Black Is the Body
In the introduction to Black is the Body, Emily Bernard confronts readers with a compelling reminder: “Blackness is an art, not a science. It is a paradox: intangible and visceral; a situation and a story.” Throughout the 12 essays that follow, Bernard seamlessly exalts and examines the complexities of Black embodiment and the importance of familial legacies with soul-searing depth. Whether recounting a life-altering brush with violence, the precarious catch-22 of being “the Black friend,” colorism, or the gruesome history and harm of racial slurs, Bernard’s prose transcends the page with ease. Black is the Body is a testament to the necessity of Black storytellers.
An American Summer
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago boldly documents the aftermath of gun violence, poverty, and a city’s failure to protect its own citizens. With empathy, award-winning journalist Alex Kotlowitz recounts the summer of 2013 by uplifting the voices of mothers who’ve lost their sons, men who seek forgiveness for the crimes they’ve created, and teens who mourn the loss of friends whose lives ended far too soon. It’s a narrative that dares readers to bear witness, to feel the loss and the “screams and howling and prayers and longing” within its pages. A chilling yet noteworthy read, An American Summer is a meaningful account of love, loss, and survival.
The Other Americans
Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami’s latest novel, The Other Americans, begins with the loss of a patriarch and his daughter Nora’s return to her hometown. Eclipsed by the weight of her father’s death, Nora is forced to reckon with the expectations of her mother (who wants Nora to become a lawyer) and her conventionally successful sister. In attempts to cope with her grief and escape from the pressures of her family, Nora reconnects with her childhood classmate Jeremy. As the two grow closer, they’re forced to reckon with new desires and old traumas. An engrossing narrative about immigration, family, and devotion, Lalami’s well-crafted novel is a poignant page-turner.
The Paragon Hotel
Set in the Prohibition era, Lyndsay Faye’s novel follows Alice James as she flees from Harlem, New York, to Portland, Oregon, after a nearly fatal encounter. Once there, she settles into the Paragon Hotel with Max, an attractive and fearless WWI veteran and Pullman porter. Gradually, the hotel becomes an oasis from the chaos Alice fled, but the peace it offers is jeopardized when its residents are threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and a young boy goes missing. As the Klan’s aggression increases toward Portland’s Black community, whom the law fails to protect, Alice joins forces with Max and cabaret singer Blossom Fontaine to find the lost boy, a mission that uncovers a web of corruption. An enthralling examination of race, class, and privilege, The Paragon Hotel, as its narrator confesses, isn’t merely “a book…it’s a love letter” to the irrepressible power of solidarity and justice.
Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD
In the opening pages of Biased, social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt suggests that “we all have ideas about race, even the most open-minded among us.” Throughout Biased, Eberhardt sifts through the origins, impact, and implications of racial biases and what they reveal about our culture, while challenging how we consciously and subconsciously perpetuate or internalize racism in our day-to-day lives. Fusing research with personal accounts, Eberhardt traces how racial bias has placed communities of color at risk. From microaggressions to police brutality, Biased is an unblinking, in-depth rumination on inequality and its roots.
We Cast a Shadow
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and George Schuyler’s Black No More, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s remarkable debut centers around an unnamed narrator who’s perpetually conflicted about his place in the world as a Black man. Throughout the novel, Ruffin’s troubled protagonist grovels at the feet of his white colleagues in attempts to become a full partner at his law firm, while urging his biracial son to use skin-bleaching cream to lighten his skin. As the story progresses, readers discover the narrator’s ultimate plan: to cover the cost of an experimental procedure that could make his son look completely white. Haunted by his own past, his incarcerated father’s absence, and the limitations of racism, Ruffin’s troubled antihero is forced to confront his inner demons in an unexpected and irrevocable way.
