Staff Picks: 12 Books We’re Raving about This Black History Month

February 4 2021
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For Black History Month, we’re recommending impactful reads that celebrate Black lives and authentically explore the reverberations of history, from a biography of extraordinary figures of our past to a quiet memoir that intricately and poetically examines identity. These powerful narratives will enlighten, embolden, and entertain readers this month and all year long.

For a fun discussion of these books, check out Simon & Schuster’s Facebook Live where staff members recommend their favorite books by Black female authors!

Yellow Wife
by Sadeqa Johnson

In YELLOW WIFE, an exquisitely researched historical fiction read, an enslaved woman struggles to survive and protect those she loves. Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life, due to her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman. Pheby is promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday; instead, she is unexpectedly thrust into slavery at Richmond’s infamous Devil’s Half Acre jail. There, Pheby must rely on her wits to survive the cruelty and contradictions of her Jailer.

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Yellow Wife
Sadeqa Johnson

“A fully immersive, intricately crafted story inspired by the pages of history. In Pheby, Sadeqa Johnson has created a woman whose struggle to survive and to protect the ones she loves will have readers turning the pages as fast as their fingers can fly. Simply enthralling.” —Lisa Wingate, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours

Called "wholly engrossing" by New York Times bestselling author Kathleen Grissom, this harrowing story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia.

Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world.

She’d been promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.

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Ida B. the Queen
by Michelle Duster

Written by Ida B. Wells’s great granddaughter, IDA B. THE QUEEN brilliantly showcases the life of the civil rights icon. From refusing to exit a train car meant for white passengers and participating in the woman’s suffrage movement to exposing the horrors of lynching through her journalism and co-founding the NAACP, Ida B. Wells’s achievements serve as an inspiration in the continuing fight to dismantle systemic racism.

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Ida B. the Queen
Michelle Duster

Journalist. Suffragist. Antilynching crusader. In 1862, Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi. In 2020, she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ida B. Wells committed herself to the needs of those who did not have power. In the eyes of the FBI, this made her a “dangerous negro agitator.” In the annals of history, it makes her an icon.

Ida B. the Queen tells the awe-inspiring story of an pioneering woman who was often overlooked and underestimated—a woman who refused to exit a train car meant for white passengers; a woman brought to light the horrors of lynching in America; a woman who cofounded the NAACP. Written by Wells’s great-granddaughter Michelle Duster, this “warm remembrance of a civil rights icon” (Kirkus Reviews) is a unique visual celebration of Wells’s life, and of the Black experience.

A century after her death, Wells’s genius is being celebrated in popular culture by politicians, through song, public artwork, and landmarks. Like her contemporaries Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, Wells left an indelible mark on history—one that can still be felt today. As America confronts the unfinished business of systemic racism, Ida B. the Queen pays tribute to a transformational leader and reminds us of the power we all hold to smash the status quo.

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Surviving the White Gaze
by Rebecca Carroll

Rebecca Carroll is one of the country’s preeminent cultural critics, working with WNYC and hosting her own popular podcast Come Through. After writing several books about race, SURVIVING THE WHITE GAZE, her memoir, is a personal account of forging her identity as a Black woman in America. Adopted at birth by artistic parents, Carroll grew up the only Black person in her rural New Hampshire town. Her life changed when she met her white birth mother, who constantly undermined her sense of Blackness. SURVIVING THE WHITE GAZE is a powerful examination of Carroll’s desire for her mother’s acceptance, her loyalty to her adoptive parents, and the search for her racial identity.

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Surviving the White Gaze
Rebecca Carroll

A stirring and powerful memoir from black cultural critic Rebecca Carroll recounting her painful struggle to overcome a completely white childhood in order to forge her identity as a black woman in America.

Rebecca Carroll grew up the only black person in her rural New Hampshire town. Adopted at birth by artistic parents who believed in peace, love, and zero population growth, her early childhood was loving and idyllic—and yet she couldn’t articulate the deep sense of isolation she increasingly felt as she grew older.

Everything changed when she met her birth mother, a young white woman, who consistently undermined Carroll’s sense of her blackness and self-esteem. Carroll’s childhood became harrowing, and her memoir explores the tension between the aching desire for her birth mother’s acceptance, the loyalty she feels toward her adoptive parents, and the search for her racial identity. As an adult, Carroll forged a path from city to city, struggling along the way with difficult boyfriends, depression, eating disorders, and excessive drinking. Ultimately, through the support of her chosen black family, she was able to heal.

Intimate and illuminating, Surviving the White Gaze is a timely examination of racism and racial identity in America today, and an extraordinarily moving portrait of resilience.

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Aftershocks
by Nadia Owusu

Written in the tradition of THE GLASS CASTLE, Nadia Owusu’s AFTERSHOCKS discusses a childhood rife with instability and family secrets, and the seismic fallout that follows. Abandoned by her Armenian-American mother when she was two, Owusu would come to follow her father, a Ghanaian United Nations official, from Europe to Africa and back again, until his death when she was thirteen. As Owusu grew up and moved to New York, stateless and motherless, she began to critically examine her racial identity and what it meant to belong.

