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Celebrating Black history shouldn’t be relegated to February, the shortest and coldest month of the year. In fact, since Black history and American history are one and the same, it should be something that we all know, understand and discuss. History has an uncanny way of repeating itself when we ignore it, try to bury it, or simply pretend that parts of it — especially the painful parts — never happened. We are doomed to repeat the mistakes we don’t confront and acknowledge from our shared past. While we may not live or share others’ experiences, we can and should recognize and appreciate their journeys.
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One way of doing that is through Black literature and, in this case, memoirs. We understand that Black authors write many books, so we apologize if we miss some of your favorites. Here are some that we think you may enjoy reading during Black History Month or any other.
1. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, By John Lewis
The late John Lewis is arguably one of the most important and influential people of the modern civil rights movement. He spoke from experience with passion and fought for civil rights — most recently, voting rights — for his entire life. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement was initially published in 1998, but the lessons and learnings still ring painfully true today. Although it doesn’t touch on the most recent racially charged topics — stripping voting rights and the latest examples of police violence — it does tell Lewis’ story of growing up peacefully protesting for civil rights in the 1960s South. Reading Walking in the Wind gives a detailed look at how Lewis’s young life set the tone for his public career as the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th District.
2. Between the World and Me, By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates comes together as a series of essays written as a letter to his son. Throughout this New York Times Bestseller, Coates details how race relations have shaped American history by exploring personal events as well as slavery the Civil War. In addition, he addresses current issues such as police brutality, mass incarceration and discrimination that continue to plague the Black community and modern-day society as a whole.
3. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, By bell hooks
Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood details a strong-willed child’s journey to becoming a writer. Throughout, Hooks details the different roles women and men play in society and the emotional experiences as a child growing up in the era while using writing as her path to self-realization.
4. Notes of a Native Son, By James Baldwin
This collection of essays written by a young James Baldwin in the 40s and 50s detail the perspective of Black life on the precipice of the civil rights movement. A description from Amazon details, “With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ to a sobering ‘Journey to Atlanta.'”
5. Prince: The Beautiful Ones, By Prince
The world lost the musical genius that was Prince Rogers Nelson on April 21, 2016. In an announcement that shocked the music world and beyond, we lost a visionary who produced such hits as “Let’s Go Crazy,” “1999,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “Kiss.” And though we won’t ever be able to see him live again, we can get a peek into his childhood, his early years as an artist, and how he created the groundbreaking movie and soundtrack “Purple Rain.” Whether you are a fan or not, you will enjoy immersion in the world of his purple majesty.
6. The Taste of Country Cooking, By Edna Lewis
Food and storytelling are a perfect match. In this marrying of recipes and a memoir, you get to learn about what some consider the Queen of Southern cooking and how she made a path for herself in a world dominated primarily by men. Edna Lewis, who died in 2006, and inspired aspiring chefs and women, grew up in a small Virginia Piedmont community settled by formerly enslaved people. As interesting as Lewis’s life is to read about, so are her tasty recipes, including pan-fried chicken, corn pudding and fresh blackberry cobbler.
7. A Promised Land, By Barack Obama
A Promised Land isn’t the 44th president’s first attempt at a memoir. It’s his third. His first, Dreams of My Father, explored his life as a son of a Black Kenyan father and white American mother and the intersection of identity and race. His second, The Audacity of Hope, addresses discord in politics in an intimate and conversational tone filled with the optimism of what could be. And now, A Promised Land, a political memoir filled with introspection and experience that guides us through his journey to the White House, where he served as the first African-American president over two memorable terms. He pulls back the curtain on wins and losses, such as how he maneuvered through a financial crisis, the authorization of Operation Neptune’s Spear, and the monumental passing of the Affordable Care Act.
Obama is widely acknowledged as one of the great orators in American history, so it makes sense his skills as an author are also impressive. Go inside the Obama White House years in this insightful memoir that takes you inside historical moments.
