The College Board releases a stripped-down version of its AP course in African American Studies. Florida’s State Board of Education bans the teaching of so-called critical race theory. Books by Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison are removed from classrooms and library shelves.
Everywhere you look, it seems the study and teaching of Black history is under attack. Which must mean that the scholars who have explored, expanded, and deepened that history in recent years are having a profound—and necessary—impact on how we understand the story of America. Here are 10 standout titles, all of them starred by PW, that deserve a place on your bookshelf.
1. All That She Carried: The History of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles
Winner of the National Book Award, this exquisite history centers on a cloth sack packed in 1852 by an enslaved woman named Rose for her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley, when the girl was sold to a new master in South Carolina. It’s a treasure trove of insight into Black family life in America.
2. Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad by Matthew F. Delmont
In this revelatory account of Black Americans’ contributions to the U.S. war effort in WWII, Dartmouth history professor Delmont reveals the role Black newspapers played in calling out the dangers of fascism and the affect Black soldiers’ experiences had on their commitment to fighting for racial justice at home. It’s an eloquent and essential corrective to the historical record.
3. How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
In this moving and perceptive survey of landmarks that reckon, or fail to reckon, with the legacy of slavery in America, Atlantic staff writer Smith visits Monticello plantation, Angola prison, the annual Juneteenth Festival in Galveston, Tex., and more.
4. Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality by Tomiko Brown-Nagin
Among other remarkable achievements, lawyer and judge Constance Baker Motley helped devise the NAACP’s winning legal strategy in Brown v. Board of Education and ruled on a landmark gender discrimination case against the New York Yankees. Brilliantly balancing the details of Motley’s professional and personal life with lucid legal analysis, this riveting biography shines a well-deserved—and long overdue—spotlight on a remarkable trailblazer.
5. By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners by Margaret A. Burnham
This searing study of the everyday violence visited upon Black families in the Jim Crow South is drawn from the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project’s database of more than 1,000 racially motivated homicides. The result is a vital reckoning of the legacies of white terror and Black resistance.
6. A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib
With razor-sharp insight and luminous prose, Abdurraqib shines a light on how Black artists have shaped—and been shaped by—American culture, from Josephine Baker’s life as a spy through performances by Dave Chappelle and magician Ellen Armstrong.
7. The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family by Kerri K. Greenidge
This fascinating family biography examines the tensions between white privilege and Black freedom through the story of abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angeline Grimke, who discovered after the Civil War that their slaveholding brother had fathered three sons by an enslaved woman. From the antebellum era through the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, Greenidge’s portraits of white and Black members of the Grimke family provide crucial insights into America’s racial traumas.
8. The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcom X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne
The man behind the icon is revealed in this monumental, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X. Based on 30 years of research and hundreds of interviews with Malcom X’s contemporaries, it tracks the activist’s journey from teenage pot dealer to the top ranks of the Nation of Islam and solves one of the key mysteries behind his 1965 assassination.
9. We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power by Caleb Gayle
This illuminating study interweaves sharp character sketches, incisive history lessons, and Gayle’s autobiographical reflections to uncover the forgotten story of Black Creeks, members of Creek Nation who were “both fully Black and fully Creek,” and how the pressures of white supremacy and settler colonialism led to their disenfranchisement from the tribe in 1979.
10. African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Freedom by David Hackett Fischer
Profiling Massachusetts poet Phillis Wheatley, Muslim master bricklayer Yarrow Marmout, Texas cowboy Matthew “Bones” Hooks, and hundreds of other people of African descent who made vital contributions to American history and culture, this milestone study casts the nation’s origin story in an astonishing new light.