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Aftershocks
Nadia Owusu

In the tradition of The Glass Castle, a deeply felt memoir from Whiting Award–winner Nadia Owusu about the push and pull of belonging, the seismic emotional toll of family secrets, and the heart it takes to pull through.

Young Nadia Owusu followed her father, a United Nations official, from Europe to Africa and back again. Just as she and her family settled into a new home, her father would tell them it was time to say their goodbyes. The instability wrought by Nadia’s nomadic childhood was deepened by family secrets and fractures, both lived and inherited. Her Armenian American mother, who abandoned Nadia when she was two, would periodically reappear, only to vanish again. Her father, a Ghanaian, the great hero of her life, died when she was thirteen. After his passing, Nadia’s stepmother weighed her down with a revelation that was either a bombshell secret or a lie, rife with shaming innuendo.

With these and other ruptures, Nadia arrived in New York as a young woman feeling stateless, motherless, and uncertain about her future, yet eager to find her own identity. What followed, however, were periods of depression in which she struggled to hold herself and her siblings together.

Aftershocks is the way she hauled herself from the wreckage of her life’s perpetual quaking, the means by which she has finally come to understand that the only ground firm enough to count on is the one written into existence by her own hand.

Heralding a dazzling new writer, Aftershocks joins the likes of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and does for race identity what Maggie Nelson does for gender identity in The Argonauts.

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Four Hundred Souls
by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

Ibram X. Kendi came to the forefront of the cultural landscape in the past year, with his book HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST topping bestseller lists for weeks. He returns, with author Keisha N. Blain, both as editors, in another extraordinary feat of publishing. FOUR HUNDRED SOULS, a “community” history of African Americans, begins in 1619 with the landing of the White Lion on the shores of what would become Virginia, and ends in the present day. Kendi and Blain have assembled ninety writers to detail this history, each taking on a five-year period, and collectively they detail a chronology through essays, short stories, vignettes, and polemics.

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Four Hundred Souls
Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

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The Other Black Girl
by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Nella is an editorial assistant at the fictitious Wagner Books, and the only Black girl—that is, until the ambitious and lovable Hazel arrives. But Hazel’s not all that she appears, and when disturbing notes start showing up on Nella’s desk, she begins to question her colleague’s intent, as well as how well she really knows her white coworkers. This addictive thriller is saturated with social commentary, evoking themes about intersecting cultures in a corporate workplace and community.

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The Other Black Girl
Zakiya Dalila Harris

“Riveting, fearless, and vividly original. This is an exciting debut.” —Emily St. John Mandel, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Hotel

Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada in this electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.

It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there’s a lot more at stake than just her career.

A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.

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The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
by Dawnie Walton

Told as an oral history, in interviews with a wide cast of characters, THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL & NEV unravels the stunning rise and fall of fictional rock duo Opal & Nev. In 2016, Sunny, a famed music journalist, details Opal and Nev’s fateful first meeting at a Detroit bar, their streak of success in 1970s New York and their ultimate demise, as Opal’s protestations against racism and injustice lead to violence, and other disturbing allegations emerge. Drawing powerful comparisons between racial relations of the 1970s to present-day, this is one relevant, engaging read.

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The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
Dawnie Walton

A kaleidoscopic fictional oral history of the beloved rock ’n’ roll duo who shot to fame in 1970s New York, and the dark, fraught secret that lies at the peak of their stardom.

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

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The Black Kids
by Christina Hammonds Reed

Set during the Rodney King riots in Lost Angeles, THE BLACK KIDS explores America’s painful racial history through the eyes of Ashley Bennett, a wealthy Black teen. When Ashley’s sister joins the protests across the city against racial injustice, Ashley confronts her identity in new, painful ways, becoming hyper aware of microaggressions and her light-skin privilege, and taking a hard look at the influences on her upbringing.

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The Black Kids
Christina Hammonds Reed

A New York Times bestseller

“Should be required reading in every classroom.” —Nic Stone, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin
“A true love letter to Los Angeles.” —Brandy Colbert, award-winning author of Little & Lion
“A brilliantly poetic take on one of the most defining moments in Black American history.” —Tiffany D. Jackson, author of Grown and Monday’s Not Coming

Perfect for fans of The Hate U Give, this unforgettable coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots.

Los Angeles, 1992

Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year and they’re spending more time at the beach than in the classroom. They can already feel the sunny days and endless possibilities of summer.

Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.

As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. Even as her self-destructive sister gets dangerously involved in the riots. Even as the model black family façade her wealthy and prominent parents have built starts to crumble. Even as her best friends help spread a rumor that could completely derail the future of her classmate and fellow black kid, LaShawn Johnson.

