Please save this page - I will be continuously updating over the years as more books and suggestions come to me.
|Image courtesy of Religion & Politics|
Hello dear readers –
As you may have noticed, I’ve taken an extended break from blogging. Between the COVID-19 crisis, the indefinite closure of #tctheater, the shutdown of travel and now the sacking of Minneapolis, it’s just not been a great time for the more lighthearted content I usually share. It’s also given me time to focus on some family and personal projects that need long-term tending.
That said, if you visit Compendium even modestly you will notice that I do a lot of reading. In light of the current movement to provide justice for George Floyd and other victims of racist violence, several people have reached out asking for recommendations of books for themselves and others.
Lucky for you, I’ve been rounding up just such information on my Goodreads page for years now. I don’t like the lack of sophistication in their listing capabilities, so instead I’m compiling a master list here broken by category. All of these books are ones I have read and found informative about the experience of people of color, especially black Americans, and all are authored by people of color (with a few rare exceptions at the end). I have also included a list of books that I have seen recommended by several sources I trust – I have noted where I haven’t read them, but I wanted to provide them as additional great resources, understanding that different people connect to different writing styles.
I plan to maintain this list for the future, so please save the link and let me know if you have additional books to share! I also highly recommend visiting this Google file(and bookmarking it) for an enormous treasure trove of online articles about the history of racism in the United States and ways to un-learn racist bias and become an anti-racist. I’ve had it bookmarked for years and regularly revisit and share this database. Do not discount this – although these are shorter articles or long-form journalism, they by no means are less valuable than an actual book.
Please stay safe, stay active, and stay strong my friends. While it’s hard to see the city burn, it’s harder to know of the centuries of injustice that have been visited on our friends and family of color. As Lizzo said, we ain’t free ‘til we ALL free – so keep fighting the good fight, educating yourself, and keeping the pressure on. We can win this!
With love and power,
My Top Books to Read First (and make sure to purchase from a Black-owned bookstore!)
- Any books by James Baldwin – Suggest The Last Interview and Other Conversations: Any step towards understanding the black experience in America begins and ends with James Baldwin, period. All of his books should be required reading, but if you need a place to start, this collection of his last ever interview is a great survey of his expertise from the end of his life. Baldwin is a genius, a fabulous writer, and tragically underappreciated. If you read one author on this list, make it him.
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander: This was the first book that really radicalized me on race issues. Alexander is impeccably sourced and clear, with iron-clad legal proofs of the systemic racism built throughout our “justice” system and the insidious ways it hides in our systems to this day. She proves without doubt that Jim Crow never went away – it just evolved into more nefarious forms of discrimination. I have recommended and even bought this book for more people than I can count. It is essential reading.
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson: A lot of fuss has been made about Caste and it lives up to the hype. Caste fills the gap in our language by accurately describing the holistic devastation of America's racial inequities and the intention with which that system was constructed. Make sure to give yourself time to deeply read and consider the material. This is a must-read book this year and every year. Don't be afraid of the heavy subject matter and Wilkerson's scholarship - this is very approachably written, even more so than The Warmth of Other Suns, with accessibly short chapters and vivid, illustrative stories.
- A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn: This iconic text is a cornerstone of educating yourself about the "invisible" parties of American history - think Native Americans, women, BIPOC people, labor movements and more. I was astonished at the prophetic nature of much of Zinn's prose, particularly the conclusions drawn in his original edition, which seem more relevant than ever today. Excellent writing that more than holds its own decades after it was first published, and a must-read for all Americans (but particularly those working towards anti-racism causes). 15/10 recommend for any and all readers.
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: This is singlehandledly the best book I have read about having conversations about racism with other white people. It includes tons of helpful analogies to help people of privilege understand things they’ve never experienced. Ijeoma also has a wonderful Twitter feed – give her a follow if you’re on that platform. And don't miss her new book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.
- Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: The heartbreaking memoir heard ‘round the world. Back in the last round of Black Lives Matter protests came this letter Coates wrote to his son about growing up as a black man in a police state. This really humanizes the impact of our racist policies; I’d recommend reading this after The New Jim Crow for a zoom-out / zoom-in understanding of the experience of black men in our country.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X: A lot of people identify as a Malcolm vs. a Martin, but few understand just how close the two became before their tragic assassinations. This remains a magnificent read decades after Malcolm’s death and is really vital context to understanding what the Civil Rights movement did and did not accomplish, and why sometimes a less peaceful approach is the best one for black people acting in defense.
