Never More Relevant: 50 Books for February, Black History Month, and Beyond

Consider the models of leadership and activism outlined by Muhammad Ali or Coretta Scott King, the courage of Ona Judge, the creativity of Chester Himes, the verve of Charlamagne Tha God. It’s time for a reacquaintance with our past.
In a rapidly changing political landscape, the past has never been more relevant to our understanding of the future. And this February, Black History Month, books by black authors and about black subjects are even more so. Consider the models of leadership and activism outlined by Muhammad Ali or Coretta Scott King, the courage of Ona Judge, the creativity of Chester Himes, the verve of Charlamagne Tha God. Wrestle with the complexity of black life in verse; revel in its diversity in fiction. Cook up something new, or try a recipe handed down through the generations. And pay special attention to several rediscovered writers and reissued works to receive recognition this year. It’s time for a reacquaintance with our past.


hecallsme-jpg122216Bass, S. Jonathan. He Calls Me by Lightning: The Life of Caliph Washington and the Forgotten Saga of Jim Crow, Southern Justice, and the Death Penalty. Liveright: Norton. May 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781631492372. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631492389. HIST

A Samford University historian tells the story of Caliph Washington, who was a teenager when he was wrongfully convicted of killing a policeman in 1957, and who was saved—a dozen times—from execution by electric chair.

Berry, Daina Ramey. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Beacon. Jan. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9780807047620. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780807047637. HIST

This first study of its kind follows an enslaved person’s life through the lens of their monetary value, from University of Texas at Austin history professor Berry. (LJ 10/15/16)

Davies, Tom Adam. Mainstreaming Black Power. Univ. of California. Apr. 2017. 296p. ISBN 9780520292116. pap. $29.95. HIST

History professor Davies reconsiders the Black Power movement in terms of its many interactions with white power structures, i.e., local, state, and federal governments.

Else, Jon. True South: Henry Hampton and Eyes on the Prize, the Landmark Television Series That Reframed the Civil Rights Movement. Viking. Jan. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9781101980934. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781101980958. HIST

In 1987, the multipart PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize told the story of the civil rights movement from the perspective of its ordinary members. Here, series producer Else tells the story behind the making of the film. (LJ 12/16)

George, Denise & Robert Child. The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Massacred in World War II. NAL. Jan. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9781101987391. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781101987407. HIST

A history of 11 black American soldiers during World War II who were murdered by SS officers they surrendered to during the Battle of the Bulge.

Malamud, Margaret. African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism. I.B. Tauris. Jan. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9781784534950. $99. HIST

Malamud (ancient history & Islamic studies, New Mexico State Univ.) examines how and why black Americans have used texts, images, and ideas from the classical world.

redemptionsong-jpg122216Marqusee, Mike. Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. Verso. Feb. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781786632425. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781786632067. HIST

Former Guardian columnist Marqusee investigates heavyweight champion ­Muhammad Ali’s role as both sportsman and political figure during a decade of remarkable change.

Nathans, Sydney. A Mind To Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland. Harvard Univ. Jan. 2017. 344p. ISBN 9780674972148. $29.95. HIST

A counterpoint to the history of the Great Migration, focusing on a community of black Americans who remained in the South, eventually becoming the owners of the land their enslaved ancestors worked.

Tyson, Timothy B. The Blood of Emmett Till. S. & S. Jan. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781476714844. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781476714868. HIST

National Book Critics Circle finalist Tyson presents a new history of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching, drawing from sources such as the only interview given by the white woman Till was accused of whistling at and a murder trial transcript believed to be missing for 50 years. (LJ 12/16)


Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. Atria. Feb. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781501126390. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501126437. BIOG

Judge, a 22-year-old enslaved woman owned by George Washington, escaped in 1796 from the president’s temporary home in Philadelphia, then the seat of the new American government, to freedom in New England. (LJ 12/16)

Jackson, Lawrence P. Chester B. Himes: A Biography. Norton. Jul. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9780393063899. $35. BIOG

Writer and Johns Hopkins professor ­Jackson isn’t the first to write a biography about crime novelist Chester Himes, but he aims to pen the definitive one, with exclusive interviews and full archival access at his disposal.

