don’t get me started on all the stairs…
Anyway, when we first moved, Dave and I were bright eyed and bushy-tailed. We were the only white people in our building. Hell, we were some of the few in our neighborhood in general. The neighborhood was a total mix of heritage from people who had been in Harlem for many generations to a lot of Senegalese as ther consulate of Senegal was on our block. There was a very famous mosque across the street that was known because Malcolm X used to preach there, there was a famous baptist church on the corner and we lived between Malcolm X boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell (he was the first African-American elected to New York Congress).
We thought we were good people and even though we were different, we would make so many friends and make this our home. Instead we spent two years struggling. I don’t think anyone really ever really liked that we were there (accept maybe the elderly lady below us because we carried her groceries) and it always upset me. Little Lynzi deals with a dose of being a minority and what it feels like to not be accepted and she’s so upset. I was yelled at on the bus or subway in my neighborhood many times for no reason, I would go to the post office and the employees would be harsh and rude with me but turn rosey for the next customer, waitstaff would ignore me, etc. I would cry and cry about it and it took me a while to understand.
I remember I used to always see these big tours in my neighborhood. There would be open top buses full of white people staring down on the neighborhood and there would be big groups of tourists huddled together while someone gave a quick history. You could tell these white tourist groups didn’t want to be there. They were uncomfortable. I finally decided I wanted to understand why they always stopped with their guide in front of the mosque across the street. It’s called Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, which was once called Mosque No. 7. It’s a Sunni mosque now, but it used to be a Nation of Islam mosque back when Malcolm X preached there. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Malcolm X. I knew who he was, of course. Just a larger outline. I decided I needed to read more about him and bought his autobiography, which I consumed in about two days. I couldn’t put it down. I was so passionate about it because I now felt connected living in this neighborhood.
The more I read, the more I understood. I was so naive. I know American history, but I realized I was taught a very limited scope of black history. I started to learn a larger reality of how ugly this country really is. I always felt like I grew up in a place where racism was a thing of the past. What I learned is that I wasn’t looking hard enough or perhaps I was too self-involved, and honestly still am, but I’m trying to unlearn a lifetime of habits. I also learned that institutional racism was embedded in all white people, whether we recognized it or not. I started to understand how ridiculous it was to feel like my treatment in Harlem was such a personal affront. When it boiled down to it, I was upset people didn’t like me when in reality the people around me were living in a world of systematic racism that defined their realities. Jesus Lynzi, wake up!
It was then that I started to quit worrying about what people thought of me and just trying to be a better person. I smiled and made eye contact on the street, I continually attempted to be more understanding, I made an effort to understand more of the history both in general and of the area I lived in, I gave money to people who asked and tipped larger, helped people with their groceries on the subway, and generally just kept my ear open for those I could help. It felt like a small thing I could do as reparations. Anything in my day to day I could do to supplicate for my white guilt. I still didn’t get it in a lot of ways. It was still about me, about shedding my skin and feeling better about myself.
When I moved upstate, partially because my experience there was overall such a negative one, a lot of this was out of site, out of mind. How lucky am I to be able to just move away and my plight is over? Black people can’t even interact with a police officer without fearing for their lives and I could just move and voila! All better! You know, just the other day Dave was pulled over for speeding and his sticker for inspection was out of date. The cop was so nice and basically gave him a slap on the wrist. He got a ticket for something like excessive speeding given the conditions. It’s basically saying you were going the speed limit, but maybe it was foggy and you shouldn’t have been. There’s no speed documented, so even though he was going 80 in a 55, he barely got a ticket. The officer was doing him a solid. Not to mention being pulled over was so chill. It was conversational. No stress. How fucked up is that? I would imagine any black person would be internally freaking out being pulled over and praying they live to see tomorrow.
It wasn’t until BLM started that I was reminded, again, that I needed to do better. So much better. I feel like I’ve made improvements. I have a deeper understanding now, although I could never to a full extent. I’m donating money, being vocal, reading more and having tough conversations with loved ones and calling people out on their racist shit. Dave’s doing even better than me because he thrives in conflict. I still have a long way to go. Now I know the best thing I can do is be unrelenting and always let the black community dictate how I should fight for them and listen.
So, it’s Black History Month and what are we doing? Well, we should definitely be expanding our knowledge of both current events and historical, not to mention paying it forward as much as you can. One of the ways I think anyone and everyone can learn is to read, which brings me to my ten book recommendations for Black History Month. Most are old and are very important, but a few are new. Whether it’s written by a woman who was the first female black author to have her play performed on Broadway to a biography of a man navigating a white-dominated fashion industry and making waves, all of these books left a mark on me. I’m including a synopsis of each ala Amazon so you can get a better feel. And on a totally unrelated note, if you want to consume a TV show and be entertained while learning some shit, watch Lovecraft Country. Just trust me.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
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 secretly 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.
