Reading list

10 books that chronicle the black American experience

With the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement and the end of the first black presidency of the United States, the modern Civil Rights Movement has never been more visible or more active. This list looks at the story of American civil rights, from chronicles of cruelty under slavery to the heroes of the 1950s and 1960s, all the way up to where race relations stand in America today.

 

A Gift of Love

Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the spring of 1963 approached, bringing with it the fire hoses of Alabama, Dr Martin Luther King Jr was preparing the final sermons that appear in this collection. This is an inspiring manifesto for the power of peace and love as agents of political and social change, and a record of the oratory power of one of the twentieth century's great speakers and leaders.

 

Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine

You may have seen a protester pointedly reading this award-winning volume at a Donald Trump rally during the 2016 election... Claudia Rankine employs her exceptional talents for character in this astonishing meditation on the perils of living in a black body, combining prose, verse and photography to form a cacophonous portrait of contemporary black America.

 

Don't Let Me Be Lonely

Claudia Rankine

Written during George W. Bush's presidency in an America still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and charging headlong into war in Iraq, this is an early 21st-century work of great wit, intelligence and depth of feeling, with urgent lessons for the present. An earlier example of the 'American Lyric' style, combining essay, verse and photography, that makes Citizen such a captivating read.

 

They Can't Kill Us All

Wesley Lowery

Reporting from the front lines in heavily policed towns and cities across America, Wesley Lowery captures this crucial tipping point in the story of black America. They Can't Kill Us All is more than a litany of the violence that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Alongside the names of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, this book also looks at the structural inequalities that hamstring the march to equality and gives us an insight into the grassroots efforts to roll back centuries of injustice.

 

Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi

This captivating novel reaches back through three centuries as we follow the descendants of two separated sisters in Ghana, one sold into slavery, one a slave trader's wife. So much more than a simple historical epic, Homegoing examines the way in which trauma trickles down through generations, playing with ideas of fate, redemption and original sin on the way.

 

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Malcolm X

One of the most controversial figures in American history, Malcolm X's conversion to the Nation of Islam marked his political awakening and was the start of his journey to becoming an indefatigable warrior for equal rights for his black brothers and sisters. This autobiography, completed shortly before his death, is an essential chronicle of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

Go Tell It on the Mountain

James Baldwin

Go Tell it on the Mountain was James Baldwin's first major work, based in part on his own childhood in Harlem. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy's discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. Baldwin's rendering of his protagonist's spiritual, sexual and moral struggle towards self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understood themselves.

 

Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison

Song of Solomon begins in 1930s America with Macon Dead Jr, the son of a wealthy black property owner, who has been brought up to revere the white world. Macon learns about the tyranny of white society from his friend Guitar, though he is more concerned with escaping the familial tyranny of his own father. So while Guitar joins a terrorist group of poor blacks, Macon goes home to the South, lured by tales of buried family treasure. But his odyssey back home and a deadly confrontation with Guitar leads to the discovery of something infinitely more valuable than gold: his past and the origins of his true self.

 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818. After his escape in 1838 he became an ardent abolitionist, and his autobiography was an instant bestseller upon publication in 1845. In it he describes with harrowing honesty his life as a slave – the cruelty he suffered at the hands of plantation owners; his struggles to educate himself in a world where slaves are deliberately kept ignorant; and ultimately, his fight for his right to freedom. A passionately written, intelligent and highly emotive indictment of slavery, his principle preoccupation was that slavery could be eradicated only through education. This text was key in helping to secure its eventual abolition.

 

Colour Bar

Susan Williams

London, 1947. He was the heir to an African kingdom. She was a white English insurance clerk. When they met and fell in love, it would change the world. This is the inspiring true story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, whose marriage sent shockwaves through the establishment, defied an empire - and, finally, triumphed over the prejudices of their age.

The true story of a love which defied family, Apartheid, and empire - the inspiration for the major new feature film A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.