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The New Classics of Black History

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • February 19, 2021

Important New Voices in Black History

I supplemented my education in the white American school system by reading African history, which was intentionally left out of the curriculum of American students. –Sister Souljah

Over the last several years, protests across the US have catapulted systemic issues of inequality and violence against Black Americans to the forefront of the public discourse. For many people, this new focus on social justice has served as a wake-up call of sorts. We are paying attention like never before—looking for ways to educate ourselves and effect change. This has led to an explosion of galvanizing new content in Black history and culture.

While we can always recommend the greats of the past like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Toni Morrison (just to name a few), there are a chorus of new voices who are speaking directly to the moment we are in right now. As a part of our Black History Month celebration, we are spotlighting some of the standout books that have been published during the last several years.

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019

Ibram X. Kendi (How to Be an AntiRacist) and Keisha N. Blain (Set the World on Fire) coedited this unique collection offering a complete history of Black America starting in 1619 when the first African slave ship arrived in the colony of Virginia. Contributors include ninety brilliant writers and scholars, each taking on a five-year period of that four-hundred-year span. While themes of resistance and struggle, of hope and reinvention, course through the book, the diverse collection of pieces illuminates a startling range of experiences and ideas.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Isabel Wilkerson's Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of The Great Migration. Now, she trains her exacting gaze to the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions. Her brilliant new book is an immersive, deeply researched narrative showing how America, today and throughout its history, has been shaped by a hidden caste system. Beautifully written, original, and revealing, this is an eye-opening story of people and history.

Just Us: An American Conversation

As she did in 2014's groundbreaking Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine has once again transformed the conversation with an arrangement of essays, poems, and images. Sometimes wry, often vulnerable, Rankine's questions open pathways through this divisive moment in American history. Less interested in being right than in being true, this volume is an invitation to discover what it takes to stay in the room together and breach the anger, guilt, and violence that has historically silenced the conversation.

Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream

Bestselling author Mychal Denzel Smith argues that Americans are too comfortable imagining our greatness. We like to believe in the rightness of our path and the inevitability of choosing our better angels. But historically, we've only come close to living up to the ideals we profess when we confront our deceptions and our own complicity in them. Smith exposes the contradictions at the heart of American life—between patriotism and justice, freedom and inequality, incarceration and police violence.

Homegoing

Finally, we always jump at an opportunity to learn about history via a good story. Yaa Gyasi's award-winning debut novel follows the divergent paths of two half sisters in Africa, one married into nobility and the other kidnapped and forced into slavery in America. The ambitious storyline skillfully tracks the experiences of their descendants through eight generations—from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the Civil War to the Jim Crow era, from the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance—illuminating slavery's troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed behind.

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