Culturally Relevant

8 Essential Queer Black History Books

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Laura Sackton

Senior Contributor

Laura Sackton is a queer book nerd and freelance writer, known on the internet for loving winter, despising summer, and going overboard with extravagant baking projects. In addition to her work at Book Riot, she reviews for BookPage and AudioFile, and writes a weekly newsletter, Books & Bakes, celebrating queer lit and tasty treats. You can catch her on Instagram shouting about the queer books she loves and sharing photos of the walks she takes in the hills of Western Mass (while listening to audiobooks, of course).

Queer history is an essential part of Black history, and Black history is an essential part of queer history, so I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Black History month than by diving into some queer Black history. There is so much of it! Queer Black people have been a vital part of many of the most monumental moments in Black and queer history, from the civil rights movement to Stonewall. And while there aren’t as many specifically queer Black history books as there are more general Black history books, there are still a lot. The ones I’ve selected here are just a small sampling.

These eight books are a blend of biographies, academic and general histories, and oral history anthologies. Most of them focus on the second half of the 20th century, though a few dip into earlier history. I’ve tried to include a range of books that represent a range of Black queer identities, but, of course, this list is only a starting point. And since reading Black books is absolutely not something we just do in February, I hope that these books act as doorways into a yearlong project of reading and exploring Black queer history. I know that’s what I’ll be doing!

Cover of Black on Both Sides

Black on Both Sides by C. Riley Snorton

In this comprehensive book, C. Riley Snorton traces the histories of both Black and trans identities, examining their intersections, and the many ways in which history, literature, and pop culture have erased Black trans people from the conversation. He shares stories of Black trans people throughout the 20th century and offers thoughtful analysis of various texts, films, and other media. This book skews academic, but it’s an important and worthwhile read, one worth spending some time with.

Cover of Black. Queer. Southern. Women.

Black. Queer. Southern. Women. by E. Patrick Johnson

This beautiful collection of oral histories includes the stories of over 70 queer Black women living in the South. Johnson’s careful, generous approach allows for the voices of Black queer Southern women to shine through loud and clear. Their stories are about struggle and joy, queer family and community, resistance and faith, power and desire. It’s a rich collection, and a reminder that queer Southerners have always been here, even when, too often, queer history renders them invisible.

Mouths of Rain cover

Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought Edited by Briona Simone Jones

For anyone looking for a history-adjacent book, and anyone interested in delving more deeply into the intersections of Blackness, queerness, and feminism, this volume of writing by and about Black lesbians is a must-read. It includes the work of some of the most prominent 20th century Black queer and lesbian writers, including Audre Lorde and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, as well as work from some lesser-known but equally important writers.

Cover of Not Straight, Not White

Not Straight, Not White by Kevin J. Mumford

Historian Kevin J. Mumford recounts the history of Black gay men in the later half of the 20th century, focusing on the 1950s through the 1990s. He explores the roles that Black gay men have played in the major social movements of that time, including the Black power movement, gay liberation, AIDS activism, and civil rights. It’s a comprehensive history that illuminates both the contributions Black gay men have made throughout history, as well as the ways in which mainstream movements have not always made space for their intersecting identities.

Looking for Lorraine cover

Looking for Lorraine by Imani Perry

If you’re looking for a good biography — even if you don’t often read biographies — this is a stellar one. Though she was most famous for her play A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry was a complicated woman, activist, and artist, who fought for social change throughout her life. Drawing on Hansberry’s writing and other archival materials, Perry paints a portrait of a visionary artist and queer woman whose legacy lives on today.

Cover of Lost Prophet

Lost Prophet by John D’Emilio

I read this book in my early 20s and I can still remember how it felt to learn about this monumental civil rights leader, the main organizer behind the March on Washington — and a person I had never once heard about in school. Bayard Rustin’s activism has not been largely overshadowed by other, more famous civil rights leaders, partly due to his sexuality. This is a comprehensive account of his life, as well as a great analysis of why it’s taken so long for him to be recognized, especially in the civil rights history taught in schools.

The-New-Negro-by-Jeffrey-Stewart book cover

The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart

Are you looking for a winter reading project? This 900+ page biography of intellectual, scholar, and professor Alain Locke, best known for his vital role in the Harlem Renaissance and the many Black authors and artists he mentored, is definitely a project. But it’s a fascinating one, as Stewart doesn’t only offer a nuanced look into Locke’s personal and professional life, but extends his lens outward to the times in which Locke lived, turning this work into a history of Black art, intellectualism, and aesthetics throughout the 20th century.

Cover of Miss Major Speaks

Miss Major Speaks by Miss Major with Toshio Meronek

I’ve stuck with mostly histories and biographies, but I could not leave this new autobiography off the list. Trans elder Miss Major has played a major role in Black and queer social justice movements. Her involvement in the Stonewall Riots is legendary, but she has also been instrumental in fighting for sex workers’ rights and AIDS activism. In this book, she shares all the wisdom she’s gained over the years, with warmth, humor, and generosity.

Looking for more queer books to celebrate Black History Month? Check out these must-read Black authors of LGBTQ+ books and this wonderfully massive list of Black queer books from 2021.