I am often asked by readers interested in gaining a better basic understanding of racial issues and/or African-American history if I will compile a reading list for them. So here you go. The 16 books below represent my best effort to do so.
A couple of caveats: this not a list of the “greatest” or “most important" books in African-American lore. So you won’t find W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” or Carter G. Woodson’s “Miseducation of the Negro” here. No “Beloved” by Toni Morrison or "Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, either. Nor is this a list designed to celebrate the significant men and women of African-American history. So you will find no biographies or autobiographies of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Sojourner Truth.
No, my aim here was simply to produce a list of books which, if read, would help the reader to understand who African-American people are and how we got this way. And those books, listed in no particular order, are as follows:
“Before The Mayflower” by Lerone Bennett, Jr. (an excellent overall history; Bennett’s writing is a righteous fire.)
“From Slavery To Freedom” by John Hope Franklin (another good overall history; a little stuffy and academic for my taste, but very authoritative.)
“Been In The Storm So Long” by Leon F. Litwack (an excellent book on the slaves during and immediately after the Civil War.)
“Trouble In Mind” by Leon F. Litwack (a powerful account of the violent construction of Jim Crow America.)
“The Bloody Shirt” by Stephen Budiansky (a riveting revisiting of the lawless reign of terror that gripped the South immediately after the Civil War.)
"The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson (the untold story of how the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South reshaped America.)
"This Was Harlem” by Jervis Anderson (a gossipy primer on the Harlem Renaissance; a fun read.)
“The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter (yes, it is a doorstop of a book and not an easy read, but it will upend everything you think you know about what race is.)
“Working Toward Whiteness” and “How Race Survived U.S. History” by David Roediger (like Painter’s book, these two will profoundly challenge your conception of what race means and how it has been constructed and exploited in America.)
“Slavery By Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon (an eye-opening account of how the convict leasing system extended slavery until after the Second World War.)
“Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin (the true story of a white man who makes himself into a black man to see what it’s like to live inside that skin in the South of the late 1950s.)
"Parting The Waters,” “Pillar of Fire” and “At Canaan’s Edge,” by Taylor Branch (the exhaustive trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement.)
“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander (this game-changing work makes the compelling and provocative case that the so-called “War on Drugs” functions as nothing less than a new racial caste system in America.)