As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.
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.
The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir by André Leon Talley
During André Leon Talley’s first magazine job, alongside Andy Warhol at Interview, a fateful meeting with Karl Lagerfeld began a decades-long friendship with the enigmatic, often caustic designer. Propelled into the upper echelons by his knowledge and adoration of fashion, André moved to Paris as bureau chief of John Fairchild’s Women’s Wear Daily, befriending fashion’s most important designers (Halston, Yves Saint Laurent, Oscar de la Renta). But as André made friends, he also made enemies. A racially tinged encounter with a member of the house of Yves Saint Laurent sent him back to New York and into the offices of Vogue under Grace Mirabella.
There, he eventually became creative director, developing an unlikely but intimate friendship with Anna Wintour. As she rose to the top of Vogue’s masthead, André also ascended, and soon became the most influential man in fashion.
The Chiffon Trenches offers a candid look at the who’s who of the last fifty years of fashion. At once ruthless and empathetic, this engaging memoir tells with raw honesty the story of how André not only survived the brutal style landscape but thrived—despite racism, illicit rumors, and all the other challenges of this notoriously cutthroat industry—to become one of the most renowned voices and faces in fashion.
Woven throughout the book are also André’s own personal struggles that have impacted him over the decades, along with intimate stories of those he has turned to for inspiration (Diana Vreeland, Diane von Fürstenberg, Lee Radziwill, to name a few), and of course his Southern roots and ongoing faith, which have guided him since childhood.
The result is a highly compelling read that captures the essence of a world few of us will ever have real access to, but one that we all want to know oh so much more about.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
If there was any one man who articulated the anger, the struggle, and the beliefs of African Americans in the 1960s, that man was Malxolm X. His AUTOBIOGRAPHY is now an established classic of modern America, a book that expresses like none other the crucial truth about our times.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Rose That Grew from Concrete by Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur’s most intimate and honest thoughts were uncovered only after his death with the instant classic The Rose That Grew from Concrete.
His talent was unbounded — a raw force that commanded attention and respect.
His death was tragic — a violent homage to the power of his voice.
His legacy is indomitable — as vibrant and alive today as it has ever been.
For the first time in paperback, this collection of deeply personal poetry is a mirror into the legendary artist’s enigmatic world and its many contradictions.
Written in his own hand from the time he was nineteen, these seventy-two poems embrace his spirit, his energy — and his ultimate message of hope.
More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth
Throughout her life, Elaine Welteroth has climbed the ranks of media and fashion, shattering ceilings along the way. In this riveting and timely memoir, the groundbreaking journalist unpacks lessons on race, identity, and success through her own journey, from navigating her way as the unstoppable child of an unlikely interracial marriage in small-town California to finding herself on the frontlines of a modern movement for the next generation of change makers.
Welteroth moves beyond the headlines and highlight reels to share the profound lessons and struggles of being a barrier-breaker across so many intersections. As a young boss and often the only Black woman in the room, she’s had enough of the world telling her—and all women—they’re not enough. As she learns to rely on herself by looking both inward and upward, we’re ultimately reminded that we’re more than enough.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
This groundbreaking play starred Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeill, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands in the Broadway production which opened in 1959. Set on Chicago’s South Side, the plot revolves around the divergent dreams and conflicts within three generations of the Younger family: son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, his sister Beneatha, his son Travis and matriarch Lena, called Mama. When her deceased husband’s insurance money comes through, Mama dreams of moving to a new home and a better neighborhood in Chicago. Walter Lee, a chauffeur, has other plans, however: buying a liquor store and being his own man. Beneatha dreams of medical school.
The tensions and prejudice they face form this seminal American drama. Sacrifice, trust and love among the Younger family and their heroic struggle to retain dignity in a harsh and changing world is a searing and timeless document of hope and inspiration. Winner of the NY Drama Critic’s Award as Best Play of the Year, it has been hailed as a “pivotal play in the history of the American Black theatre.” by Newsweek and “a milestone in the American Theatre.” by Ebony.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
A powerful cultural touchstone of modern American literature, The Color Purple depicts the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia. Separated as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie sustain their loyalty to and hope in each other across time, distance and silence. Through a series of letters spanning twenty years, first from Celie to God, then the sisters to each other despite the unknown, the novel draws readers into its rich and memorable portrayals of Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery and Sofia and their experience. The Color Purple broke the silence around domestic and sexual abuse, narrating the lives of women through their pain and struggle, companionship and growth, resilience and bravery. Deeply compassionate and beautifully imagined, Alice Walker’s epic carries readers on a spirit-affirming journey towards redemption and love.
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