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Nine books to read for Black History Month [reading list]

The month of February has been officially designated Black History Month since 1976 in order to, in President Gerald Ford’s words, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” In keeping with this tradition, we have gathered the below titles, which all engage in the crucial political work of investigating and preserving the history of African Americans’ accomplishments and culture in the face of opposition, prejudice, and violence, both systemic and direct.

  1.  Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray by Rosalind Rosenberg
    A pivotal figure in both the civil rights and women’s movements, Pauli Murray tirelessly worked towards gender and racial equality as a lawyer and activist. Murray also argued against constrictive forms of identity and believed that she was male, before the category of transgender was common. Her efforts helped pave the way for LGBT rights, as well.
  2.  Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order, and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College by Nancy K. Bristow
    Despite happening just days after the shootings at Kent State, the shootings at Jackson State College are much less well known. With issues of police brutality still all too frequent today, this book helps recover this tragic event from being forgotten.
  3.  Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives: The Lost Story of Enslaved Africans, their Arabic Letters, and an American President by Jeffrey Einboden
    Thomas Jefferson received a letter with strange markings on it on 3 October 1807, which were later determined to be Arabic script from enslaved Africans. This book expands our understanding of African American history as well as the history of religion in America.
  4. Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America by Matthew Fox-AmatoThe emergence of photography in America inaugurated a new era of visual politics for a country divided by slavery. A variety of actors utilized this new technology to push their vision of a future.
  5. Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America by W.Caleb McDaniel
    Henrietta Wood was born into slavery and then legally freed in Cincinnati in 1848, only to be later abducted and sold back into slavery five years later. She would remain enslaved until after the Civil War. After regaining her freedom, she sued her kidnapper and eventually won her case and reparations for damages.
  6.  Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Race and Mental Illness in the Nation’s Capital by Martin Summers
    From its founding in 1855, St. Elizabeths Hospital was the country’s main center to care for and treat the mentally ill. The hospital was also one of the first to accept black patients, and the author examines the history of the development of modern psychiatry and its intersection with race at this unique institution.
  7.  Reconstruction: A Very Short Introduction by Allen C. Guelzo
    In this account by an eminent scholar of the period, Reconstruction is expanded to include the American West as well as the South. Guelzo also examines developments in philosophy, literature, law, and economy that parallel those in the political realm.
  8.  Slavery and Class in the American South: A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony, 1840-1865 by William Andrews
    Among enslaved African Americans, some experienced degrees of relative freedom in comparison to others. This book examines these social strata through the literary genre of the slave narrative.
  9.  Promises to Keep: African Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present, Second Edition by Donald G. Nieman
    This groundbreaking work argues that conflict over the place of African Americans in US society has shaped the Constitution, law, and our understanding of citizenship and rights. The second edition incorporates insights from the last 30 years, including the War on Drugs and the Black Lives Matter movement.


It is impossible to fully grasp American history without black history. You can explore more materials from Oxford related to Black History Month here.

Featured image credit: “The African American History Monument, completed in 2001 on the state capitol grounds in Columbia, the capital city of South Carolina” by Carol M. Highsmith. Public Domain via The Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. Tim Dutton

    I appreciate that this list was compiled and its author may be well read and expert at the topic of Black history.

    I did a quick scan of the authors of all the books and the list-maker himself. It looks like only Martin Summers is Black.

    I am disappointed.

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