Black History Month Reading List

Black History Month Reading List

Nonfiction

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.

Fiction

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.

Summer Reading List, 2021

Summer Reading List, 2021

The Puma Years by Laura Coleman (memoir)



After quitting a series of jobs, twenty-something Laura Coleman decides to backpack in Bolivia. Growing lonely in her travels, she volunteers at a wildlife sanctuary in the Amazon that rehabilitates animals who were rescued from zoos and illegal pet trades. Initially her goal is to not quit before her three months are up, but the questionable living conditions and Hagrid the outhouse-dwelling giant spider test her resolution and her fellow volunteers predict the shy and bookish Laura won’t last. Then Laura is assigned to work with Wayra, a tempestuous puma who longs to be wild even as she has no idea how to be wild. In attempting to rescue Wayra, Laura rescues herself and finds a passion for animal rights and environmental justice.

Coleman is an excellent writer. She portrays both the beautiful and the grotesque so vividly that you feel that you are there in Bolivia with her. I picked this book almost whimsically (“Pretty cover! I want to read a book set in South America!”), but it was a joy to watch Laura move from being a shy recent university graduate disillusioned with adulthood to a strong woman passionate about environmental justice who trusts herself to make a difference. I definitely had “What am I even doing with my life?” thoughts while reading this. I strongly recommend this memoir. Some scenes are a bit gritty, as Coleman does not romanticise the Amazon, but much of it is beautiful. And you will definitely love Wayra as much as Coleman does.

Disclosure: I received a free Kindle copy through Amazon First Reads.


The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (novel)

1983: Kendra Rae Phillips should have been on top of the world. A rising star at Wagner Books, Kendra is the editor of the book of the year, Burning Heart. Written by a Black woman and edited by another Black woman, Burning Heart is all that the literary world can speak about. But Kendra becomes involved in a scandal and flees her life in New York City, disappearing from public life altogether.

2018: Editorial assistant Nella Rogers pursued and acquired a job at Wagner Books to follow in the footsteps of Kendra Rae Phillips, her role model. Once there, she is disappointed by the lack of diversity. She is the only Black employee and people seem to get nervous when Kendra Rae’s name comes up. Nella gets involved with diversity initiatives, only to learn that no one wants to participate. When Hazel is hired to be newest editorial assistant, Nella is grateful to no longer be the only Black employee. While Hazel seems friendly, Nella begins to suspect her work is being sabotaged as Hazel quickly becomes the most sought after employee at Wagner.

This debut novel is fabulous. I kept anxiously trying to work out the twist to this novel because I knew there had to be a big one. Well, there was a big twist, and the hints to the twist are present very early on, but I went down the wrong path entirely because I read too many Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley books, and this is definitely not one of those books. Initially, it’s a bit Mean Girls in an office setting and addresses everything from the politics of natural hair to code switching to half-hearted workplace diversity initiatives. And the ending cannot be called anything but horror. Its clever and page-turning and it’s unlike anything else I have read.

Disclosure: Purchased my own copy.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (novel)

Every August, the four Riva siblings, estranged children of musician Mick Riva, hold a large party. In 1983, the Riva siblings await the party with a combination of dread and hope. Nina, a surfer/supermodel and the eldest of the Riva family, has been in all of the tabloids after being left by her tennis pro husband and is in no mood to have half of Malibu in her home. Jay is putting all of his attention into making sure his love interest attends, if only to distract himself from news he’d rather not think about. Hud is dreading telling Jay a secret that could destroy their close relationship. And Kit is determined to solve the problem of her non-existent love life for good. If sibling drama is not enough, an abundance of drugs ensures the 1983 guests are the rowdiest bunch yet, and by morning, the entire mansion is in flames.

Taylor Jenkins Reid books are pretty much the definition of a beach read. Glamorous characters, glamorous situations, yet well written enough to deserve your time. And I believe Malibu Rising may be her best yet. It’s about how fame and money changed both a family and Malibu. The story spans from the fifties when Mick Riva met June, the mother of the siblings, in Malibu when it was just a simple fishing village that considered itself far from the glamour and money of Hollywood to the eighties when the Hollywood elite had long since descended upon Malibu.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the Riva siblings less obnoxiously privileged than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, they are privileged and I initially took a strong dislike to everyone but the feisty Kit. But while the Rivas are quite rich and accomplished in 1983, they were abandoned by their famous father and had to make their own way. They did inherit a struggling restaurant after the death of their mother, which ensured their survival, even though they were too young to effectively run it. In reading about their upbringing, I loved all of the siblings, especially Nina who was the default mother of the family.

Disclosure: Purchased my own copy.

The Guncle by Steven Rowley (novel)

At age forty-three, Patrick is a retired sitcom actor who lives alone in Palm Springs. He has a Golden Globe and an Oscar Wilde quote for every occasion. What Patrick does not have is experience with children, and he is a stranger to his niece and nephew who simply know him as GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick). When Patrick’s sister-in-law and best friend, Sara, passes away, and his brother goes into rehab for a pill addiction that went unnoticed during Sara’s battle with cancer, Patrick finds himself temporary primary caregiver for nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant. Given that the kids don’t drink martinis, he’s not quite sure how to bond with them, and he definitely doesn’t know how to help them with their grief given that he has never recovered from losing his own partner years before. There are missteps and careless words aplenty, but Patrick finds he was made to be a guncle.

The Guncle is one of those books that seems like a fluffy beach read on first glance. And it is very much a beach read, but it isn’t overly fluffy. At risk of sounding odd, what this reminded me of was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Plot wise, they are very different books, but in tone, they are more similar than dissimilar. Both books are laugh out loud funny, and both contain isolated main characters who have very little filter in what they say. However, both books deal seriously with loss and trauma and are set apart by their excellent characterization and writing.

Disclosure: I purchased my own copy.