Here are some great historical fiction and non-fiction books that we would recommend for Black History Month or any time of the year. If we’ve reviewed the book in the past, the title is linked to the review.
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
Summary: A powerful and thought-provoking Civil Rights era memoir from one of America’s most celebrated poets.
Looking back on her childhood in the 1950s, Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Marilyn Nelson tells the story of her development as an artist and young woman through fifty eye-opening poems. Readers are given an intimate portrait of her growing self-awareness and artistic inspiration along with a larger view of the world around her: racial tensions, the Cold War era, and the first stirrings of the feminist movement.
A first-person account of African-American history, this is a book to study, discuss, and treasure. – Cover image and summary via IndieBound
Summary: Amari’s life was once perfect. Engaged to the handsomest man in her tribe, adored by her family, and living in a beautiful village, she could not have imagined everything could be taken away from her in an instant. But when slave traders invade her village and brutally murder her entire family, Amari finds herself dragged away to a slave ship headed to the Carolinas, where she is bought by a plantation owner and given to his son as a birthday present.
Survival seems all that Amari can hope for. But then an act of unimaginable cruelty provides her with an opportunity to escape, and with an indentured servant named Polly she flees to Fort Mose, Florida, in search of sanctuary at the Spanish colony. Can the elusive dream of freedom sustain Amari and Polly on their arduous journey, fraught with hardship and danger?
Summary: On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the dust settled, fifty were charged with mutiny, facing decades in jail and even execution. This is a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America’s armed forces during World War II, and a nuanced look at those who gave their lives in service of a country where they lacked the most basic rights.
Summary: Ida Mae Jones dreams of flight. Her daddy was a pilot and being black didn’t stop him from fulfilling his dreams. But her daddy’s gone now, and being a woman, and being black, are two strikes against her.
When America enters the war with Germany and Japan, the Army creates the WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots – and Ida suddenly sees a way to fly as well as do something significant to help her brother stationed in the Pacific. But even the WASP won’t accept her as a black woman, forcing Ida Mae to make a difficult choice of “passing,” of pretending to be white to be accepted into the program. Hiding one’s racial heritage, denying one’s family, denying one’s self is a heavy burden. And while Ida Mae chases her dream, she must also decide who it is she really wants to be.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014
Summary: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Puffin Books, 1976
Summary: Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year—the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she’s black—to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride—no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.
Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles by Tanya Lee Stone
Summary: World War II is raging, and thousands of American soldiers are fighting overseas against the injustices brought on by Hitler. Back on the home front, the injustice of discrimination against African Americans plays out as much on Main Street as in the military. Enlisted black men are segregated from white soldiers and regularly relegated to service duties. At Fort Benning, Georgia, First Sergeant Walter Morris’s men serve as guards at The Parachute School, while the white soldiers prepare to be paratroopers. Morris knows that for his men to be treated like soldiers, they have to train and act like them, but would the military elite and politicians recognize the potential of these men as well as their passion for serving their country? Tanya Lee Stone examines the role of African Americans in the military through the history of the Triple Nickles, America’s first black paratroopers, who fought in a little-known attack on the American West by the Japanese. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, in the words of Morris, “proved that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.”
Summary: A coming-of-age tale for young adults set in the trenches of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, this is the story of Perry, a Harlem teenager who volunteers for the service when his dream of attending college falls through. Sent to the front lines, Perry and his platoon come face-to-face with the Vietcong and the real horror of warfare. But violence and death aren’t the only hardships. As Perry struggles to find virtue in himself and his comrades, he questions why black troops are given the most dangerous assignments, and why the U.S. is there at all.
A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
HMH Books for Young Readers, 2005
Summary: In 1955, people all over the United States knew that Emmett Louis Till was a fourteen-year-old African American boy lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The brutality of his murder, the open-casket funeral, and the acquittal of the men tried for the crime drew wide media attention.
Award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson reminds us of the boy whose fate helped spark the civil rights movement. This martyr’s wreath, woven from a little-known but sophisticated form of poetry, challenges us to speak out against modern-day injustices, to “speak what we see.”
Summary:Coretta Scott King award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s great uncle was Lewis Micheaux, owner of the famous National Memorial African Bookstore. Located in the heart of Harlem, New York, from 1939 to 1975, Micheaux’s bookstore became the epicenter of black literary life and a rallying point for the Black Nationalist movement. Some of its famous and most loyal patrons include Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. DuBois. In this inspiring work of historical fiction, Nelson tells the true story of a man with a passion for knowledge and of a bookstore whose influence has become legendary.
March Book One (March #1) by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions, 2013
Summary: Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.
Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole).
March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.
X by Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon
Candlewick Press, 2015
Summary: I am Malcolm. I am my father’s son. But to be my father’s son means that they will always come for me. They will always come for me, and I will always succumb.
Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.
But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever.
X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.
*Unless otherwise noted, the cover images and summaries were from Goodreads