8. Just As I Am, By Cicely Tyson
Few will accomplish what the award-winning actress and activist Cicely Tyson did in her 96 years. The Emmy and Tony-winner released her memoir two days before her death at 96-years-old. One would never know that while growing up, a church girl, she barely spoke but finally felt that “in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.” You will get a peek into her tumultuous marriage to jazz icon Miles Davis, who she has called the love of her life, and her lawsuit against the legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor. In her more than six decades of appearing on stage and screen, she shattered stereotypes and shares those memories of dealing with racial and gender inequality.
9. The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, by André Leon Talley
One of the most notable fashion icons, the late André Leon Talley (who we sadly lost in January 2022), discusses his time at Vogue, Anna Wintour, and the fashion industry’s overall culture in his memoir The Chiffon Trenches. Throughout the autobiography, Talley takes us on a journey through his upbringing in the Jim Crow South and rise through the fashion ranks. A must-read, Talley’s memoir sold out across several sites following his death, according to Rolling Stone.
10. Raceless, By Georgina Lawton
Figuring out one’s identity is hard enough when you know your history, but it was particularly complex for Georgina Lawton, raised in an English suburban town. Lawton had white parents and white friends and didn’t think she was different except, of course, for her brown skin and dark curly hair and being the target of prejudice. When her father died, her history finally started being revealed. This led her to leave home and explore racial identity while living in Black communities in places such as Morocco, Nicaragua, Cuba and the United States. The book poses an interesting question of what it means to self-identify.
11. Becoming, By Michelle Obama
The former first lady of the United States created quite a buzz — selling more than 10 million copies — when she released her memoir in November 2018. Mrs. Obama, the first African American first lady to serve in that role, chronicles her childhood, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, going to Princeton and ultimately graduating from Harvard Law School. The self-described “box checker” welcomes you into her life filled with disappointments and achievements. You learn of her mother’s strength and how Mary Tyler Moore was her TV role model. You get a better understanding of the experiences that created a woman who could withstand the scrutiny and detractors as she navigated her journey at the White House.
12. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Fire Next Time is a classic 1963 novel by James Baldwin that examines racial inequality and its ramifications. The book consists of two “letters,” which were written on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, urging all Americans to fight against the legacy of racism.
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13. Rabbit, a Memoir, By Patricia (Ms. Pat) Williams
For some comedians, encountering strife leads to their ability to speak about difficulties with humor. They can take the edge off of pain, such as Patricia Williams, whose memoir features a nickname her mom called her. Williams was one of five children born during the crack epidemic. By 13, she was pregnant, and at 15, she was a mother of two. With strength and determination, she navigates her situation with humor while dealing with the inequity of being a Black mom.
14. How We Fight for Our Lives, By Saeed Jones
This book has been described as a coming-of-age story, but it’s more than that. Some can add words to paper, and while the syntax is correct, it’s just writing. Then there are those who create prose. And that is what this book is, a poetic retelling of what it’s like for Jones to grow up in the South as a young gay man as he tries to find himself among the landscape of challenging relationships with lovers, friends and family.
15. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, By Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was a dancer, actress, poet, civil rights activist and award-winning author. This memoir covers her childhood traumas and follows her into adulthood. She dealt with racial prejudices, discrimination and being raped by her mother’s boyfriend as a young girl. All to become the woman that is often quoted, one of her more famous, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Ms. Angelou showed us who she was, and she was brilliant. With a foreword by Oprah Winfrey, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most impactful memoirs by a Black author in the American literary canon.
16. Notes from a Young Black Chef, By Kwame Onwuachi
Sometimes we make the error of thinking that talent ameliorates racism. But it doesn’t. Sadly, it’s so inculcated in the fabric of our society that no profession is exempt. And that is a part of the story of Chef Kwame Onwuachi and what it means to be young, Black and ambitious in America. As he culls his talent to create one-of-a-kind flavors, the sour taste of old beliefs attempts to limit his possibilities.
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