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12 Must-read Books for Black History Month

Illustrated by Hale Woodruff for Talladega College

This month the world celebrates Black History with its dark chapters and glory days. For those of you who crave insight and escapism, we have selected 12 books ranging from brutally candid memoirs to award-winning fiction based on actual events that bring history alive!

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Image credit: Edwin Longsden

Written in the 1850s, Uncle Tom's Cabin is considered one of the most controversial books in American Literature. Some historians claim that Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe as 'the little lady' who started the great Civil War. Greatly influenced by Charles Dickens, Stowe skillfully disguises anti-slavery propaganda as a children’s book. This novel unashamedly reveals the ugly face of slavery with its corruptive effect it has on slaves and their owners and appeals to the reader’s sense of justice. The novel caused quite a stir provoking an avalanche of mixed reactions from Southern and Northern readers.

The Wedding by Dorothy West

Image credit: Guy D'Alema for ABC

Set in mid-twentieth century, the novel offers a glimpse into African American “blue-vein society” of Massachusetts. The Wedding is more than a love story. It encapsulates the rise of the black middle-class by illustrating the evolution of the Coles Family. Dorothy West, a consummate storyteller, paints a vivid picture of a struggle of black community to shake off the prejudice against class and race. Heartfelt and hard to put down, the story will make you question everything you know about social inequality.

Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States by Work Projects Administration

Image credit: HBO

If you have ever wondered how it must have felt to live as a slave in the South? Then this book might hold the key. This little known literary treasure follows the lives of slaves before the abolition. Some first-hand memoirs contain shocking revelations about sexual abuse and indignity that household staff have to endure, others describe the kindness and humanity of slave masters. These deeply moving narratives are bound to change your perception of freedom.

The Book of American Negro Poetry Edited by James Weldon Johnson

Image credit: A. Bell Bookfeller Publisher

One of the earliest collections of Black American poetry, the book was edited by James Weldon Johnson. The author of ‘Black National Anthem’ Lift Every Voice and Sing believed that ‘the final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.’ Filled with religious motifs and mythological allusions, the topics range from struggle for survival and injustice to celebration of freedom.

An Anti-Slavery Crusade; A Chronicle of the Gathering Storm by Jesse Macy

Image credit: Amelia Opie

Written by the noted political scientist Jesse Macy, the chronicle documents the events of anti-slavery movement. In this clear and concise survey, the author brings his unusual perspective on slavery and abolition in America, which can be summed up in the following quote: ‘Rather than see men wearing their chains in a cowardly and servile spirit, I would, as an advocate of peace, much rather see them breaking the heads of the tyrant with their chains’. The book also uncovers the most unsavoury facts including domestic slave trade as well as preference for young slaves aged 10-25 described as ‘disgraceful and demoralising in its influence’. A real eye-opener!

My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass

Image credit: Juneteenth Books

My Bondage and My Freedom represents a first-hand account of a personal transformation from being a slave to fugitive to reformer. One of the most powerful voices of the civil rights movement of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass meditates about the power of faith and literacy, racial discrimination and the meaning of freedom. Moreover, emotionally charged excerpts from the writer’s speeches as well as the heartfelt letter Douglass wrote to his former master add authenticity and depth to the book.

By Reef and Palm by Louis Becke

Image credit: William McDowell

This fine collection of 14 short stories was inspired by the author’s adventures in the South Seas. The common thread that ties all tales together is an intermarriage between white traders and native women. Set on various Polynesian islands, the stories explore the complexity of interracial union, which was universally condemned at that time. In this powerful tales, George Lewis Becke disspells the myths of white gods and tribal savages by highlighting tragic brutality, jealousy and lack of personal commitment.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs- Amazon

Image credit: Christiaen van Couwenbergh

Published in 1861, the autobiography portrays the turbulent life of an enslaved black girl and her fight for survival. Having been subjected to sexual exploitation by her master, Harriet Jacobs puts a stop to cruelty and escapes North Carolina.The author describes with brutal honesty the horrid incidents involving callous attitude of white men toward slaves, where instinct-driven behaviour overrides any sense of humanity. Despite the painful memories and long 7 years spent hiding in a cramped attic, Harriet’s manages to built life for herself as a free woman.

The House Behind The Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt

Image credit: Unknown

The House Behind the Cedars is a groundbreaking novel, which examines the Southern obsession with race and social injustice. The story centres on a brother and sister who ‘pass for white’ in a society where a “one drop” mentality predominates. Interestingly, the author himself was a light-skinned black man, which allowed him to influence both parts of the divided society. Fast-paced and enthralling historical fiction novel is a real treat to all fans of this genre.

The Blacker The Berry by Wallace Thurman

Image credit: Collier Publisher

Best known for its controversial nature, this quintessential work of the Harlem Renaissance openly criticises the prejudice within the African American community. Set in Idaho, the novel follows the life of Emma Lou Brown, who faces hostility and humiliation from her fairer-skinned friends. The bigotry takes its toll on her love life and relationships crushing her dreams and illusions. Thurman was the first writer to address the issues related to skin color by presenting colorism as shameful and self-defeatist in the hope of breaking down barriers and stereotypes.

Corregidora by Gayl Jones

Image credit: Beacon Press

This disturbing and poignant novel tells the story of Ursa Corregidora, who is haunted by ghosts from her past. The Blues singer, struggles with her own sexuality, her womanhood and is forced to bear witness to the horrible history of rape, torture and enslavement that her ancestors instil in her. Corregidora offers a ‘brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of black men and women’. This tale of a woman’s struggle to find her own identity will leave no heart untouched!

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Image credit: Simon and Schuster

An impeccably researched and heart-clenching novel portrays the events that led a 13-year old Isabel to fight for her freedom during the Revolutionary War. A slave to Locktons, a family that condemns the American Revolution, Isabella turns to patriots, who encourage her to spy on her owners in the hope of gaining access to British plans for invasion. A tale of hard choices and determination, the book explores the lengths we are prepared to go to shake off the chains.

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