February is Black History Month, so we asked Group Leaders around the country to share the books that resonate with them and their students in honor of the month. We received many thoughtful responses and are excited to share these recommendations with you.
Are there books that you have found to have an impact on your students? Please share in the comments below!
Adam R., Louisiana (English Teacher)
In graduate school in Lafayette, Louisiana, I was fortunate to meet Ernest J. Gaines, whose novels A Lesson Before Dying and Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—about the moral issues and racial inequity surrounding capital punishment, and a woman who weathers the post-slavery South with grace and grit—both affected me deeply. Gaines had a gift for writing fiction that is true, that conveys truth through the voices of his characters. As Atticus Finch says in To Kill A Mockingbird, you never know a person until you walk in their shoes. Fiction teaches empathy, in other words, and empathy leads us closer to tolerance and acceptance of others.
One of the first works I remember teaching is Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” a short story about the generational and cultural clash between members of a southern family who stayed and a child who didn’t. As I was beginning my career teaching Louisiana college freshmen—some of whom were the first from their family to attend a university—the story opened my eyes to changes Walker herself must have experienced returning home to her small town from Spelman in Atlanta. The Warmth of Other Suns, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work from Isabel Wilkerson, is an epic piece of non-fiction about the African-American diaspora known as the Great Migration: a movement that would later produce, among others, John Coltrane, Toni Morrison, and Michelle Obama.
Lisa M., Connecticut (Social Studies Teacher):
There are so many terrific books available to help us better understand the roots of racism, systemic racism, and the hard work we still need to do as a country to ensure equality for all. One book I recommend is The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration on the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Her viewpoint is that even though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was established to assure African Americans the right to vote, deep-seeded, systemic views about race have created new ways to deny the vote through mass incarceration. This is such an interesting book and challenged me to consider various ways that racism is embedded within our nation’s structural institutions.
Allison M., Tennessee (English Teacher):
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas is told from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old black girl, Starr Carter, who attends a prestigious high school with mostly white students, while living in a predominately poor black neighborhood. Starr recounts her experience of being pulled over with her friend Kalil who is shot and killed by a white police officer. The novel addresses stereotypes and racism from a modern black teenager’s point-of-view.
This book appeals to the teenagers I teach because it focuses on their age group and is told from the point of view of a teenager. It shares the experience of being black in a still racist modern world in a way that resonates with teens.
Crystal T., North Carolina (Civics and Economics Teacher)
The Color of Water – James McBride
The Other Wes Moore – Wes Moore
Both of these are true stories, which to me, reach audiences at a deeper level than fiction. When we learn to relate to one another on a more personal level, walls come down and bridges can be built.
Angela C., Michigan (History Teacher)
So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
Last spring, my 17 year old daughter read this book and asked me to read it too so we could talk about it. I can’t think of any better recommendation for a book than a teenager choosing it herself and then urging her mom to read it! I did, and what struck me is how it approached such sensitive issues in such a meaningful but non-threatening way. The author talks about her experiences being black, and offers suggestions for how to approach sensitive subjects if you’re not black. It’s geared towards young adults, in my opinion, but also a good read for adults as well.
Darren F., New Jersey (English Teacher)
The best book that I’ve read on the topic is Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy which chronicles his experience as a lawyer fighting for the rights of black prisoners, often wrongly condemned, on death row in Alabama. One case in particular regarding a man on death row, Walter McMillian, not only anchors the book but showcases just how discriminatory the justice system can be. The book is eye-opening and disturbing, and it is an important book to understand why there is a need for reform in the criminal justice system.
John G., California (Social Studies Teacher)
Movie: The Tuskegee Airmen – Is about the first African American pilots of the US Air Force who received Congressional Gold Medals in 2007. This was a great first step for African American pilots in the United States.
Other noteworthy recommendations:
Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter – Kerri Greenidge
Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray – Rosalind Rosenberg
Censoring Racial Ridicule – M. Alison Kibler
Stamped from the Beginning – Ibram X. Kendi