Although I hope bibliophiles keep books by black writers on their bookshelves and TBRs, Black History Month is always the perfect time to read a book or three written by a black person. During February, we are often inundated with the same facts about Harriet Tubman freeing slaves, Rosa Parks taking a seat, and Martin Luther King Jr. having a dream. However, this is a myopic view of black history. Although slavery and the Civil Rights Movement are important events that heavily influence the black American experience, black history is not just the past. It is the present in which we live and the future we strive to create. The best way to better understand the experience of being black in America is to listen to black people when we share our stories. Below is a list of 20 memoirs that tell what it means to be black in America. These black American memoirs provide personal stories, political and social commentary, and historical context because black history is American history.
12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup was a free man born and raised in New York living the American dream with a house, a wife, and two children until he his drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. 12 Years a Slave is Northup’s account of the years he spent in the deep south before he was able to reach his friends and family. Despite the memoir’s commercial success, Northup earned little and his ultimate fate is still a mystery. The last mention of him was in a Canadian newspaper in 1857, and it is suspected that money woes forced Northup to become a vagabond.
Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Paul Coates was a Vietnam veteran, a former Black Panther, a one-man publishing company of African American literature, and a professor at Howard University. Above all else, he was a father with the sole mission of raising sons in West Baltimore during the Crack Era. Beautiful Struggle follows the divergent paths of Ta-Nehisi, the spacey and sensitive son, and Big Bill, the charismatic son who is always ready for a challenge, through this turbulent period of black boys trying to become black men in America.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Becoming is the bestselling and inspirational memoir from America’s first black first lady. In this intimate reflection, Michelle Obama chronicles the experiences that shaped her life from her childhood in the South Side of Chicago to her years as a young executive trying to juggle the demands of both work and motherhood along with the near decade she spent at the White House.
Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It by Charlamagne Tha God
Self-proclaimed “Prince of Pissing People Off,” Charlamagne Tha God takes his professional trolling from radio to literature. In his first book, Charlamagne shares his journey from a small town in South Carolina to headline-grabbing interviewer along with his eight principles to unlocking your God-given privilege including “There are no losses in life, only lessons,” “When you live your truth, no one can use it against you,” and “We all have privilege, we just need to access it.”
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
The Cooking Gene is part memoir and part history lesson and explores topics like genealogy, chattel slavery, sexuality, gender, and religion. Southern food is integral to American cuisine, but the question of who “owns” this culinary tradition is a divisive cultural issue. Twitty brings readers to the center of this fight as he traces the roots of his family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and other Southern cuisine.
Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice
Before Condoleezza Rice became the first black woman to serve as Secretary of State, she was a young girl living in Birmingham, Alabama under Jim Crow where black citizens were expected to keep their heads down and to do as they were told or face violent consequences. However, through the love and support of her parents, Rice developed her love for politics, sports, and the fine arts that helped her achieve greatness against seemingly insurmountable odds. In Extraordinary, Ordinary People, Rice shares her journey from Birmingham to the White House.
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones
In this coming-of-age memoir, Saeed Jones tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the American South who must fight to carve out his place within his family, within his country, and even within himself. Through a series of vignettes, Jones charts the course of his life across the American landscape from his boyhood in Texas and Tennessee to his pursuit of higher education in Kentucky and New Jersey.
I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying: Essays by Bassey Ikpi
In her remarkable memoir, Ikpi explores her life as a Nigerian American immigrant through the lens of her mental health and ultimate diagnosis of anxiety and bipolar II. Through intimate access, Bassey shows how mental health impacts every aspect of our lives from how we appear to others and to ourselves to what it means to be “normal.”
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
From the breakout star of Girls Trip comes a hilarious and brutally honest collection of essays who learned to survive by making people laugh. The Last Black Unicorn shows the Tiffany Haddish who is humble, down-to-earth, but still funny as hell as she shares stories of growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles to becoming a household name.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
In her debut memoir, Issa Rae humorously chronicles her life through a series of anecdotes where she opens up about her personal struggle with not feeling “black enough” at times, learning how to accept herself (natural hair and all), deflecting unsolicited comments about weight gain, and other general woes associated with being unabashedly awkward, introverted, and black.