mylifelovelegacey-jpg112016King, Coretta Scott & Barbara Reynolds. My Life, My Love, My Legacy. Holt. Jan. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781627795982. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781627795999. AUTOBIOG

An autobiography of King, as told at the end of her life to writer and ordained minister Reynolds. (LJ 12/16)

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Melville House. Jan. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9781612196169. pap. $15.99. BIOG

Dr. King’s last interview, conducted on stage at the Rabbinical Assembly, just ten days before his assassination, is collected here along with conversations with Robert Penn Warren (from 1964) and about King’s decision to enter the ministry (from 1961), among others.

Wideman, John Edgar. Writing To Save a Life: The Louis Till File. Scribner. 2016. 208p. ISBN 9781501147289. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781501147302. BIOG

Novelist Wideman turns to an underexamined figure in the historic and heartbreaking story of Emmett Till: Till’s father, who was executed by the U.S. Army in 1945 after being found guilty of murder and rape. (LJ 10/15/16)


Branch, Miko & Titi Branch. Miss Jessie’s: Creating a Successful Business from Scratch—Naturally. Amistad: HarperCollins. Jan. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780062329196. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062329202. MEMOIR

With this family memoir, the Branch sisters reflect on their grandmother Miss Jessie, the namesake and inspiration for their hair care company. Of course, they also deliver tips on business and hair. (LJ 4/15/15)

blackprivilage-jpg122216Charlamagne Tha God. Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It. Touchstone. Apr. 2017. ISBN 9781501145308. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501145322. MEMOIR

Cohost of The Breakfast Club, ­Charlamagne’s influence reaches far beyond the limits of New York Power 105.1’s FM signal. A book of advice, it also offers up reflections on the radio ­personality’s life.

Harris, Jessica B. My Soul Looks Back. Scribner. May 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781501125904. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781501127007. MEMOIR

In her memoir of New York in the 1970s, food writer Harris remembers James Baldwin reading an early draft of If Beale Street Could Talk aloud, Maya Angelou making food in her California kitchen, and spending time with Toni Morrison at Baldwin’s Provence home.

Johnson, Yvette. The Song and the Silence: A Story About Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Wright. Atria. May 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781476754949. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781476754963. MEMOIR

Filmmaker Johnson returns to the story of her grandfather Booker Wright and his murder—the subject of her 2012 documentary, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story. [See Prepub Alert, 6/21/16.]

Ndibe, Okey. Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American. Soho. 2016. 224p. ISBN 9781616957605. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781616957612. MEMOIR

Novelist and journalist Ndibe recalls his move from Nigeria to the United States, where he was invited by author Chinua Achebe to be the founding editor of the short-lived but acclaimed magazine, ­African Commentary. (LJ 9/1/16)

Price, Hugh B. This African-American Life. John F. Blair. May 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780895876911. $28.95. MEMOIR

Price is the former president of the National Urban League. Here, he relates his family history, his childhood in Washington, DC, and his career as a journalist, ­educator, and activist.

Robinson, Phoebe. You Can’t Touch My Hair. Plume. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780143129202. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780735216556. HUMOR

Comedian and cohost of the podcast Two Dope Queens delivers a very funny essay collection about hair, her love of Billy Joel, and having white friends. (LJ 9/15/16; Editors’ Fall Pick)

Sidibe, Gabourey. This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare. Houghton Harcourt. May 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780544786769. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780544786905. MEMOIR

Actress Sidibe, most recently of the TV series Empire, gives readers a glimpse into her childhood in Harlem, NY, and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn; her early work talking on a phone-sex line; and her rise to fame with the 2009 film Precious.


Jacobson, Sid & Ernie Colón. Three-Fifths a Man: A Graphic History of the African American Experience. Hill & Wang: Farrar. Sept. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780809093687. $35; pap. ISBN 9780809093694. $17. GRAPHIC NOVELS

blackhistoryinitsownwords-jpg122216Marvel Comics veterans Jacobson, the creator of Richie Rich, and Colón take a wide-lens view of African American history, beginning with the 16th-century slave trade and ending with the Black Lives Matter movement. (LJ 11/1/15)

Wimberly, Ron. Black History in Its Own Words. Image. Feb. 2017. 80p. ISBN 9781534301535. $16.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Portraits of and quotes from notable black artists, writers, politicians, and more are featured in this new collection, including Angela Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Zadie Smith, and Spike Lee, among others.


