Six of the most riveting books to develop a deeper understanding of race in the United States; now, and throughout history.
In this time of civil unrest in the United States and around the world, many are looking to educate themselves on one of today’s most prominent topics. Numerous recommended books are non-fiction, such as “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.
These books are inarguably valuable, but fiction and memoir should not be overlooked. Novels and first-hand accounts can be particularly educational about the Black experience in the United States and provide a holistic view of the history of those experiences. I have read a variety of Black American-focused literature from many eras, which contributed largely to my own understanding of race today.
This list features some of my favorite novels, memoirs, and prose that everyone should consider reading to develop a deeper understanding of race in the United States; now, and throughout history.
‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is a renowned Black American author who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved” in 1988 and the Nobel prize in literature in 1993. “Beloved” explores the complexity of beauty and pain on a slave plantation called “Sweet Home,” which is anything but sweet. Morrison questions the meaning of freedom for a Black enslaved woman in the 1860s.
Morrison reflects that even the responsibility of raising a child, of being a parent to one, is a freedom not destined for a slave. “Beloved” is Morrison’s fictional retelling of the life of Margaret Garner, a young mother who escaped slavery and was arrested for killing one of her children and attempting to kill the others. “Beloved” questions the morality of this act, when a mother could not accept that her children would grow up in the circumstances she was forced to endure.
‘The Garies and Their Friends’ by Frank J. Webb
“The Garies and Their Friends” is a much lesser-known book but is one of my personal favorites. Written post-Civil War but taking place pre-Civil War, the novel explores the differences between racism in the North and the South, and the destruction of which the seemingly less malevolent Northerners are capable.
“The Garies and Their Friends” explores themes of feminism, Black power, interracial relationships, and the experiences of Black people who are “white-passing.” It presents the strength of the Black community and the falsehood of freedom in the North. “The Garies and Their Friends” is a fascinating read and incredibly informative.
‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ by Frederick Douglass
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is, in my opinion, one of the most important books anyone can read. The memoir is considered to be one of the most influential texts that fueled the abolitionist movement in the 19th century United States and is still widely studied today.
In the book, Douglass discusses his experience enslaved on a plantation in Lynn, Massachusetts and life after his escape. Douglass writes about the details of the atrocities he faced, of people kind and evil, and how quickly one’s morals can change when they understand their position of power against the oppressed. Douglass writes about freedom. He states that he did not know his age because even that was a luxury never provided to a slave. The book is heart-wrenching and honest and is certainly an eye-opener on the history of the Black experience in the United States.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine
Rankine’s book serves to “pull the lyric back into its realities” by highlighting acts of everyday racism in poetic form. Throughout the work, a non-African American reader begins to understand the simple racist aggressions that affect the lives of Black Americans every single day. From waiting in lines at the grocery store to the treatment of Serena Williams by and against her white competitors, Rankine exposes the constant anguish Black Americans face in beautiful prose that will move any reader.
‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie follows the life of a Nigerian couple from youth into adulthood in this riveting novel. She explores the meaning of race, racism, culture, being a foreigner, and being a native through the eyes of her protagonist, Ifemelu, who follows her dream of immigrating to the United States.
As Ifemelu struggles to make a living, she eventually starts a blog in which she discusses her life from the perspective of race, immigration, and womanhood. A review of “Americanah” from O, The Oprah Magazine calls the novel “masterful…. [it] pulls no punches with regard to race, class, and the high-risk, heart tearing struggle for belonging in a fractured world.” This makes it ideal for understanding race and racism in the United States, with the added bonus of an African immigrant perspective.
‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler
This contemporary work crosses genre boundaries as an intensely emotional novel with sci-fi elements in time travel, speculative fiction with its major “What-If?” and even non-fiction with its vivid descriptions of a Maryland plantation, alluding to Frederick Douglass’s narrative. One of the most thrilling aspects of the novel comes to light through its movement through time. The main character, Dana, is mysteriously transported into the antebellum South to save the life of an ancestor, and thus the future existence of her family.
Because of her race and the time to which she has been transported, other characters assume Dana to be a slave and treat her as such. Butler explores the experience of a modern Black woman enslaved in the antebellum South. As time goes on, Dana’s self-image changes and she begins to find her place in enslavement. “Kindred” is a unique representation of racism as it questions the relationship between American slavery and racism in the modern day. Butler’s novel is a thrilling, educational book for contemporary readers.