More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) by Elaine Welteroth
Elaine Welteroth has climbed the ranks of media and fashion, shattering ceilings along the way. In 2016, Welteroth was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue. She was only the second black editor in chief for a Condé Nast publication in its over 100 history. In her memoir More Than Enough, Elaine Welteroth unpacks profound lessons on race, identity, and breaking barriers across several intersections. As a young boss and often being the only black woman in the room, Welteroth has had enough of the world telling her she is not enough. As she learns to rely on herself through inward reflection, Welteroth reminds us all that we are more than enough.
My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas
Spanning Thomas’s life from early childhood to his time in law school as well as his career in government including his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Readers also get a more intimate look into Thomas’s divorce from his first wife, his evolution to conservatism, and his previously unknown struggle with alcohol. While Thomas’s memoir was praised for its frank tone and style, it was criticized for being too partisan for a sitting Supreme Court Justice.
My Soul Looks Back by Jessica B. Harris
My Soul Looks Back is more than a memoir on friendship and first love. It is also a carefully crafted homage to a bygone era and the people who made it remarkable. In the Technicolor glow of New York City in the early 1970s, Harris danced, debated, and celebrated with illustrious friends like James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison who she was introduced to through her relationship with Baldwin’s best friend, Sam Floyd.
Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir by Dorothy Height
Dorothy Height marched in civil rights rallies, sat through tense White House meetings, and witnessed both the victories and the struggles in the fight for racial equality. However, as a woman among powerful and charismatic men, she received little mainstream recognition until the 1990s when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In Open Wide the Freedom Gates, Height reflects on her life of service and leadership in the black community.
In this profound and courageous memoir, Janet Mock shares her experience of growing up poor, multiracial, and trans in America and offers insight into the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of this marginalized and misunderstood population. The book opens in 2009 when she starts to tell her boyfriend she is transgender then moves into the story of her childhood before returning to 2009.
Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Soul on Ice is a collection of essays Cleaver wrote while in prison for sexual assault and marijuana possession. The essays are divided into four thematic sections: “Letters from Prison” where Cleaver describes his experiences and thoughts on crimes and prisons; “Blood of the Beast,” which is about race relations and the ideology for black liberation; “Prelude to Love—Three Letters,” the love letters between Cleaver and his attorney Beverly Axelrod; and “White Woman, Black Men” where Cleaver explores gender relations, black masculinity, and sexuality. This raw and searingly honest memoir outraged, shocked and ultimately helped to change how America viewed the Civil Rights Movement and the black experience.
Walking with the Muses: A Memoir by Pat Cleveland
Through a combination of luck, beauty, and enviable style, Pat Cleveland became one of the first black supermodels and found herself in the center of the creative, elegant, and bohemian glamor of the 1970s New York fashion scene. In Walking with the Muses, Cleveland provides a glimpse into 50 years of fashion history through her own personal journey as she evolved from a shy teenager to a chameleon on the catwalk who was the toast of the town in Paris.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young
Damon Young, one half of Very Smart Brothas, believes being black is an extreme sport. In this collection of essays, Young chronicles his efforts to survive in America while possessing black skin and battling the various neuroses this country has given him with thought-provoking humor.
The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis
In 1958, Fannie Davis, a young mother from Nashville, Tennessee, borrowed $100 from her brother to start a home-based numbers racket business. Fannie ran this business for 34 years and did whatever it took to keep the business going and provide a prosperous life for her family. The World According to Fannie Davis is a loving daughter’s homage to an extraordinary parent who made a way out of no way in order to give her family a better life.
The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Bloom
In The Yellow House, Bloom tells the 100-year history of her family and their relationship to their shotgun house in the neighborhood of New Orleans East. In 1961, Bloom’s mother, Ivory Mae bought The Yellow House during the height of the Space Race in a neighborhood with a major NASA plant. In 2005, it was wiped off the map following Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House is the unforgettable memoir about the pull of home and family as well as a brilliant narrative on class, race, inequality, and the internalized shame that binds them.