With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?

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Queenie
by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie, a twenty-five-year-old Jamaican British woman, feels stagnated. At work, she can’t always relate to her competitive white peers, and she’s exhausted when her career ambitions are repeatedly shut down by her boss. What’s more, in Queenie’s love life, she and her long-term white boyfriend are taking a break, causing her to question what they had in the first place, and damaging her own sense of self-love. As each event sends her spiraling further, Queenie must figure out who she can rely on and how to love herself once again.

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Queenie
Candice Carty-Williams

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These Ghosts Are Family
by Maisy Card

Spanning multiple generations of one Jamaican family, Maisy Card’s debut novel starts its sweeping narrative at the moment that Abel Paisley decides to steal the identity of another man, leaving behind his family, Jamaican home, and his dark traumatic past. Years later, just when he’s about to reveal his true identity, the novel launches into branching family story lines, from colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem. The plights of those who came before him, and those who come after, reveal hard truths and observations of how people wrestle with their own secrets, sense of belonging, and self-doubt, especially under the painful legacy of slavery.

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These Ghosts Are Family
Maisy Card

Longlisted for the 2020 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

A “rich, ambitious debut novel” (The New York Times Book Review) that reveals the ways in which a Jamaican family forms and fractures over generations, in the tradition of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

*An Entertainment Weekly, Millions, and LitHub Most Anticipated Book of 2020 Pick and Buzz Magazine’s Top New Book of the New Decade*

Stanford Solomon’s shocking, thirty-year-old secret is about to change the lives of everyone around him. Stanford has done something no one could ever imagine. He is a man who faked his own death and stole the identity of his best friend. Stanford Solomon is actually Abel Paisley.

And now, nearing the end of his life, Stanford is about to meet his firstborn daughter, Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has unwittingly shown up for her first day of work to tend to the father she thought was dead.

These Ghosts Are Family revolves around the consequences of Abel’s decision and tells the story of the Paisley family from colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem. There is Vera, whose widowhood forced her into the role of a single mother. There are two daughters and a granddaughter who have never known they are related. And there are others, like the houseboy who loved Vera, whose lives might have taken different courses if not for Abel Paisley’s actions.

This “rich and layered story” (Kirkus Reviews) explores the ways each character wrestles with their ghosts and struggles to forge independent identities outside of the family and their trauma. The result is a “beguiling…vividly drawn, and compelling” (BookPage, starred review) portrait of a family and individuals caught in the sweep of history, slavery, migration, and the more personal dramas of infidelity, lost love, and regret.

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Life After Death
by Sister Souljah

LIFE AFTER DEATH, the sequel to 1990’s classic THE COLDEST WINTER EVER, picks up with street savvy Winter Santiaga—the daughter of a Brooklyn drug lord—once she’s newly released from jail. In Sister Souljah’s newest page-turner, Winter is ready to get her life back on track—but when old enemies resurface, events take a dark turn, and she must fight for her life, and death, in an imaginative spree in the underworld, where she confronts her past experiences and current demons.

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Life After Death
Sister Souljah

The stunning and long-anticipated sequel to Sister Souljah’s million copy bestseller The Coldest Winter Ever.

Winter Santiaga is back.

Twenty years ago, Sister Souljah’s debut novel, The Coldest Winter Ever, became a bestselling cultural phenomenon. Fans fell in love with the unforgettable Winter Santiaga, daughter of a prominent Brooklyn drug-dealing family, who captivated her lovers, friends, and enemies with her sexy street smarts. For two decades, fans have begged for answers about what happened to Winter. Now all is revealed in Sister Souljah’s page-turning sequel, filled with her trademark passion, danger, temptation, and adventure. With her jail sentence coming to a close, Winter is ready to step back into the spotlight and reclaim her throne.

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How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
by Kiese Laymon

Revised with six new essays, HOW TO SLOWLY KILL YOURSELF AND OTHERS IN AMERICA is a timely essay collection from Kiese Laymon, author of the award-winning collection HEAVY. His essays are a mix of racial politics, history, identity, and cultural analysis, which range from discussing the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the Black population to his move back to his home state of Mississippi, and the rap group N.W.A.

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How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
Kiese Laymon

A revised collection with thirteen essays, including six new to this edition and seven from the original edition, by the “star in the American literary firmament, with a voice that is courageous, honest, loving, and singularly beautiful” (NPR).

Brilliant and uncompromising, piercing and funny, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is essential reading. This new edition of award-winning author Kiese Laymon’s first work of nonfiction looks inward, drawing heavily on the author and his family’s experiences, while simultaneously examining the world—Mississippi, the South, the United States—that has shaped their lives. With subjects that range from an interview with his mother to reflections on Ole Miss football, Outkast, and the labor of Black women, these thirteen insightful essays highlight Laymon’s profound love of language and his artful rendering of experience, trumpeting why he is “simply one of the most talented writers in America” (New York magazine).

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