These are the top ten books that have shaped my understanding of race, through authors of color and exposition of issues like Black feminism and the history of racism in America. Now is a time to be having conversations, and choosing a book like this to read with your family, buy a friend as a gift, nominate for your book club, or choose to share with your students is an active move against the current climate of racism inherent in our culture. We’ve been moving forward, but we need to keep up that momentum and stay informed. I hope you enjoy these suggestions, and would love to hear your favorite educational books on race.
One: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I teach this wonderful book with my 11th graders, and the conversations about race are always positive and constructive. This book presents race like no other - every character is black; white people are peripheral. Janie’s story is not race related, it’s a human story. Oppression and circumstances of micro aggressions are everywhere, but the focus of the story is on Janie and her men, not the racist element. Too often in literature about or by black people, they focus on black people’s existence as a lesson or illustration of racism; they’re a device not a character. This incredible book is ALWAYS character driven. It is my favorite book by a person of color - Janie is my hero. I wrote my thesis on her and this book in college, about it’s a perfect representation of black feminism. It’s a book you can’t put down, I recommend it highly as you read and educate about the importance of the movement.
Two: Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks
“Women, all women, are accountable for racism continuing to divide us. Our willingness to assume responsibility for the elimination of racism need not be engendered by feelings of guilt, moral responsibility, victimization, or rage. It can spring from a heartfelt desire for sisterhood and the personal, intellectual realization that racism among women undermines the potential radicalism of feminism. It can spring from our knowledge that racism is an obstacle in our path that must be removed. More obstacles are created if we simply engage in endless debate as to who put it there.” - bell hooks
hooks is the authoritative expert, in my opinion, on the importance of feminism that is 1. ALWAYS intersectional (which means it takes into account the intersection of oppression black women, or immigrant women, or other women of color face as both women and POC) and 2. A benefit to men as well. Breaking up gender roles and limitations benefits everyone. I can’t recommend this book enough to everyone who wants to change the world. As we continue the fight for black lives, remember that the fight will be harder for black women because of their intersectional vulnerabilities (as POC and women). Don’t forget the importance of intersectional feminism in our fight for all Black lives.
Three: Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”
This is an incredibly moving classic. It tells the story of a black man’s attempt at the American Dream, working hard to get a better life for himself and start a family. The obstacles in his way are constant and often racially based. This book has the best example of racial uplift in modern literature. Racial uplift is a toxic mindset of some immigrants and people of color that believe you need to leave behind your culture and adopt white culture, names, language, fashion, etc. in order to be successful. The book’s illustration of the toxicity of racial uplift, the overlying theme of life the Invisible Man keeps facing - that “white is right” - will chill you to your core. This is a fantastic book that puts you in the perspective of someone fighting to keep their individuality and blackness, while also pursuing financial and romantic success.
Four: The Black Tulip by Alexander Dumas
I was SHOCKED to learn that Dumas, the 19th century historical fiction author famous for the Three Musketeers trilogy, was Black. At least one of his Musketeers were Black as well (likely Porthos ). I was especially frustrated that this was never mentioned in any classroom in HS or college, even when reading his works. This erasure of Black contributions to popular culture, ignoring their positive contributions to high culture, and claiming them as white needs to be righted. Dumas has diverse characters, including very strong women, and I think his experiences as a subjugated person gave him unique empathy in portraying authentic characters with no sexism or racism. Incredible.
I read this book for a book club group online, before learning Dumas was Black. Dumas has been on my TBR for years so I’m glad I finally got to read one of his works.
I loved the gruesome, horrific scenes of the first few chapters, and the tense tone of this otherwise very light, almost silly story of a tulip grower and Rosa. Rosa was an indomitable force, an awesome, strong female character I was happy featured very prominently. William of Orange’s appearances are great, and I really enjoyed Dumas’ characterization of this enigmatic historic figure.
This is a shorter book than The Three Musketeers, so if you’re curious to start into a Dumas, definitely start here. From what I’ve gathered in book club discussion, it’s a good representation of his works, so I’m very excited to read about D’Artagnan and crew soon!
