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In addition to emphasizing books on Black resilience, noteworthy memoirs and some of the most anticipated fiction from Black authors, Black History Month is an opportunity to learn about African American history, as well as the pivotal figures who shaped that history. If you’ve been curious to learn more in either lane (and in the vast space between the two), we compiled some of the best books on those topics from the last year, according to members of Goodreads.
The following books highlight different aspects of African American history, from women’s voting rights and systemic inequality to the Great Migration and the life of Martin Luther King Jr. They've all been published in the last year and have been compiled based on the number of Goodreads members who reviewed them or added them to their "want to read" lists, as well as the books' average ratings.
1. “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson
- Goodreads: 4.59-star average rating, more than 33,900 ratings
By explaining how factors like race and class create a hierarchy of human divisions around the world, author Isabel Wilkerson reveals the unspoken caste system that shapes America. She explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations and illustrates how caste systems impact individuals in the United States by sharing historical figures’ life stories.
2. “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All” by Martha Jones
- Goodreads: 4.04-star average rating, more than 150 ratings
This book documents the history of African American women's political lives in America from the early days of the country to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Author Martha Jones discusses the work done by Black women such as Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer and more, detailing how their efforts played a pivotal role in fighting for women’s rights.
3. “A Black Women's History of the United States” by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross
- Goodreads: 4.29-star average rating, more than 1,200 ratings
Authors and historians Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross center their book on narratives of African American women to show how they’ve been instrumental in shaping the United States. The book also touches upon how Black women combat centuries of oppression, and how readers can continue their resistance to systemic racism and sexism today.
4. “Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America” by Candacy Taylor
- Goodreads: 4.20-star average rating, more than 750 ratings
According to Goodreads, the Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966 and listed hotels, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses that were safe for black travelers. This book celebrates the stories of those who put their names in the book and stood up against segregation, as well as discusses the progress that still needs to be made in regards to race relations in the U.S.
5. “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” by Peniel Joseph
- Goodreads: 4.28-star average rating, more than 500 ratings
This book covers the biographies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. While the two men represented contrasting ideals in their pursuits towards justice, author Peniel E. Joseph illustrates how they inspired each other throughout the movement they came to define.
6. “His Truth Is Marching on: John Lewis and the Power of Hope” by Jon Meacham and John Lewis (Afterward)
- Goodreads: 4.56-star average rating, more than 2,300 reviews
Through interviews with John Lewis and other historical accounts, author Jon Meacham tells the story of what inspired the congressman to dedicate his life to bettering the nation. The book also details how Lewis held onto hope even while risking his life and facing challenges.
7. “Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots” by Morgan Jerkins
- Goodreads: 4.03-star average rating, more than 890 reviews
In this book, author Morgan Jerkins seeks to understand her ancestors’ journey across America during the Great Migration. The author also discusses the displacement of black people across America between 1916 and 1970, and how impacts of that displacement can still be seen in society today.
8. “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” by Les Payne and Tamara Payne
- Goodreads: 4.32-star average rating, more than 680 ratings
Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Les Payne spent almost 30 years researching the life of Malcom X to write this biography. The author’s daughter, Tamara Payne, served as the book’s primary researcher, and she stepped in to complete the book following her father’s death. “The Dead Are Arising” won the 2020 National Book Award for nonfiction.
9. “Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” by Eddie Glaude Jr.
- Goodreads: 4.46-star average rating, more than 2,500 ratings
By analyzing James Baldwin's life story, activism and authored works, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. attempts to make sense of the race relations and tension currently present in America. The author considers the lessons the U.S.can learn from its past and how it can emerge from present-day divisions as a new country.
10. “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights” by Gretchen Sorin
- Goodreads: 4.25-star average rating, more than 300 ratings
Like “Overground Railroad,” this book focuses on the Green Book and how Black motorists relied on its guidance to keep them safe. Gretchen Sorin’s book also discusses how the car has always held importance for African Americans as it allowed them to escape racist society and enjoy what limited freedoms the open road offered them.