Since 1926, Black History Month has celebrated and educated Americans about African-American history, focusing on cultural backgrounds and great achievements. Here is a short list of cultural reading that does just that – educate and inform about the African-American experience and celebrate some of the greatest African-American authors of all time.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this novel transforms history into a story both powerful and poetic. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense, Beloved is a classic novel worth reading any month of the year.
The Help – Kathryn Stockett
The bestselling novel and Academy Award-nominated film is the tale of Skeeter, young, white and college educated, who recognizes the social inequalities around her and begins collecting stories from “The Help” which leads to its own set of problems. “The Help”, a collection of African American maids who serve the wealthier families in 1960s Mississippi, are mistreated and abused by the white families above them. Contemporary Author Kathryn Stockett fleshes out her characters in rich detail and The Help will have you cheering for Skeeter, laughing with Minny and hissing at Hilly to the very end.
Native Son – Richard Wright
Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Pulitzer Prize-winning classic novel about a black man charged with the rape of a white girl in the Deep South in the 1930s. Told through the eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, the book explores the honesty and irrationality of adult attitudes towards race and class at the time. Prejudice, violence and hypocrisy faces the quiet heroism of one man’s struggle for justice – but the weight of history will only tolerate so much. To Kill a Mockingbird is a must read on your list of Black History Month books.
Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
From it’s stunning open through to the end, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the tale of a young, black and nameless man who moves through an America that is intolerant and culturally blind. The narrator is expelled from college and moves to New York City where he becomes the spokesman for a mixed-race band of social activists called The Brotherhood who he believes is fighting for equality but he realizes his new companions are as blind as the rest of society. Invisible Man is a culturally significant book about the human race figuring out the world, stumbling down the path to identity.
Mama – Terry McMillan
Mildred Peacock is the funny, feisty heroine of Mama, a survivor who’ll do anything to keep her family together. In Mildred’s world, men come and go as quickly as her paychecks, but her five children are her dream, her hope and her future. Mildred’s story is told with rich power, honesty, and love and Mama is a must-read this Black History Month.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe
One of the bestselling books of all time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic sprang from her courage to write, resulting in a classic that claimed the heart, soul and politics of pre-Civil War Americans. In a time when women might see the majority of their children die, Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrays beautiful Eliza fleeing slavery to protect her son. In a time when many whites claimed slavery had “good effects” on blacks, the novel paints pictures of three plantations, each worse than the next, where even the best plantation leaves a slave at the mercy of fate or debt. This powerful tale originally published in 1852 is one of the first books of its kind and deserves all the respect and accolades it’s received.
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
The Color Purple is told through the letters of poor, black Celie. At the age of 14, Celie is abused by her father and attempting to protect her sister from the same fate, and continuing over the course of her marriage to “Mister,” a brutal man who terrorizes her. Celie eventually learns that her abusive husband has been keeping her sister’s letters from her and the rage she feels, combined with an example of love and independence provided by her close friend Shug, pushes her finally toward an awakening of her creative and loving self.
“I maybe black, I may be poor, I maybe a woman, and I may even be ugly! But thank God I’m here”