Five: A History of White People by Nell Painter
Painter starts at the Ancient Greeks and takes you up through the development of Western (white) civilization, showing exactly how we got to where we are in America and globally with race identity and oppression. It is a history book, philosophy book, and sociology study all in one. She has a great written voice that makes it feel like you’re listening to a fantastic professor. This immensely readable book could replace most history texts - if I ever teach history I’ll be using excerpts at least! I highly recommend this to anyone not sure why racism is still a problem; and the people who say it’s not because “slavery was years ago get over it”. This book explains the depth, in our very foundations, of white privilege and systematic oppression.
6. Racist Culture by David Theo Goldberg
Goldberg is not Black, however he is South African and is a leading professor in the United States, “known for his work in critical race theory, the digital humanities, and the state of the university.” Because of the wide-reaching, sociological impact of his work and the way he ties race into education, particularly the bias of the humanities, and the internet curve, his book is unique and definitely worth reading to tie race understanding to the way it effects education on all levels, and how the internet fits into that equation.
Seven: On Intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw
Crenshaw first coined the term intersectional when referring to the combined oppressions of being a woman and a Black person in America. The issues of women of color are often ignored or pushed to the back burner, and Crenshaw brings them to the forefront in a fantastically readable and straightforward way.
Eight: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
This book is free on Spotify! Kendi also wrote “Antiracist”, a fantastic guide for white people on how we can change our individual life choices at home and work to be better for all Americans. The new edition coauthored with Jason Reynolds (White Fragility) is called Stamped and is not free, but I also recommend that one. I wanted to speak to Stamped from the Beginning here because it is currently free, so I hope you read it.
This book is a history lesson that answers a resounding “hell no” to the question, “but slavery was so long ago, racism is over right?” It explains the true depth of our systemic racism, essential understanding for living in America, in my opinion. I first noticed the difference of how we treat people of color after living in the Middle East, where POC are the majority. The confidence in POC and societal differences were astounding, and it’s because of this longstanding systemic problem that racism is still so affecting. Stamped from the Beginning is a great book that really helps you understand what our culture is like for people of color, and will build your empathy for POC.
Nine: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
This was an all campus read for my sophomore year, and we read it for Biology Seminar as well which was a surprisingly awesome class even for non-majors.
This book is a bit of biology and a bit of history. It's about the story of HeLa cells, the cervical cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks, a Black patient at Johns Hopkins in 1951. Her cells were taken to be grown in a culture, to study cell development. This was the first successful cell culture, and the results were unparalleled, leading to the discovery of cures, vaccines, treatments, and various developments for polio, syphilis, cloning, chemotherapy, and the mapping of genes. To this day, HeLa cells are found in almost every laboratory, from colleges to hospitals to research centers, and it was made possible by George Gey's research on Henrietta.
This is where the story gets interesting for people who don't like biology or science all too well.
Until the author, Rebecca Skloot, first heard about HeLa cells in high school, no one had been interested in the person behind them. Skloot embarked upon a journey over a decade long to find out not only the origins of the cells, but the surviving family of the patient -- I can't say donor, because these cells were taken not only without her consent, but she died never knowing it happened. Controversy and the legality of actions is a big part of this story, and it is truly a gripping read.
Half of the book is detailing Henrietta's life, death, and her family, and the relations Skloot had with them to write the book and get all the facts; the other half details the biological history of her cells, and the developments in medicine. The interesting parts is the role she played so unknowingly in the passage of many laws regarding informed consent and racial discrimination.
Much that keeps Americans alive today is because of what was taken from Henrietta Lacks, and her family can't even afford health insurance.
I think the New York Times summed it up perfectly saying, "this is the riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine," it’s a very moving story.
Ten: Incidents in the Life of a Slave a Girl by Harriet Jacobs
This is easily the most readable, impactful personal accounts of slavery I've ever read, and it is my favorite African American literature book. I would recommend this to anyone who wants an insight into the lives of slaves, particularly women. The experiences of Jacobs, whose father was her owner’s father, are unimaginable until you read her story.
Thank you for reading, I hope you find a book here that peaks your interest! I look forward to any suggestions from readers, as well. Let's keep the conversation going, everyone, and change the world.