Share 12 Essential Books About Race in America

12 Essential Books About Race in America

Eloy is an editorial and marketing intern at Simon & Schuster.  A senior English major at Vassar College, he enjoys reading literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, and journalism.

Last summer’s releases of Harper Lee’s much-anticipated Go Set a Watchman and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a powerful meditation on what it means to be black in America today, have pushed the conversation about race in America to the national foreground. Talking about race isn’t easy. It’s personal, it’s political, it’s visceral. That these were two of the most hotly anticipated and talked-about books of the year only underscores the power of literature to provide a window into this most difficult of subjects. Here are twelve books that have changed the way we talk about race in America.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Science, medical ethics, and race collide in the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer and victim of an aggressive form of cervical cancer who, unbeknownst to her, was the source of the world’s first immortal cell line.
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by Sherman Alexie

Elegantly depicting the struggles of Native Americans to survive in a world that remains hostile to them, this is the book that made Sherman Alexie a literary star. Told through twenty-two interconnected stories that reveal different aspects of life on a Spokane Indian reservation, it runs the emotional gamut from humor to loss to a stubborn will to survive.

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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Sherman Alexie

Elegantly depicting the struggles of Native Americans to survive in a world that remains hostile to them, this is the book that made Sherman Alexie a literary star. Told through twenty-two interconnected stories that reveal different aspects of life on a Spokane Indian reservation, it runs the emotional gamut from humor to loss to a stubborn will to survive.

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The New Jim Crow
by Michelle Alexander
In this brave and bold work of scholarship, Michelle Alexander details how the US criminal justice system decimated communities of color and relegated millions of African-American citizens to a permanent second-class status, all while formally adhering to the principle of colorblindness.
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The New Jim Crow
Michelle Alexander

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The Warmth of Other Suns
by Isabel Wilkerson
In this beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who, in search of a better life, fled the Jim Crow South for northern and western cities.
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The Warmth of Other Suns
Isabel Wilkerson

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Lies My Teacher Told Me
by James W. Loewen

Don’t believe it just because it’s written in a textbook. This is a richly entertaining and eye-opening takedown of the common myths that get passed off as objective American history.

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Lies My Teacher Told Me
James W. Loewen

Don’t believe it just because it’s written in a textbook. This is a richly entertaining and eye-opening takedown of the common myths that get passed off as objective American history.

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
by Anne Fadiman

When a young girl is brought into the emergency room, her doctors and her parents, Hmong immigrants from Laos, each have different explanations for what is wrong. What unfolds is a gripping true story of medical drama, culture clash, and the tragic fallout when so much gets lost in translation.

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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Anne Fadiman

When a young girl is brought into the emergency room, her doctors and her parents, Hmong immigrants from Laos, each have different explanations for what is wrong. What unfolds is a gripping true story of medical drama, culture clash, and the tragic fallout when so much gets lost in translation.

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The House on Mango Street
by Sandra Cisneros
Structured in short, gemlike vignettes, this novel brings to vivid life the daily joys and sorrows of a young girl growing up in a Mexican-American community on Chicago’s Southside. This modern classic helped challenge the overwhelming whiteness of high school reading lists.
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The House on Mango Street
Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero. Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous – it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become.

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Hunger of Memory
by Richard Rodriguez

With uncommon frankness, Richard Rodriguez recounts his journey as a “minority student” who pays the cost of his success in the white world of academia with a painful alienation—from his past, his parents, and his culture. His memoir is a vital reminder of the high price of “making it” in middle-class America.

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Hunger of Memory
Richard Rodriguez

With uncommon frankness, Richard Rodriguez recounts his journey as a “minority student” who pays the cost of his success in the white world of academia with a painful alienation—from his past, his parents, and his culture. His memoir is a vital reminder of the high price of “making it” in middle-class America.

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The Distance Between Us
by Reyna Grande
Inspirational, unsparing, honest, and poignant, Reyna Grande’s memoir puts a sobering voice to the humanity of the Mexican immigrant experience, the joys and sorrows of childhood, and the courage it takes to heal the scars of the past. Her searing story is shared by millions of other families separated by the US–Mexico border.
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The Distance Between Us
Reyna Grande

Funny, heartbreaking, and lyrical, The Distance Between Us poignantly captures the confusion and contradictions of childhood, reminding us that the joys and sorrows we experience are imprinted on the heart forever, calling out to us of those places we first called home.

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The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
by Jeff Hobbs
The powerful portrait of a brilliant young man who escaped the dangerous streets of Newark to graduate from Yale University, only to be the victim of a gang-related assassination at the age of thirty. Written by his friend and college roommate, this story encompasses America’s most enduring conflicts: race, poverty, drugs, and education.
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The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Jeff Hobbs

Written by his friend and college roommate, this intimate portrait of Robert Peace’s life encompasses America’s most enduring conflicts: race, poverty, drugs, and education. The story of a brilliant young man who escaped the dangerous streets of Newark to graduate from Yale University, only to be the victim of a gang-related assassination at the age of thirty, this powerful and unforgettable account challenges the assumption that education is the great equalizer.

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Parting the Waters
by Taylor Branch

The first volume of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the American Civil Rights movement, the master historian provides an unsurpassed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to greatness and illuminates the stunning courage and private conflict that defined the era.

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Parting the Waters
Taylor Branch

The first volume of Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the American Civil Rights movement, the master historian provides an unsurpassed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to greatness and illuminates the stunning courage and private conflict that defined the era.

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Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng
Focusing on a biracial family living in 1970s small-town Ohio, this exquisite novel is a profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and the urge to belong. When Lydia Lee, the child of a Chinese-American father and a white mother, is found drowned in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
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Everything I Never Told You
Celeste Ng

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this dark but exquisite novel about a Chinese-American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, but when her body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, and the family is forced to come to terms with their struggles and secrets.

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