- A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches by Martin Luther King Jr.: People love to cherry pick pithy quotes from MLKJ, but few know the full depth and breadth of the systemic changes he argued for. I read this collection of his entire written works like a devotional throughout an entire year – it’s long, but worth soaking up one page at a time.
Non-fiction Books for Adults about Race / Racism
- March Graphic Novel Series by John Lewis: Vital graphic novel series straight from the mouth of one of the last people alive who led the Civil Rights movement. This series pairs really well with The Silence of Our Friends.
- The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, Nate Powell: Powerful graphic novel of a Civil Rights era case where five black college students receive freedom after being charged with the murder of a policeman. Riveting.
- The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks: True story of the experiences of the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black WWI unit who faced horrific racism after returning home to America as war heroes. Another graphic novel you won’t be able to put down.
- Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston: One of the most exciting developments in publishing is the movement to unearth out of print texts by black authors. Barracoon, the true narrative of the last man stolen from Africa who lived in America as a slave, is one of them. It’s the only modern first-hand account of the full experience of slavery from shore to shore that we have and a vital primary text in understanding the legacy of slavery in the U.S. (and a reminder how recently that system still existed).
- Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar: Why should we reframe the way we teach about our founding fathers? This exposé of George Washington’s determined pursuit of a runaway slave is a window into why. If America includes people of all races equally, then we have to be much more honest about who we deify and what their true legacy is.
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson: This is a spectacular American history that is well-worth revisiting. I hadn't really thought about the fact that I never formally *learned* about the Great Migration and what a dearth of materials exist around such an important subject until I read this book. I'd never thought in terms of full scope or impact on American politics and economy, nor in terms of a massive refugee crisis, which the Great Migration really was. Not only does this book really re-frame the history well, but it deeply personalizes it through following three distinct people's trajectories through the migration. It's thoughtful, clear prose that is a masterclass in writing. I will definitely re-read this book at some point and have already lent it out to family. Truly a modern classic.
- Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde: Audre Lorde is essential reading on intersectionality and black feminism. This is a fabulous essay collection – worth purchasing for permanent home use.
- When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Asha Bandele, Angela Y. Davis: First-hand insight into life as a black woman in America from the founders of Black Lives Matter. This is the 101 primer on how BLM was founded, why, and what they are fighting for. BLM remains very misunderstood, so this is an important way to understand why the movement is structured without a single figurehead, how it functions with its many arms in states and cities across the world, and more.
- Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine: Rankine wrote this before Black Lives Matter exploded onto the scene but it was published almost when the movement started. The timing was eerie, the subject matter prescient, and it remains a modern classic.
- We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A collection of nearly a decade of Coates’ long form essays, this is essential reading for considering where we go from here. “The Case for Reparations,” in particular, is a vital piece for all white Americans to chew on.
- Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward: Jesmyn Ward is on this list several times because yes, she IS that good. This book, describing the many ways black men die before their time (hint: it’s all due to racism but not all of it relates to policing), will haunt you long after you are done reading.
- The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race: Essay collection by many of my favorite black writers (most of whom have other books on this list) specific to the experience of race in the tradition of James Baldwin.
- Bad Feminist or Hunger by Roxane Gay: One of the seminal cultural critics of our times on life as a black, queer, fat woman in America. Both books are beautifully written and have powerful, life changing insights to share. They’re also great primers on understanding intersectionality for race, sex / gender, size, and other forms of privilege.
- Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee: If you are feeling swallowed by darkness at the state of things, pick up this book about how good and determination can overcome what are truly the worst of times. Also a fantastic example of the unfathomable things that happen when black women take full charge of a movement.
- Becoming by Michelle Obama: The inside scoop on the other Obama and really just an excellent expose in how black life in America has evolved from the 1960s to now. It wasn’t just a best seller because she was famous.
- More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) by Elaine Welteroth: One of the best career advice books bar none that I’ve read, but another window into intersectionality and life as a black woman in America. Welteroth is an elegant, wise writer and I liked this a lot more than I expected to.
- You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson: If you want to learn and laugh at the same time (who doesn’t?), Robinson’s books are for you. This is her first essay collection and while funny, will clearly illuminate many of the struggles black women face growing up in primarily white environments.