Lowery, Wesley. They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement. Little, Brown. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9780316312479. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780316312509. POLI SCI

One of the first books on the Black Lives Matter movement, Washington Post writer Lowery’s debut draws upon journalism, memoir, and history. (LJ 10/15/16)


Boyd, Herb. Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination. Amistad: HarperCollins. May 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780062346629. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062346643. soc sci

Writer and historian Boyd blends memoir, history, and reportage in this consideration of the Motor City and its significance for black Americans.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. St. Martin’s. Jan. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9781250135995. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250136008. SOC SCI

A short but impassioned call to action against racism geared toward white readers in particular from Georgetown sociology professor and writer Dyson.

Taylor, Elizabeth Dowling. The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era. Amistad: HarperCollins. Jan. 2017. 496p. ISBN 9780062346094. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062346117. SOC SCI

This new history from New York Times best-selling author Taylor follows the life of Daniel Murray, an exemplary ­member of postbellum Washington, DC, and America’s wealthy and well-educated black elite.


Miller, Adrian. The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas. Univ. of North Carolina. Feb. 2017. 296p. ISBN 9781469632537. $30. COOKING

presidentskitchen-jpg122216James Beard Award winner Miller writes about the black men and women who have worked in presidential food service from the time of George Washington to the Obamas. (LJ 1/17)

Opie, Frederick Douglass. Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution. Arcadia. Jan. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9781467137386. pap. $21.99; ebk. ISBN 9781439659212. COOKING

A look at the cuisine that fed the civil rights movement, from Paschal’s Restaurant in Atlanta to Elijah Muhammad’s food production efforts for the Nation of Islam to the “Sandwich Brigade” that organized meals for the thousands protesting in the 1963 March on Washington. Recipes included.

Samuelsson, Marcus. The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem. Rux Martin: Houghton Harcourt. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780544639775. $37.50; ebk. ISBN 9780544639812. COOKING

Chef, restaurateur, James Beard Award winner, and frequent Chopped judge ­Samuelsson presents the recipes that helped make his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster a must-dine destination. (LJ 10/15/16)


Collins, Kathleen. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Ecco: HarperCollins. Jan. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780062484154. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062484161. F

Never-before-published short stories by writer Collins comprise this new collection. Collins, who died in 1988 at age 46, counted Toni Morrison among her admirers.

findinggideon-jpg122216Dickey, Eric Jerome. Finding Gideon. Dutton. Apr. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9781101985496. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781101985502. f

This latest novel from blockbuster author Dickey stars a hit man whose plans to destroy his rival include three complicated, competent women both aiding and ­interfering. [See Prepub Alert, 10/31/16.]

Everett, Percival. So Much Blue. Graywolf. Jun. 2017. 236p. ISBN 9781555977825. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555979744. F

Prolific and prodigiously talented novelist Everett tells the story of a painter who will not show his wife, children, or his best friend his work in progress, made up all of shades of blue.

Gay, Roxane. Difficult Women. Grove. Jan. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9780802125392. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780802189646. short stories

New York Times best-selling writer Gay presents a collection of short stories, her second after 2011’s brilliant Ayiti. (LJ 12/16)

Hill, Lawrence. The Illegal. Norton. Jan. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9780393353686. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393285468. F

In this story of a refugee from a fictionalized land, Canadian novelist Hill imagines the current global refugee crisis through the lens of a single man’s flight to a xenophobic (and eerily familiar) Freedom State. (LJ 12/15)

McKay, Claude. Amiable with Big Teeth. Penguin Classics. Feb. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780143107316. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781101628195. F

One of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance, writer McKay produced a final 1941 novel that was first discovered in 2012 and finally published this year. The title describes communists in Harlem, like wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Late Arcade. New Directions. Feb. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9780811226608. pap. $16.95. F

National Book Award winner Mackey’s latest installment in the multivolume (four and counting) “jazz novel,” From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, continues the epistolary poetic narrative of musician N.’s communications with the Angel of Dust.

