15 Books to Read During Black History Month and Beyond

From science fiction to memoirs to history, these are must-reads for any time of year.

02.01.21 By Innocence Staff

Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash

Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash

February is Black History Month, and so we asked the Innocence Project’s staff to share books that have inspired them to reflect on Black history. The powerful books they selected below touch on everything from how the legacy of slavery in the U.S. has contributed to mass incarceration to exploring what it means to be a young Black person in America today — plus some interesting reads by talented Black authors touching on other forms of injustice.

Throughout this month, we’ll be highlighting the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration on Black people, including on death row, and honoring icons of the civil rights movement and pioneers of change. These essential reads get to the heart of many of these issues, so if you’re looking for a way to learn more this month check our recommendations. And tell us what you’re adding to your reading list in the comments below. 

1.  The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

Over 30 years, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne spoke to anyone he could find who knew Malcolm X. What resulted is this incredible biography of the civil rights leader, which paints a portrait of Malcolm X unlike any other. The winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, this biography is a must-read. Get it here or at your local bookstore.

2. Heavy by Kiese Laymon

In this memoir, Mr. Laymon writes about growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. He poignantly discusses his struggles with his weight, abuse and family, and contemplates the dynamics of race and America’s fraught racial history on his life and the lives of those around him. Get it here or at your local bookstore.

3. Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and activist Yusef Salaam

Co-authored by Yusef Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five and the Innocence Project’s board of directors, this moving young adult novel tells the story of a wrongly convicted boy. Ms. Zoboi told NPR that the main character is inspired by Mr. Salaam because, “I write books for children, and I wanted the world to remember that Yusef was a child when this happened to him and I was a child as well.”

Innocence Project supporters will receive a free shipping discount when they purchase Punching the Air with this link.

4. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Dr. Monique Morris

While arrests of girls between the ages of 13 and 17 have declined overall, Black girls are coming into contact with the juvenile justice system at disproportionately high rates. That has to do with the way society treats young Black girls, Dr. Morris argues. In this work of nonfiction, she examines the unique experiences of young Black girls in school, interrogating the ways in which today’s schools and systems dehumanize and criminalize Black girls from an early age, leaving life-long impacts. Get it here or at your local bookstore.

5. All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks

Celebrated Black feminist writer and professor bell hooks frequently writes on the intersection of race, gender and society. But in All About Love: New Visions, hooks examines the foundation of love and the ways in which cultural norms have shaped how we love one another. In less than 200 pages, hooks lays out her framework for understanding love and becoming more open to giving and receiving love, and in doing so advancing justice and humanity. Get it here or at your local bookstore.

6. Another Country by James Baldwin

No list of great Black literature would be complete without Mr. Baldwin’s work. In this 1962 novel, Mr. Baldwin paints a portrait of New York City’s Greenwich Village and Harlem neighborhoods as he saw them. He challenges the characterization of New York City as a harmonious “melting pot,” and instead highlights the ways in which continued racism can become internalized and affect interpersonal relationships. Another Country was criticized by many and banned in some places, including New Orleans and Australia, at the time of publishing. But, today, is considered an important and influential writing. Get it here or at your local bookstore.

7. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

In her first novel, Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi traces the details the slave trade’s impact on two continents over eight generations. Focusing on two half sisters and their descendants, Homegoing highlights the ways in which the legacy of slavery has shaped race dynamics and changed lives over hundreds of years, and still does to this day. Get it here or at your local bookstore.