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8 Black History Books Never Leaving Our Shelves

February 22 2022
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Although Black History Month is already half over, we’re reading full speed ahead, diving into amazing books out there that expand on the Black experience in America. These books are just a few essential reads that shed a light on overlooked events of the past to provide a steady beacon forward.

For more Black History Month recommendations, check out Simon & Schuster’s page.

Carolina Built
by Kianna Alexander

Heather’s Pick: Kianna Alexander’s CAROLINA BUILT is inspired by the life of the remarkable businesswoman Josephine N. Leary. Born into slavery on a plantation, she ends up creating a real estate empire in Edenton, North Carolina, in the mid-1800s. The novel follows an emancipated and newly married Josephine as she works to start fresh in her new town, where she struggles to balance the everyday needs of her family (and her husband’s patriarchal views) with her entrepreneurial dreams. You’ll be awed by her grit and determination from page one.

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Carolina Built
Kianna Alexander

A vivid and moving novel based on the incredible life of real estate magnate Josephine N. Leary—a previously untold story of passion, perseverance, and building a legacy after emancipation in North Carolina.

Josephine N. Leary is determined to build a life of her own and a future for her family. When she moves to Edenton, North Carolina from the plantation where she was born, she is free, newly married, and ready to follow her dreams.

As the demands of life pull Josephine’s attention—deepening her marriage, mothering her daughters, supporting her grandmother—she struggles to balance her real estate aspirations with the realities of keeping life going every day. She teaches herself to be a business woman, to manage her finances, and to make smart investments in the local real estate market. But with each passing year, it grows more and more difficult to focus on building her legacy from the ground up.

Moving and inspiring, Josephine Leary’s untold story speaks to the part of us that dares to dream bigger, tear down whatever stands in our way, and build something better for the loved ones we leave behind.

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The Black Kids
by Christina Hammonds Reed

Nicole’s Pick: It’s not often that I come across a book that centers on the specific Black experience that I’m familiar with—that of an upper middle class Black girl being raised in a predominantly white environment coming to terms with what Blackness means to her. THE BLACK KIDS takes place in the early 1990s during the height of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and I found myself relating to the internal struggles the main character faced, especially considering the parallels between the world then and now. THE BLACK KIDS is about a high school senior named Ashley Bennett, whose main concern, as the school year winds down, has been on how she will spend her last summer before college. That all changes, however, when the LAPD officers who killed Rodney King are acquitted of all charges. Ashley tries to continue life as usual, but it becomes increasingly clear that she is one of “the black kids” and not just “one of the girls.” She’s forced to reckon with what that means as her sister becomes entwined in the protests and the world that her parents so carefully crafted for them starts to crumble. I loved this book for so many reasons, and I truly believe that it should be required reading; my biggest “joy” in reading it was the way Christina Hammonds Reed put so expertly into words the feelings that I’ve felt at so many stages of my life.

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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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Assata
by Assata Shakur

Emily’s Pick #1: ASSATA was a life-changing read for me. Reeled in by the 4.57 (out of 5) rating on Goodreads, I was expecting to be disappointed (as per usual with hyped-up books), but this one definitely did not disappoint. With gorgeous, propulsive writing, Assata Shakur weaves her personal journey into activism (she joined the Black Panther movement) with her harrowing experiences in jail after she was falsely accused of shooting a white state trooper. She defends her innocence so clearly that my blood was boiling from the beginning—and that’s before she goes on to describe the disgusting, inhumane treatment she endured in jail (put into solitary confinement while pregnant, tormented by the guards). To put it plainly, I’ve never been so angry while reading a memoir. 

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Assata
Assata Shakur

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Homegoing
by Yaa Gyasi

Meagan’s pick: HOMEGOING follows two half sisters, Effia and Esi, born in different villages in Ghana in the eighteenth century. Effia is quickly married off to an Englishman and moves to a castle on the Gold Coast, while, unbeknownst to her, Esi is sold into slavery and held captive in the same castle before she boards a slave ship for the United States. With every chapter, the reader discovers a new generation of each sister’s descendants. As the families’ stories progress from the Gold Coast to plantations in the United States, and from Jazz Age Harlem to present day, I was swept up completely. Gyasi was raised in the US, but born in Ghana, and it shows in her strong and lyrical descriptions of the Gold Coast, so robust that I could feel the heat of the sun and the spray of the ocean.

Read more of Meagan’s review!

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Homegoing
Yaa Gyasi

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Yellow Wife
by Sadeqa Johnson

Holly’s Pick: Growing up on a plantation as the daughter of the estate’s medicine woman, Pheby Delores Brown inherited a sense of confidence and self-worth that had been stripped from the other working slaves. Pheby learned to read, mastered the piano, and—most important—was promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday. But after the plantation master, Jacob, who is Pheby’s father, and Pheby’s mother were caught in an accident, Pheby’s entire life was derailed. Her fate was ultimately left to Master Jacob’s cruel wife, Missus Delphina, who was more than ready to rid the plantation of her husband’s favored slave. In the midst of Pheby’s heartache, she is sent away to the most infamous slave jail in Virginia, Devil’s Half Acre. Amid her terror and torment, Pheby is able to sustain her courage—an incredibly inspiring feat. Every decision she made was truly a matter of survival. Knowing that Pheby’s story was inspired by a true “yellow wife” from history made the novel that much more profound for me.