Murray, Victoria Christopher. Lust: A Seven Deadly Sins Novel. Touchstone. Feb. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781501134104. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781501134111. F

Prolific novelist and NAACP Image Award winner Murray considers one sin in particular (the titular lust) and its deadly consequences in a story about a sheltered Washington, DC, woman, her fiancé, and his childhood best friend who has plans for payback. (African American Fiction,

nineteenthcenturywomen-jpg122216Nunez, Elizabeth. Even in Paradise. Akashic. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781617754398. $27.95; pap. ISBN 9781617754401. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617754562. F

Novelist Nunez, who tackled The Tempest in her 2006 novel, Prospero’s Daughter, here offers a retelling of King Lear. Both novels feature a cast of multicultural characters and a Caribbean setting.

The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers. Penguin Classics. Feb. 2017. 480p. ed. by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Hollis Robbins. ISBN 9780143105992. pap. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780143130673. lit

A comprehensive anthology of 19th-century black American women writers from Sojourner Truth to Ella Sheppard to Harriet Jacobs, edited by powerhouse scholars Gates (Yale Univ.) and Robbins (Johns Hopkins).

Walker, Margaret. Jubilee: 50th Anniversary Edition. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2016. 528p. ISBN 9780544812123. pap. $12.95; ebk. ISBN 9780544812192. F

This 50th anniversary edition of Walker’s formerly out-of-print novel tells the story of the child of a white plantation owner and a black enslaved woman, with a foreword by poet Nikki Giovanni.


Jones, Ashley M. Magic City Gospel. Hub City. Jan. 2017. 72p. ISBN 9781938235269. pap. $14.95. POETRY

Rona Jaffe Award winner Jones explores race, identity, history, and Birmingham, AL, in this debut collection.

Kelly, Donika. Bestiary. Graywolf. 2016. 80p. ISBN 9781555977580. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555979539. POETRY

Winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Kelly’s first collection touches on animals legendary, half-human, and otherwise. “A strong choice for most collections.” (LJ 11/1/16)

goodstock-jpg122216Martin, Dawn Lundy. Good Stock Strange Blood. Coffee House. Aug. 2017. 144p. ISBN 9781566894715. pap. $16.95. POETRY

A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Award for her second collection, Discipline, Martin (English, Univ. of Pittsburgh) returns with a new collection of poems exploring the current state of the human condition.

Parker, Morgan. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Tin House. Feb. 2017. 80p. ISBN 9781941040539. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040546. POETRY

In this book of poems about more than Beyoncé but also crucially about ­Beyoncé, poet Parker considers history and the future, performance and interiority, humor and tragedy, politics and art.

Trimble, Jacqueline. American Happiness. NewSouth. 2016. 80p. ISBN 9781588383273. $21.95. POETRY

From Alabama State University’s Trimble comes this varied new collection of poems, which considers Andy Griffith, coyotes, and the death of parents (among other things).


dreamaworldanew-jpg122216Dream a World Anew: The African American Experience and the Shaping of America. Smithsonian. 2016. 288p. ed. by Kinshasha Holman Conwill. ISBN 9781588345684. $40. fine arts

An image-rich coffee-table book that celebrates the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, highlighting key objects from the collection and profiles of influential figures. (LJ 9/1/16)

Kendrick, Kathleen. Official Guide to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smithsonian. Apr. 2017. 160p. photos. ISBN 9781588345936. pap. $14.95. fine arts

This photo-filled guide offers a comprehensive tour of the museum, from its grounds and architecture to its collection and organization.

Wilson, Mabel O. Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smithsonian. 2016. 144p. ISBN 9781588345691. $29.95. ARCH

The origin story of the museum, this history contextualizes the institution as visitors see it today, describing how, after its official establishment in 2003, its director was chosen, site selected, building designed, collection gathered, and exhibitions produced.

Molly McArdle is Brooklyn Magazine’s books editor and a regular contributor to Travel + Leisure

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.




Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones


Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones


Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

Get connected. Join our global community of more than 200,000 librarians and educators.