In Mira Jacob’s buzzworthy graphic memoir, the complexities of race, love, and coping with the 2016 presidential election take centerstage with wisdom, heart, and wit. Crystallized by a series of conversations with her biracial 6-year-old son, family members, and close friends, Jacob’s book dares to answer questions that many fail to ask out of fear. Through each panel, readers not only gain a deeper sense of what matters most to Jacob but a deeper understanding of the world we live in, for better or worse. Good Talk‘s pages hum with humanity, humor, and relatability; it’s a delightful memoir and an American classic in the making.
Democracy in Black
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
In Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, Eddie Glaude explores the current state of racial equality in post-Obama America and the deferred dreams that Obama’s historic presidency failed to fulfill. Each page challenges readers to realize that America’s “democratic principles do not exist in a space apart from [its] national commitment to white supremacy.” An enlightening meditation on American racism, it’s a profound call to arms for citizens who dream of a more just future.
I'm Still Here
Austin Channing Brown
In her debut essay collection, Austin Channing Brown writes, “I offer this story in hopes that we will embody a community not afraid to name whiteness [and] celebrate Blackness.” Seamlessly, the bestselling activist reflects on her journey as Black woman in America, as a storyteller, and as a believer in freedom and faith. Infused with courage, wisdom, and empathy, Brown’s essays reveal the importance of unapologetically telling your story. As Brown makes clear in the collection’s opening chapter, I’m Still Here is “not about condemning white people but about rejecting the assumption—sometimes spoken, sometimes not—that white is right.”
Forty Million Dollar Slaves
William C. Rhoden
Forty Million Dollar Slaves interrogates the history of Black athletes, the impact of their celebrity, and the historical and contemporary commodification of Black embodiment within American culture. Mapping the evolution of the Black athlete from the late 1880s to present day, each chapter draws parallels between early greats like Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson to contemporary titans like Michael Jordan. William Rhoden’s book compels readers to remember that “Black athletic culture, like the rest of African American culture, evolved under the pressure of oppression.” This immersive and well-researched title dares us to “remember the history of struggle” and to “understand how much distance has been covered” and “how much more distance remains.”
Blood Done Sign My Name
Timothy B. Tyson
In Timothy Tyson’s remembrance of a Black man’s brutal death at the hands of a group of white men, the sinister nature and damage of racism is unflinchingly revealed. A snapshot of the racial turmoil in Oxford, North Carolina, during the 1970s, Tyson charts the murder’s impact on his community, his family, and his own childhood. Through Tyson’s eyes, readers bear witness to an all too familiar breech of justice in the American judicial system and the resilience of those forced to survive in its wake. An indispensable yet sobering yet read, Blood Done Sign My Name is a testament to America’s past and present.
Stony the Road
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Throughout Stony the Road, award-winning scholar Henry Louis Gates investigates the significance and lingering impact of the era between Reconstruction and the emergence of the civil rights movement. Immersive, vibrant, and impeccably written, Stony the Road delves into the ways in which America’s current dilemmas are rooted in its failure to fully reckon with its own history. This crucial homage to struggle, triumph, and justice reminds us of how “the forces of white supremacy did their best to undermine” progress, and the reasons why we persist.
From the very beginning, Dick Gregory’s literary debut captivates. Selling over a million copies since it hit shelves in 1964, Nigger: An Autobiography recounts Gregory’s life with sincerity, humor, and swagger. Written in three parts, each page delves into Gregory’s past, his earliest days as an activist, and the start of his comedy career. As relevant now as it was when it first published, Gregory’s provocative autobiography is timeless. A monumental reflection on race, class, and social justice, Gregory’s words are an indispensable addition to any reader’s bookshelf.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong begins his bestselling debut novel with a brief yet memorable sentence: “Let me begin again.” Written in the form of a letter penned by a 28-year-old writer to his illiterate mother, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous delves deep into the past of its narrator and the past of those who came before him. A stunning mediation on immigration, intergenerational trauma, queerness, and belonging, Vuong’s awe-inducing novel is a soul-stirringly poetic story about growing up, forgiveness, and the unbreakable bond between a son and his mother.
