February once again rings in Black History Month, and while ideally we’re all reading diversely year round, now is the perfect time to finally dig into—or revisit—some literary touchstones that should be basic building blocks for any well-read book nerd. From old school Angelou to the modern word of Coates, here are six timeless and timely must-reads that will have you reexamining American history through a sharp new lens.
Between the World And Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Atlantic correspondent Coates earned the National Book Award—along with countless other accolades—for this slim but profound book, a riveting and incredibly timely cultural critique and personal narrative delivered in the form of letters to his young son. Touching on moments both significant and small, Coates addresses race, politics, class, violence, and other cultural ideas while asking and exploring questions that may not quite have answers yet. Evocative and thought-provoking, Coates’ modern-day exploration of what it means to be black will have you rethinking the world.
The Black Presidency, by Michael Eric Dyson
As President Obama wraps up his storied eight-year career in the Oval Office, take a look back at the tenure of America’s first black president in this critical take by Dr. Dyson, a sociologist and scholar at Georgetown who has written extensively about Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and other prominent black Americans. Featuring a riveting, incisive interview with Obama himself, counterbalanced by viewpoints from Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others, this is a pull-no-punches examination of the role of race in Obama’s presidency—the strides made, and the setbacks, too.
And Still I Rise: Black America Sing MLK, by Henry Louis Gates and Kevin M. Burke
An illustrated companion to the PBS documentary curated by Harvard historian Gates, this is a vivid, photo-driven year-by-year look at the recent history of the civil rights movement from Martin Luther King and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to #BlackLivesMatter, and including, of course, the unprecedented tenure of President Obama. Exploring a rich history so often neglected in text books, this is a powerful primer for anyone looking for a starting point, a place to begin to dig deeper.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
In her astoundingly sharp and moving debut memoir, nominated for a National Book Award in 1970, literary hero Angelou reveals the everyday beauty and brutality of growing up black in the old school South of the 1930s and ’40s—the aggressions and transgressions that shattered her young spirit, and the shelters of faith and community and literature that helped put her back together, bit by bit. Angelou’s rhythmic, nuanced storytelling feels like a throwback, but it’s still relevant today. A seminal work of American literature.
Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year, by Tavis Smiley
He’s heralded now as a hero, but in his final year, Martin Luther King, Jr., faced endless trials, both public and private. This warts-and-all narrative delves deep, exploring his alienation from allies both political and personal, depression and drinking, and marital strife even as he renewed his conviction in his lauded ideals of nonviolence, education, and action. TV host Smiley’s takeaway here is that King’s martyrdom sometimes mutes his message—and this multifaceted portrayal reminds us he was a real person with a real mission, more than just the words “I had a dream.”
March Book 1, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Civil rights history in graphic novel form? Yes, it is as amazing as it sounds. This illustrated memoir, framed as a reverent reminiscence for some inquisitive visitors to congressman and civil rights champion John Lewis’s office on the eve of the inauguration of our first black president, chronicles the Freedom Rider’s journey from sharecropper’s son to the sit-ins that were the hallmark of nonviolent resistance. The first in a planned trilogy, March is a vivid, intimate account of the movement that led to the momentous march in 1965. Might as well buy book two now, too. You’re going to want to continue the ride.