- We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union: It can be easy to forget just how long Union has worked in Hollywood, but her essay collection will remind you. There’s a lot of insight here into life as a black woman and the importance of representation in the entertainment industry both on and off the screen.
- The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae: Before there was Insecure there was The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Learn about Rae’s artistic origins in this laugh out loud memoir.
- Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah: Insight into growing up as a biracial child and life in South Africa under apartheid. I like Noah’s writing even better than his comedy, and this book was one of my favorites the year I read it.
- The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin: Extensively researched, this book proves how black cooks created what we think of as American food and how little credit they got for it. Another example of how black culture is really American culture, not two separate things.
- The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem by Marcus Samuelsson: While food is a great bridge between cultures, it also tells a history of place, time and memory. This is a fascinating look at the history of many black-authored dishes from across the diaspora, the American melting pot, and the borough of Harlem itself.
- The Grey Album: Music, Shadows, Lies by Kevin Young: Although this is ostensibly a wonderful history of black music in America, you will find that art is inherently political. Learn the reasons that black culture IS American culture and doesn’t need a separate section in the book or record store.
- Decoded by Jay-Z: This book will surprise you with its nuance and depth. Jay-Z enriches the stereotypes of the hip-hop “gangster” artist with truth, history and context. The wealth of nuance straight from his lyrics will really re-frame your assumptions about this world.
- Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series by Leah Dickerman: If you’re more of a visual learner, view these historic paintings depicting the massive migration of black Americans from Southern states to northern cities like Chicago in the mid-20th century.
- Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat: A slightly different perspective on black life from the diaspora. Danticat covers a swath of subjects from life in Haiti to life as an immigrant in New York. She is one of my favorite writers on art and its purpose.
Great Fiction Books by Black Authors
- Beloved by Toni Morrison: There is a reason Toni Morrison was the first (and, to-date, and tragically, only) black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and this book is it. Haunting, vital, unforgettable… it’s a pillar of the canon and a must-read.
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: Another book that needs to become a pillar of the literary canon. This is the first in a series by this Nigerian author, which details life in pre-colonial Africa. This is a helpful way to visualize what black men lost when they began to see their homes colonized and were stolen from their birthplace.
- Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: You know all those movies where people time travel between modern and slavery times? Octavia Butler did it first, and she probably did it best. There’s a whole series of her work from the 1970s begging to be revisited. This is one of her best.
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: One of the most impactful novels I’ve ever read that follows generations of black women from Africa to America. It’s among my most gifted and recommended books and gives you a nuanced view of the impacts of slavery and racism from both sides of the Atlantic.
- Any Books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Adichie is a wonderful writer about the American African (yes, this is different from African American) experience. I’ve read all of her books and they are all fantastic. The link will take you to her author page so you can peruse the ones new-to-you and snap them up. If you need help choosing one to start, Americanah is the gold standard.
- I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett: Percival Everett is IMHO *criminally* underrated. This novel, describing the plight of an orphaned black boy brought into fabulous wealth after being adopted by Ted Turner, is one of his best. Darkly funny and a book that will make you question all your assumptions about wealth equaling privilege.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Novel depicting the impact of the prison pipeline from inside a marriage ripped apart by it. This will break your heart and illuminate how deep the dark consequences of sending someone to jail really go.
- The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Even years later I still don’t know how to describe this darkly comedic book, although it did bear shades of Percival Everett to me. Just think of it as “one of the most unique books about race in modern memory” and give it a go.
- Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: I’m hard pressed to think of another author writing more beautifully or heartwrenchingly about modern life in the American South as a black person. ALL of Jesmyn Ward’s books are stunners, but my favorite remains this slender novel about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on a group of motherless children.
- Cane by Jean Toomer: Classic book about life in America as a black person during the Harlem Renaissance. This book deserves to be far more widely known and read than it is – if we can read William Faulkner we sure as hell can read Jean Toomer.
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: Vivid re-imagination of the process of taking the Underground Railroad to freedom, complete with several magical twists and turns. This will make the experience of being a slave much less abstract and sterile than history books do.
