Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy is the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who represents those who have been wrongly accused of crimes. While the book spans Stevenson’s entire career in law, the primary focus is on Walter McMillian, a Black man who was put on death row for a murder he did not commit. His accuser was a white man who was trying to strike a deal with local law enforcement to escape punishment for his own crimes by “solving” a recent murder that outraged the small town. Local law enforcement immediately latched on to his story about McMillian, even though Walter McMillian had dozens of alibis on the day of the murder. When Stevenson became involved in the McMillian case, Walter was already on death row. Stevenson sought to reveal the cover ups and corruption that defined the case, and before long, he was receiving bomb threats at the office. Just Mercy will give you an appreciation for those who represent the underrepresented in the court of law.
Autobiography of Malcolm X, told to Alex Haley. Malcolm X’s autobiography is a story of metamorphosis. Malcolm’s youth was characterized by adversity. Brilliant, but with few options in life and no one to look for him, Malcolm turned to crime in Harlem and Boston, driven only by his survival instinct. When Malcolm is sent to prison, he encounters the Nation of Islam. He not only has a new faith, but a new way of seeing himself apart from the narrative of white supremacy. He becomes an activist and a scholar and drops the surname of Little inherited from white slave holders. As Malcolm becomes more influential, his fellow leaders in the Nation of Islam turn against him. What stuck with me was how many times Malcolm, when presented with new information, was willing to change his mind and become a better version of himself. In our current age of misinformation, I feel like we could all be a bit more like Malcolm, looking for truth and not dismissing information that conflicts with our beliefs. His fascinating life story is enhanced by an amazing memory for detail, and the reader feels like they are really there through Malcolm’s zoot suit and clubbing phase, his hustling days in Harlem, and the civil rights movement of the sixties. Highly recommended.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot*. It wasn’t until I began working at the School of Public Health at a major Midwestern university that I learned about the dark side of medical research in the U.S. While I probably read about the Tuskegee syphilis study at some point in a U.S. history class, it would have likely been in a sidebar of a history book. On the whole, I didn’t realize just how much medical research had been done on both people of color and on incarcerated populations without informed consent. Prior to the National Research Act of 1974, research studies could violate the elements of Nuremberg code without penalty. The case of Henrietta Lacks is just one example. Henrietta Lacks was a young Black wife and mother diagnosed with cervical cancer in the early fifties. Unknown to Lacks and her family, her cells were taken for research. Her cells, known as HeLa to scientists, were unusual for their “immortality.” Harvested HeLa cells were used in various scientific research projects that earned millions, but Lacks herself was buried in an unmarked grave and her surviving family couldn’t afford health insurance. Author Rebecca Skloot, along with the family of Henrietta Lacks, sought to bring awareness to this case and to the health inequities that people of color continue to experience.
The Hate U Give (YA) by Angie Thomas. Starr Carter lives in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood where neighbors take care of each other and gang violence affects everyone’s lives no matter how hard they try to avoid it, and she also attends a mostly white school, Williamson Prep. She has friends in each world, but they never mix, and she prefers to keep it that way. When Starr attends a party that turns violent, she leaves with her childhood friend, Khalil. On the way home, Khalil is pulled over for a broken taillight. Pulled out of the car by an aggressive cop, Khalil is treated like a criminal, and when he opens the door to ask Starr if she is all right, the cop assumes Khalil is reaching for a gun and shoots him in the back, killing him. After Khalil’s murder, Starr cooperates with the police in the investigation, but quickly realizes they are not interested in investigating the cop but in investigating Khalil and Starr. Soon, Starr is no longer able to keep quiet, learning that she can only honor Khalil’s life by becoming his voice.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Mallard, Louisiana is a town full of self-loathing, and the Vignes twins dream of escape. Like the rest of Mallard, Desiree and Stella are Black but appear white. The residents of Mallard are very proud of their light skin, but it does not protect them from racism or even lynching. As small girls, the twins witness the lynching of their own father, and this event defines how each twin views race and her own appearance. At sixteen, the girls run away to New Orleans, but Stella soon leaves her twin to begin her new life as a white woman. Desiree marries a man so dark skinned he would never be accepted in Mallard, while Stella marries a white man and lives in fear of discovery. Each twin has a daughter, and in early adulthood, the girls meet in late seventies Los Angeles. The Vanishing Half is a complex examination of identity, belonging, and the effects of racism.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. When Caesar invites Cora to run away from the Randall plantation, she initially says no, but then she remembers her mother Mabel, who was the only enslaved person to successfully run away from the Randalls. Caesar and Cora join the underground railroad, which is a literal underground train in this novel, and they must stay two steps ahead of the infamous slave catcher, Ridgeway, at all times. Cora finds each state to be a completely different world. Her birth state of Georgia is a land of misery and evil landowners; South Carolina wears a progressive face, but it has secrets; North Carolina is a nightmare police state with a hanging tree in the town square, where children turn in their parents to the gallows and neighbors turn on neighbors; etc. This novel is original and expertly crafted. I read a lot of books, and most of them blur in my head afterwards, and this is a book that you remember years after first reading.
*While author Rebecca Skloot herself is not Black, I am including her book in this list as it is very appropriate for Black History Month.