Tell Me Who You Are
Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
In Tell Me Who You Are, Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi ask hundreds of people across the U.S. one question: How has race, culture, or intersectionality impacted your life? A journey that began in Anchorage, Alaska, and ended in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tell Me Who You Are is a collection of first-person accounts that reveal how systemic racism and prejudice shapes our lives. Through the experiences of a Black Creole woman from New Orleans, a young man who stands up for himself and his undocumented friends when they’re denied entry into a gay bar, a woman from Waco, Texas, reckoning with her hometown’s violent past, a Lakota man who finds strength through restorative justice, and a woman from Philadelphia who survived her family’s transphobia, we’re remind that “everybody should be able to speak up” and share their story. Each voice amplified by these pages proves the importance of sharing your truth.
Beneath a Ruthless Sun
A harrowing yet significant account of Jim Crow’s depravity, Beneath a Ruthless Sun exposes the sinister nature of racial bias and its effect on a small town in central Florida in the late 1950s. Through Pulitzer Prize–winner Gilbert King’s perceptive prose, readers are given the opportunity to fully understand the danger of judicial corruption, white supremacy, and inequality. King’s narrative is a difficult yet enriching account of democracy atrophied by prejudice.
A Sin by Any Other Name
Robert W. Lee
In A Sin by Any Other Name, Robert W. Lee—a direct descendent of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee—wrestles with his family’s legacy and the legacy of his nation with profound honesty. What first began as a response to the 2017 Charlottesville rally, during which white supremacists brandished tiki torches in the name of Robert E. Lee, A Sin by Any Other Name allowed Lee to investigate his own past as well as America’s. A transcendent testament to the power of confronting history, Lee’s memoir is a breathtaking testimony of faith.
Love Thy Neighbor
Ayaz Virji, M.D.
In Ayaz Virji’s memoir, Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America, readers witness the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. Virji, who left his position at a Pennsylvania hospital in 2013 to manage a hospital in Dawson, Minnesota, reflects on how the right wing’s rise to power disrupted his community and his own sense of identity. Inspired by Virji’s lecture of the same name, this riveting memoir dares to challenge misconceptions and hate with dialogue, understanding, and optimism. Love Thy Neighbor is an uplifting reminder of how one voice can spark change.
In Regina Porter’s tour-de-force debut, readers meet Agnes Miller and Claude Johnson, a young Black couple who cross paths with white policemen on a Georgia country road in 1966. The horror of the encounter stays with Agnes as the years pass, even as she builds a life with Eddie, a Black Navy man with an affinity for literature. An intriguing portrait of an American family and deferred desires, The Travelers is an ambitious and brilliant novel from start to finish.
When a white high school football star’s altercation with a Black player on the opposing team leads to controversy, he quickly becomes a publicity opp for his family’s congregation, the Blessed Church of White America. Caught between the consequences of his actions and the shadow of his father’s violent past, the journey of Copperhead’s protagonist is an undeniably sobering commentary on white nationalism, class, and the weight of familial legacies.
If You Want to Make God Laugh
In Bianca Marais’s second novel, Zodwa, a teenage mother-to-be, returns to her hometown in post-apartheid South Africa. Unsure of her future and tasked with caring for her ailing mother, Zodwa’s desperation and fear of the future leads to an irrevocable decision that brings Delilah and Ruth (who find an infant at their front door) into her life. Each of Marais’s unconventional heroines seek stability and agency amidst the tumultuous changes in their own lives and the political landscape of their nation. Masterfully crafted and moving, If You Want to Make God Laugh is a spellbinding triptych gilded in hope.
The Nickel Boys
In the prologue to his latest novel, Colson Whitehead leads readers to “a secret graveyard” where innocent souls were carelessly laid to rest. “Plenty of the boys had talked of [it],” he writes. “but…no one believed them until someone else said it.” Inspired by the dark history of the real-life Dozier School for Boys in Florida, Whitehead’s saga follows Elwood Curtis and his struggle to survive when an encounter with the police lands him behind the walls of the ominous Nickel Academy. An urgent and heartbreaking tale of corruption, childhood, and America’s trespasses, The Nickel Boys is a haunting novel that demands its readers not look away.