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Yellow Wife
Sadeqa Johnson

Called “wholly engrossing” by New York Times bestselling author Kathleen Grissom, this “fully immersive” (Lisa Wingate, #1 bestselling author of Before We Were Yours) 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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The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead

Sharon’s Pick: Colson Whitehead confronts the dark history of reform schools in THE NICKEL BOYS. Kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood Curtis is set to begin classes at a local college when he makes a mistake that will dramatically alter his future. He is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, a school based on an actual reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years. In this story, set in the 1960s, just as Martin Luther King Jr’s words are planting hope and fueling the Civil Rights movement, Elwood confronts the Nickel Academy’s corrupt staff, as well as fellow classmate Turner, whose distrust comes up against Elwood’s initial determination to make the best of it, and ignites a tension between the two boys. 

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The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead

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Wake
by Rebecca Hall

Emily’s Pick #2: There’s something about a graphic novel that makes the story stick so much better in my head. Using the layout of part graphic novel, part memoir, WAKE tells Dr. Rebecca Hall’s journey to uncover the truth about women slave revolts throughout history, from the Middle Passage to Colonial New York. Long ago erased from history, these women’s stories are brought to light by the author, who dug through court records, captain logs, and even forensic evidence from bones. The black-and-white illustrations beautifully blend Dr. Hall’s personal journey of discovery with the stark reality of the past.

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Wake
Rebecca Hall

Part graphic novel, part memoir, Wake is an imaginative tour-de-force that tells the “powerful” (The New York Times Book Review) story of women-led slave revolts and chronicles scholar Rebecca Hall’s efforts to uncover the truth about these women warriors who, until now, have been left out of the historical record.

Women warriors planned and led revolts on slave ships during the Middle Passage. They fought their enslavers throughout the Americas. And then they were erased from history.

Wake tells the “riveting” (Angela Y. Davis) story of Dr. Rebecca Hall, a historian, granddaughter of slaves, and a woman haunted by the legacy of slavery. The accepted history of slave revolts has always told her that enslaved women took a back seat. But Rebecca decides to look deeper, and her journey takes her through old court records, slave ship captain’s logs, crumbling correspondence, and even the forensic evidence from the bones of enslaved women from the “negro burying ground” uncovered in Manhattan. She finds women warriors everywhere.

Using a “remarkable blend of passion and fact, action and reflection” (NPR), Rebecca constructs the likely pasts of Adono and Alele, women rebels who fought for freedom during the Middle Passage, as well as the stories of women who led slave revolts in Colonial New York. We also follow Rebecca’s own story as the legacy of slavery shapes her life, both during her time as a successful attorney and later as a historian seeking the past that haunts her.

Illustrated beautifully in black and white, Wake will take its place alongside classics of the graphic novel genre, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This story of a personal and national legacy is a powerful reminder that while the past is gone, we still live in its wake.

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Yonder
by Jabari Asim

Emily’s Pick #3: YONDER, which takes place in the American South in the mid-19th century, tells the stories of four enslaved Black people, who call themselves the Stolen, and how they learn to form a community and persevere, while coming up against the hand of the slavers, who the slaves call the Thieves. Building on this ingenious word play, YONDER further develops its themes of identity as each of the four main characters are given their identities in seven words. We then see how these seven words come to define them. This powerful novel manages to explore heavy, harrowing stories through a beautifully lyrical lens that captures humanity’s capacity to hope.  

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Yonder
Jabari Asim

The Water Dancer meets The Prophets in this spare, gripping, and beautifully rendered novel exploring love and friendship among a group of enslaved Black strivers in the mid-19th century.

They call themselves the Stolen. Their owners call them captives. They are taught their captors’ tongues and their beliefs but they have a language and rituals all their own.

In a world that would be allegorical if it weren’t saturated in harsh truths, Cato and William meet at Placid Hall, a plantation in an unspecified part of the American South. Subject to the whims of their tyrannical and eccentric captor, Cannonball Greene, they never know what harm may befall them: inhumane physical toil in the plantation’s quarry by day, a beating by night, or the sale of a loved one at any moment. It’s that cruel practice—the wanton destruction of love, the belief that Black people aren’t even capable of loving—that hurts the most.

It hurts the reserved and stubborn William, who finds himself falling for Margaret, a small but mighty woman with self-possession beyond her years. And it hurts Cato, whose first love, Iris, was sold off with no forewarning. He now finds solace in his hearty band of friends, including William, who is like a brother; Margaret; Little Zander; and Milton, a gifted artist. There is also Pandora, with thick braids and long limbs, whose beauty calls to him.

Their relationships begin to fray when a visiting minister with a mysterious past starts to fill their heads with ideas about independence. He tells them that with freedom comes the right to choose the small things—when to dine, when to begin and end work—as well as the big things, such as whom and how to love. Do they follow the preacher and pursue the unknown? Confined in a landscape marked by deceit and uncertainty, who can they trust?

In an elegant work of monumental imagination that will reorient how we think of the legacy of America’s shameful past, Jabari Asim presents a beautiful, powerful, and elegiac novel that examines intimacy and longing in the quarters while asking a vital question: What would happen if an enslaved person risked everything for love?

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