- The Collected Poems by Langston Hughes: Going through Hughes' lyrical verse is a balm. It's astonishing how vast the breadth of his literary brush is able to capture in such an economy of language. It's a very jazzy kind of poetry and you feel the Harlem Renaissance palpably throughout. This is an easy book to flip back and forth to savor various sections, and it's worth adding to your list if you're trying to familiarize better with historic Black authors.
- Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire: Remember that little album Beyoncé released called Lemonade? This is the book of poetry she heavily sampled throughout it. Shire’s words are lyrical, evocative, and ancient. Loved this collection.
- Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith: Gripping collection that is like the Black Twitter of poetry. This is thoroughly modern, deals tangibly with police brutality and queer identity, and I’ve since read all Smith’s collections – they are powerful.
- Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith: Poetry somehow has a way of saying the unsaid, and this remains one of my favorite poetry collections of all time, bar none, regardless of subject matter. Truly revelatory language usage that deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize the year it was published.
- Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems by Thomas Sayers Ellis: An incisively articulated indictment of America’s racial system long before Trayvon Martin's murder, this poetry collection was way ahead of its time.
- Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange: Slim novel that I described as “Zora Neale Hurston meets Lauryn Hill style;” “dipping into a pensieve of black female ancestral history.” Even better is Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf - if you haven’t read or seen it, check it out ASAP.
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith: Smith is a modern literary legend in the making. It’s very hard to believe this is her first novel, but it gives you a good idea of the high quality of all her work (I’ve read the rest – any of her other books are also worth picking up).
- She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore: Pseudo-superhero novel set at the founding of Liberia. This was a unique blend of African magical realism, Luke Cage and generational fiction like Homegoing.
- Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: A modern Carribbean, voodoo, fairy tale-style novel. Need I say more?
- Stay with Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: Insight into life in polygamous African societies, sickle cell disease, familial meddling and more, you won’t be able to put down this powerful book. This one will give you a gut punch.
- The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu: Another African author who packs a lot of content into a very short book. Lots of twists and turns in this entertaining novel that illuminates serious issues without being condescending.
- The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin: Jemisin is the first and only author of any race or gender to win three straight Hugo awards (aka the Oscars of the fantasy world) for a series. This is a ripping good read but also a way to open your mind up to new fictional worlds beyond the stale Middle Earth-ian tropes white authors seem to rinse and repeat.
- Children of Blood and Bone / (Legacy of Orïsha Series) by Tomi Adeyemi: This series is very fresh, creative YA fiction that Disney picked up for development. This richly realized fantasy world creates heavy parallels to the African American experience in the U.S. As the Orïsha series develops it's proving to be taut, exciting and rich, and will leave you immediately hungering for the final part in the trilogy.
- Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: Very dense, complex first entry in a soon-to-be trilogy. This weaves a lot of ancient African mythology with pure fantasy; it’s dark, it’s violent, and it’s totally unique. If you made it through Game of Thrones, you need to make it through this.
- Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South by Regina N. Bradley: I don’t usually like short story collections, but this one introduced me to a host of new black authors and was a really interesting twist on the genre. I visualize it something like the black literary version of Black Mirror.
- The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: The brand spanking new installment from one of my favorite authors (see above), this seems particularly relevant due to the subject matter: watching a city become a sentient being, as visualized through characters representing its major boroughs. I couldn’t stop thinking of this imagery watching the protests arise around the world last week – this book will be one of its time for sure.
Children’s Books Starring Black and POC Characters
- Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison: Little Leaders is an entire series worth looking into, but this one focusing specifically on black women is my favorite. This is a great primer into many #hiddenfigures that will lead you to researching books about each woman (some of which are also listed below).
- Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o, Vashti Harrison: Stunning illustrations and a story that centers and celebrates the main character’s dark black skin. This is a good one for explaining colorism and skin color differences to kids at a young age.
- Layla's Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Ashleigh Corrin: Book about a black girl that is just about her being happy – that’s it. No political message. And that’s why I loved it so much.
- Firebird by Misty Copeland: Vibrant illustrations telling the story of the first black prima ballerina of the New York Ballet.
- Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell: Fun story for little kids about one of history’s criminally underrated provocateurs that isn’t overly dumbed down.
- Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald by Roxane Orgill: Super fun book that incorporates Fitzgerald’s trademark scat singing style. Also a good one for teaching kids about building confidence, encouraging independence, etc.