Guggenheim fellow Wil Haygood’s journalistic deep-dive into the rise of an Ohio high school’s baseball and basketball teams is an uplifting and illuminating tribute to the students, families, and community that triumphed despite the odds stacked against them. Filled with firsthand accounts and archival photographs, Tigerland captures a year in the lives of the young men whose passion for athletics and bond as a team became a solace from segregation, poverty, and the lingering devastation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. An inspiration from beginning to end, readers will find themselves yearning for a docuseries adaptation of Haygood’s heart-stirring book.
The Inner Work of Racial Justice
Rhonda V. Magee
Penned by law professor and mindfulness practitioner Rhonda Magee, The Inner Work of Racial Justice is a timely exploration of compassion and its potential to help heal the wounds of injustice. Filled with research, reflections, and exercises, Magee offers her audience an invaluable toolkit for combating racial bias and how to heal the harm it causes within our individual lives as well as our communities. It’s an eye-opening essential for anyone dedicated to progress.
In Pulitzer Prize–winner Hilton Als’s genre-bending essay collection, gender, race, and privilege are deconstructed with unblinking scrutiny. Boldly breaching the boundaries between fiction, memoir, and criticism, White Girls is an eclectic yet seamless reflection that moves from cultural titans like Richard Pryor, Truman Capote, and Michael Jackson to meditations on human closeness, romance, and grief. Inventive, intimate, and unforgettable, White Girls is a book that requires readers to return to its pages more than once.
Red at the Bone
In National Book Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson’s highly anticipated novel, a 16-year-old girl named Melody stands at the threshold of womanhood on the staircase of her grandparents’ brownstone in Brooklyn. As the novel’s beginning unfolds, Melody confesses that she herself is “a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.” With lyrical eloquence, Woodson tells the story of two families whose fates are stitched together by Melody’s birth. With every page, Red at the Bone envelops its reader within the luminous song of a masterful storyteller.
The Water Dancer
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s fiction debut, readers meet Hiram Walker, a young slave who possesses a remarkable gift. As the novel begins, Hiram and his owner’s son Maynard (who is also Hiram’s half-brother) are en route to the Lockless plantation. Their journey takes a fatal turn when a crumbling bridge costs Maynard his life and floods Hiram’s mind with otherworldly visions. After the accident, Hiram’s only desire is to escape Lockless, a yearning that leads him to become a conductor in the Underground Railroad and forces him to reckon with the cost of freedom. A speculative imagining of America’s past, The Water Dancer is a applause-worthy debut from a tried and true visionary.
How to Be an Antiracist
Ibram X. Kendi
Part memoir, part commentary, How to Be an Antiracist urges readers that an antiracist world “can become real if we focus on power instead of people.” In the pages that follow, Ibram X. Kendi holds himself and his country equally accountable for the ways in which racism has warped our collective psyche and stunted our ability to imagine what an antiracist world could look like. From a remembrance of wearing colored contacts to lighten the hue of his eyes as a teenager to the way power is wielded (and often abused) within American society, How to be an Antiracist is a much-needed call to arms for all. It reminds us that if we “we know how to be racist” and “we know how to pretend to be not racist,” then we have the capacity to learn “how to be antiracist.”
In the final pages Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin confronts his audience with a crucial fact: “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” A provocative yet infinite truth, Baldwin’s words remain a timeless reminder that America’s past, present, and future is multifaceted and as diverse as the people who’ve called it home.
In an era when the evils of racial bias and prejudice dominate the headlines and our Twitter feeds, it can be difficult to imagine a world where equality and justice for all can exist. At times, many of us might wonder if lasting change is even possible—but in those moments of doubt and darkness, a spark of hope can be found by simply engaging with a book. Through the voices of storytellers and those who amplify their stories, we’re able to find the strength to keep fighting for what we believe in, and to be brave enough to talk about race.
Featured Image: @cbarbalis/Unsplash