Adult Readers Advisory

Updated Non-Fic Picks for Black History Month

Titles from NPL’s collections about racial justice and about Black histories, cultures, and experiences in America.

New picks for 2017:

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

In this incisive critique, former litigator turned legal scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community — and all of us — to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King

The life story of Coretta Scott King — wife of Martin Luther King Jr., founder of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and singular twentieth-century American civil rights activist — as told fully for the first time, toward the end of her life, to one of her closest friends.

They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery

A deeply reported book that brings alive the quest for justice in the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, offering both unparalleled insight into the reality of police violence in America and an intimate, moving portrait of those working to end it.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Among these problem-solvers were exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve success in the Space Race. (The abridged edition of this book is a great choice for younger readers and busy adults.)

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward takes James Baldwin’s 1963 examination of race in America, The Fire Next Time, as a jumping-off point for this groundbreaking collection of essays and poems about race from the most important voices of her generation and our time.

Race Matters by Cornel West

A new edition of West’s work addressing a range of issues, from the crisis in black leadership and the myths surrounding black sexuality, to affirmative action and the new black conservatism.

The Radical King, edited by Cornel West

Every year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is celebrated as one of the greatest orators in US history, an ambassador for nonviolence who became perhaps the most recognizable leader of the civil rights movement. But after more than forty years, few people appreciate how truly radical he was. Arranged thematically in four parts, The Radical King includes twenty-three selections, curated and introduced by Dr. Cornel West, that illustrate King’s revolutionary vision, underscoring his identification with the poor, his unapologetic opposition to the Vietnam War, and his crusade against global imperialism. As West writes, “Although much of America did not know the radical King–and too few know today–the FBI and US government did. They called him ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ This book unearths a radical King that we can no longer sanitize.”

Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File by John Edgar Wideman

In The Louis Till File, John Edgar Wideman searches for Louis Till, a silent victim of American injustice. Wideman’s personal interaction with the story began when he learned of Emmett’s murder in 1955; Wideman was also fourteen years old. After reading decades later about Louis’s execution, he couldn’t escape the twin tragedies of father and son, and tells their stories together for the first time.

2016 picks:

March (Books III, and III) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Congressman John Lewis’s perspective on the civil rights movement, brought to life by the illustration of award-winning graphic novelist Nate Powell.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Agonizing, lyrical, and momentous. If you read only one book from this list, make it this National Book Award winner.

The African-American Century by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West
Written by two of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, this collection of 100 short biographies presents a wide survey of the accomplishments of 20th-century scholars, soldiers, musicians, entertainers, political figures, and inventors.

The March on Washington: Freedom, Jobs, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights by William P. Jones
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech is perhaps the best-known legacy of the historic 1963 March on Washington, but this book explores its original connection with the labor movement and economic justice. Focusing on labor leader Philip Randolph, Jones’s book explores the complex relationship between labor unions, employment law, and the civil rights movement.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
From the 1910s to the 1970s, millions of black Americans resettled from the South to the Northeast and Midwest in search of better lives. Framing this mass exodus in three biographies, Pulitzer Prize winner Wilkerson investigates the economic, sociological, and cultural forces that shaped one of the largest demographic events of the twentieth century—without losing sight of the personal tolls it took on its participants.

America in the King Years by Taylor Branch
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965
At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968
Branch’s three-volume chronicle, written over the span of 25 years, garnered him several prestigious prizes, including a Pulitzer. Rightly so: it’s the most in-depth, painstakingly researched account of the famed humanitarian and civil rights leader.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
A collaborative effort with renowned journalist and Roots author Alex Haley, this 1965 book traces the famed activist’s journey from his tumultuous Michigan childhood to his conversion to Islam and his role in the burgeoning black pride movement.

Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin
A detailed biography of the First Lady against a background of racial strife. In addition to chronicling the events of his subject’s own life, Slevin explores how the public’s reactions to Michelle Obama intersect with perceptions of black women in general.

Holler if You Hear Me: Searching For Tupac Shakur by Michael Eric Dyson
Georgetown University professor Dyson has written books on topics ranging from hip-hop to civil rights to Hurricane Katrina. Holler If You Hear Me is his study of the life, artistry, and cultural significance of slain hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur.

Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being by Todd Balf
Before Jack Johnson, before Jackie Robinson, there was “The Human Engine.” This sports biography recounts how Marshall “Major” Taylor overcame racism, foul play, and violence to become the first African-American world champion cyclist.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup was a skilled carpenter and professional violinist who became an abolitionist after being held in captivity for over a decade. A bestseller in its own day, and recently made into an Oscar-winning film, this 1853 memoir is his harrowing first-hand account of the slavery system.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The first of several autobiographical writings, Douglass’s Narrative recounts the lauded social reformer’s experiences as a slave and his eventual escape to freedom. Follow it up with his The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published nearly forty years later.

Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography by Gordon Parks
While perhaps best known as a photographer, Gordon Parks was a renaissance man–a musician, writer, poet, filmmaker, and visual artist. As the first black staff photographer and writer for Life magazine, the director of Shaft, and a co-founder of Essence magazine, Parks left behind a multifaceted document of black culture and experience in America.



All of these titles are available at NPL; simply click the links to check availability or place a hold.

Some book descriptions have been adapted from the publishers’ websites.