- The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend by Ann Ingalls, Maryann Macdonald: Mary Lou Williams was described as the Mozart of her time. Never heard of her? I hadn’t either. Great book about a forgotten hero.
- When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Brian Selznick: Another #hiddenfigure in American musical history. The book itself is great, but it also has an insightful afterword from the author that really enriches the text.
- Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh: It can be overlooked that segregation did not just affect black vs. white people, but all people of color in America. Few know that nearly a decade prior to Brown vs. Board of Education a family of Mexican / Puerto Rican heritage sued the government to integrate schools – and WON. Loved this read.
- Islandborn by Junot Díaz, Leo Espinosa: Insightful children’s book about life as an Afro-Latina, a cultural intersection that is far too often erased or misunderstood. The illustrations are bright and compelling, and this tells an honest story while staying age-appropriate.
- Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown: Elegantly poetic book about an artist and activist that has English and Spanish text.
- Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson: If I told you a young boy biked across Ghana with only one leg, would you believe me? It’s true. This book tells his story.
- Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson: Important biography of course, and the illustrations just glow out at you.
- Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli: The true story of the woman who brought back an entire environment with beautiful, beautiful illustrations.
- Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prévot, Aurélia Fronty: Same subject from another perspective. This is more in-depth than Mama Miti but is just as beautiful. Also includes helpful supplemental materials in the back with detail about the impacts of deforestation and climate change in Africa.
- One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul: True story of how a woman took it upon herself to rid Gambia of plastic bags. Great book teaching about activism and environmental causes.
- The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina by Fatima Sharafeddine: Think of Ibn Sina as the DaVinci of the Muslim world… except he did it centuries before the Enlightenment. Among Sina’s contributions to the world are the foundation of modern medicine. Almost guaranteed to be a new-to-you story.
- The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter: Sharing the love of reading from the Middle East, this is a great illustration of the difference a single person can make (it’s a true story).
- Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan / Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan: Two Stories of Bravery by Jeanette Winter: Companion books about two children, a boy and a girl, who defended their right to education in Pakistan.
- Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter: Great advocacy for girls’ education, but also a good book for children who have some trauma / PTSD to work through to connect with. This story has so much heart and helps kids understand negative events and emotions like loss, death and fear.
- Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges, Sophie Blackall: A true story set in pre-Mao China, also about the importance of educating girls. I seem to struggle to find good children’s books set in Asia so this is a nice addition to diversify your children’s library.
- Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki, Dom Lee: Another true story about how Japanese citizens fought against their government during WWII. Great book to show kids the importance of standing up for what is right and standing up against bullies.
- Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams, Khadra Mohammed, Doug Chayka: Poignant book about sharing and life as a child in refugee camps, another subject often missing from children’s literature.
- Abuela by Arthur Dorros, Elisa Kleven: Sweet bilingual book (Spanish and English) about family relationships that is great from toddler to early school age. I know elementary Spanish teachers who use this in their classroom, so a great one to start with if you want your kids to learn a new language.
- Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales: The life of Frida Kahlo told with one of the most unique illustration styles I’ve ever seen. The pictures take a collage / mixed media approach, which really packs a punch when paired with the bilingual narrative.
- Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future! by Kate Schatz: Modern encyclopedia of #hiddenfigures and women we all should know more about, but for kids! It has women represented of every race, sexuality and creed. Great place to survey women you want to research more about.
- Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love: Heartwarming children’s book centering multiracial characters and helping them understand trans and queer identities. Good for kids of all ages but especially 3 – 10 or so, I’d say.
- Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi: About as straightforward as its name, this short book is the perfect lineup for the radical baby in your life.
- Honeysmoke: A Story of Finding Your Color by Monique Fields, Yesenia Moises: This was recommended by several local mom friends as a good book for mixed race kids, which is a hard niche to find books for. I like the message of crafting who you are on your own terms and the illustrations are brilliantly colored, which drew my son in even at his very young age.
- Aya Graphic Novel Series by Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie: Vibrant, full color graphic novel series about a teenage girl and her friends in the Ivory Coast in the heydays after independence in the 1970s. These have all the elements of the best of teen / tween favorites like a Daria, but told completely from an African perspective. So much fun.
- Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor: All of Okorafor’s books (and there are a LOT of them) are fun, fast fiction reads that will please kids and grownups alike. This series, however, is my favorite. Think of it as the African Harry Potter. You won’t be able to stop reading these once you start.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: I really struggled with categories to put this in – technically it’s YA Fiction but I read it as an adult and found it very powerful. This is a great middle to high school level novel about seeing police brutality through a teenager’s eyes. It embraces complexity and proves how kids are affected by – and can be a part of the solution to – racial injustice. It was also recently made into a movie if you want a visual version.
- I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb: Autobiography of THE Malala Yousafzai, perfect for tweens / teens age kids.
- The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang: Fun homage to the first Asian American comic book hero by one of my favorite graphic novelists. This is probably a book for middle school / older kids but adults will love it too. Great read for Marvel / superhero fans.
- Ms. Marvel Series by G. Willow Wilson: I’m super excited about the new crop of Marvel heroes and Ms. Marvel is my favorite. It’s so fun to see a Muslim girl kicking ass in comic book form. Great read for middle / high school ages.
Great Books by Wider POC Authors (Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, etc.) – All Genres
- They Called Us Enemy by George Takei: Takei is famous for his time on Star Trek, but his story starts in the concentration camps built to house Japanese Americans during WWII. Seeing the experience of being trapped and imprisoned in your own country through a child’s eyes will bring you to your knees and expose a sin of American history most us know far too little about.
- The Leavers by Lisa Ko: This is a rich, complex novel that provides a really nuanced dive into immigration policy in China and the U.S., as well as an expose on foreign adoption from the perspective of the adoptees themselves. This fits a niche that is really needed right now in terms of humanizing the immigration debate, especially the practice of separating BIPOC children from their parents (who are then deported home with no way to contact their kids) and what happens to them in "better homes" with white parents.
- In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero: Lost in the COVID pandemic and police protests is the fact that we are still arresting and detaining thousands of migrants at the border and in our cities. This is essential insight from a woman whose parents were taken while she was still a child. Learn why ICE needs to be dismantled and what separating families really means.
- Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas: Another first hand account of growing up in America undocumented and the long-term effects undocumented status has. Vital read to understanding the immigration and citizenship crisis.
- The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui: A perspective on the Vietnam War (and its aftermath) on people who had to flee their homeland. Also a striking graphic memoir and demonstration of the value of resilience, strength, education, hard work and dignity.
- The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang: Minnesota has been home to more Hmong people than anywhere else in the world for years, but how much do you actually know about the Hmong experience? This opened my eyes to what many of my neighbors went through to come to the U.S. I regretted not reading it sooner.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer: Beautiful book of essays by an indigenous author that helped me re-frame how deep colonial perspective goes, particularly in relation to environment and language (for example, Kimmerer describes how in indigenous languages the words for plants are active – like verbs – rather than nouns, demonstrating how they are constantly living things in relationship to us. A tree is not a tree, it is "treeing." A flower is "flowering." etc.). Fabulous, meditative read.
- There There by Tommy Orange: A short novel about the deep struggles indigenous people still face today, There There is a window into the shattered indigenous diaspora and the resilience still within it. This one is famous for a reason.
- The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman: Insight into traditional indigenous food systems from a local Minnesota chef. While most of the book focuses on foods Minnesota-based tribes would have made, Sherman takes care to include insight from chefs of other tribes around the country.
- Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection: This series of comics from indigenous artists of many tribes offers a wide range of artistic styles and voices. Again, an important way to continue to de-colonize your perspective of art and narrative.
- A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza: Insight into modern Muslim life in America through a family struggling with many contemporary problems like addiction, being the black sheep, heartache and more. Hard to believe this was a first novel.
- Arab in America by Toufic El Rassi: This graphic novel does a show vs. tell version of life in the U.S. as a Muslim. Very impactful, fast read.
- The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar: Lyrical, gorgeous memoir about a man’s relationship to his father after their family flees Libya and his father is later murdered by Qaddafi. Rich intersection of insight from life in Europe and in North Africa.
- The Complete Persepolis or Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi: Iran, and especially the women of Iran, is / are criminally misunderstood in America. Persepolis and Embroideries are an essential read for enriching our understanding of this ancient place, both good and bad.
- The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan: Beautiful novel about life in Iran vs. in America as an Iranian immigrant. Perfect summer beach read.
- Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat: Short story collection by a legendary Egyptian author about life as a woman in Egypt. It’s progressive, diverse and pointed, covering arranged marriage, queer sex, sex in general and more.
- In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez: Beautiful novel about life under Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. It’s historical fiction based on real people, wonderfully written, and the strong female protagonists will fully inspire you to be more activist in your own life.
- Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Mayan fantasy fiction that you won’t be able to put down. I found this a romantic and illuminating journey into a culture I know shamefully little about.
- Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang: When people think of colonialism they tend to forget about China. Gene Luen Yang is one of my favorite graphic novel authors anyway, but this series showing the fight against Christian missionaries was riveting and a history I knew far too little about.
- Palestine by Joe Sacco, Edward W. Said: Dazzling graphic novel-style introduction to Palestine that is also journalistic. Notable both for artistic style and subject matter – very impactful read.
- Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal: Asia is the world’s largest continent, but the thousands of cultural groups who live there tend to be conflated into one stereotype here in the U.S. This gives a slice of insight into the specific experience of Punjabi women in the form of a sexy, funny murder mystery.
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A Dickensian level magnum opus about life for a Korean family across generations. This helps illuminate ways racism can play out in cultures outside of the United States.
- Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh: Thich Nhat Hanh is a name that belongs with other great pacifists – the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, etc. Beautiful primer on Mahayana Buddhism and how to uplift without judgement. Wonderful, soul-enriching book.
- Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy Letters by Mahatma Gandhi: Primer on nonviolent resistance from across the pond, and a chance to see two great minds in action.
Helpful Books by White Authors (Just A Few)
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: Although written by a white author, this is a vital book to putting the history of medical violence perpetrated against black Americans in perspective. It’s also a ripping good nonfiction read that you will tear through with abandon. If you aren’t sure why reparations are necessary, this case against the abuse a single family faced at the hands of medical and pharmaceutical corporations should lay it pretty bare. Oprah also produced a film version if you can find it.
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond: Evicted is an especially relevant read right now as millions face homelessness due to the COVID-initiated economic crisis. The data is thorough and pointed, clearly demonstrating where inequities lie, and really humanizes the issue of eviction and the crisis in affordable housing nationwide. Sometimes nonfiction, even when accurate and well researched, can be so dry or focused on the numbers that it becomes hard to read or identify with. Evicted avoids that trap and ties crucial detail to each story. This is an important read to help all Americans understand how vulnerable so much of our society is to homelessness - even pre-COVID - and learn some creative solutions to this problem.
- White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg: This is the history of poor white people in America and how the American system was built from the ground up to exploit racial tensions so the rich could hold on to their power and property. It’s “the other side” of racism, if you will, and a helpful reminder that America was made this way on purpose.
- A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution by Toby Green: It can be easy to forget that Africa was full of diverse, rich, deeply sophisticated civilizations before the arrival of Europeans. This is a deep dive that illuminates many of them and traces the origins of slavery through an economic lens. This greatly enriched my understanding of black heritage and my very poor knowledge of African history.
- Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann: Gripping true story of how the FBI was founded to investigate the systematic murder of Osage tribe members after the discovery of oil on their reservation in Oklahoma. Another piece to understanding the puzzle of American military, police and intelligence organizations, and the systematic ways white supremacy has abused people of many races.
- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford: Decolonize your knowledge of world history. Genghis Khan is not famous for the things he deserves to be, like diversifying leadership and power structures, inventing paper currency, utilizing mobile engineering, and more. This will really flip your assumptions about world history and what constitutes "barbarianism" vs. “civilization” on its head.
- When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön: Wise words from an essential Buddhist author on ways to heal and survive in difficult moments. This is one of those books you buy because although short, you return to it again and again.
- Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl: There is a reason this book remains legendary decades after it was first published. If you want a window into the darkest moments humanity can experience as well as the resilience and triumph of the human spirit, look no further. This is also an excellent way to re-frame your privilege and reality – after reading the horrors Frankl experienced in the Holocaust it’s pretty damn hard to feel sorry for yourself.
- Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed: I’ve recommended and purchased few authors more than Cheryl Strayed. There is a lot of wisdom and healing to be found in these advice columns. This is more of a human and heart healing book, but it’s a guide for understanding how to write empathetically and just a great read in general.
Books I Haven’t Read Myself But Come Highly Recommended
- How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
- They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde
- A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis