10 Books to Read for Black History Month

Poetry, memoir, and novels from Black authors, many with North Carolina connections.
by Amber Brown, Sarah Goddin, and Mamie Potter

With Black History Month underway, it’s a great time to pick up inspiring poetry, novels, and memoirs from Black authors. To get your list started, WALTER asked Amber Brown, Sarah Goddin, and Mamie Potter from Quail Ridge Books to share their top picks to celebrate this month. Here’s their list of favorites.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Iris and Aubrey come together as a couple for the birth of their daughter, Melody, but Iris doesn’t want to be a mother. The novel goes back and forth in time and alternate points of view to show Melody dealing with her mother’s rejection, the changing sexual preferences of Iris, and Aubrey’s unrequited love for Iris and unconditional love for Melody.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This book tells the mesmerizing story of a Ghanaian family transplanted to Huntsville, Alabama, through the eyes of the daughter, Gifty. The story alternates between the present, where Gifty is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford, and her childhood in Alabama. Along with the tension between her mother’s devout Christianity and Gifty’s devotion to science, the novel explores grief, depression, resilience, and family bonds, all with a good sense of humor.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

In these stories, people are pawns, forced to behave in humiliating ways for entertainment or financial gain. The state of race relations is a recurrent theme. One of the most haunting of the stories is “The Lion and the Spider,” which weaves an African fable into the story line. The book was the Colson Whitehead 2016 National Book Award Winner for Fiction.

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

I was hooked from the opening scene! This novel, which follows Libertie from childhood as a freeborn slave growing up in Brooklyn to college in Ohio to her adulthood and marriage, touches on many of the issues that have continually challenged people of color since the end of the Civil War. 

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hiram Walker, born a slave on a decaying Virginia tobacco plantation in the mid-1800s, is the hero. The Water Dancer is an adrenaline-charged adventure story, a lyrical saga of family love, and a heartbreaking morality tale with a healthy dose of magic realism.

Any book by James McBride

This quote from The Good Lord Bird is one of my favorites of all time: “If you think looking at three hundred, boiling-mad, half-cocked Virginians holding every kind of breech-loader under God’s sun staring back at you with murder in their eyes is a ticket to redemption, you is on the dot.”

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar

This memoir is heartbreakingly funny in the laugh-so-you-don’t-cry vein. Lacey’s misadventures with white people — from employers to retailers to teachers and more — drive home the pervasiveness of bigotry. A book that every white person should read: the humor is so sharp and brilliant that you can’t turn away, despite the pain. 

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, Kevin Young, Editor

The depth and breadth of this collection of poems is astounding. The entire history of the African American experience from one side of the country to the other, from 1770 to the present, is here. Winner of numerous awards and much well-deserved recognition, this should be required reading for every American!

Dream Builder by Kelly Starling Lyons, Laura Freeman, Illustrator

A beautiful tribute to the visionary Durham architect, Philip Freelon. Although Freelon died in 2019, he left an important legacy through his design of public buildings ranging from the Durham city bus station to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. A true inspiration for young people. (Ages 4-9)

Tristan Strong Punches A Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

NC writer Mbalia tells the story of seventh-grader Tristan, sent from Chicago to Alabama to stay with his grandparents after the death of his best friend, Eddie. When Tristan reads Eddie’s journal, he ends up caught in an epic battle in an alternate universe with African American folk legends in need of his help. (Ages 8-12)

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Seamlessly weaving rich Arthurian legend with Southern Black Girl Magic, Raleigh native Tracy Deonn’s brilliant debut YA fantasy will leave you breathless and reeling from page to page. A precocious 16-year-old is sent to a college program for promising high school students after her mother dies. Secret societies and the stirrings of a love triangle are all set in Chapel Hill. (Ages 14 and up)