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Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction


February is recognized as Black History Month in both Canada and the United States.  This month of remembrance began 83 years ago when historian Carter G. Woodson designated the second week of February as “Negro History Week”. Woodson chose this week because it marked the birthdays of two Americans that had a significant impact on the lives and social conditions of African Americans – Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Booklist‘s Ray Olson marks 2009′s Black History Month with a list of 10 best reviewed black history non-fiction books:

  1. The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    Paul Coates was an enigmatic god to his sons: a Vietnam vet who rolled with the Black Panthers, an old-school disciplinarian and new-age believer in free love, an autodidact who launched a publishing company in his basement dedicated to telling the true history of African civilization. Most of all, he was a wily tactician whose mission was to carry his sons across the shoals of inner-city adolescence—and through the collapsing civilization of Baltimore in the Age of Crack—and into the safe arms of Howard University, where he worked so his children could attend for free.Among his brood of seven, his main challenges were Ta-Nehisi, spacey and sensitive and almost comically miscalibrated for his environment, and Big Bill, charismatic and all-too-ready for the challenges of the streets. The Beautiful Struggle follows their divergent paths through this turbulent period, and their father’s steadfast efforts—assisted by mothers, teachers, and a body of myths, histories, and rituals conjured from the past to meet the needs of a troubled present—to keep them whole in a world that seemed bent on their destruction.With a remarkable ability to reimagine both the lost world of his father’s generation and the terrors and wonders of his own youth, Coates offers readers a small and beautiful epic about boys trying to become men in black America and beyond.
  2. Crossing the Continent 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South by Robert Goodwin
    Crossing the Continent takes us on an epic journey from Africa to Europe and America as Dr. Robert Goodwin chronicles the incredible adventures of the African slave Esteban Dorantes (1500-1539), the first pioneer from the Old World to explore the entirety of the American south and the first African-born man to die in North America about whom anything is known. Goodwin’s groundbreaking research in Spanish archives has led to a radical new interpretation of American history—one in which an African slave emerges as the nation’s first great explorer and adventurer.Nearly three centuries before Lewis and Clark’s epic trek to the Pacific coast, Esteban and three Spanish noblemen survived shipwreck, famine, disease, and Native American hostility to make the first crossing of North America in recorded history. Drawing on contemporary accounts and long-lost records, Goodwin recounts the extraordinary story of Esteban’s sixteenth-century odyssey, which began in Florida and wound through what is now Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, as far as the Gulf of California. Born in Africa and captured at a young age by slave traders, Esteban was serving his owner, a Spanish captain, when their disastrous sea voyage to the New World nearly claimed his life. Eventually he emerged as the leader of the few survivors of this expedition, guiding them on an extraordinary eight-year march westward to safety.On the group’s return to the Spanish imperial capital at Mexico City, the viceroy appointed Esteban as the military commander of a religious expedition sent to establish a permanent Spanish route into Arizona and New Mexico. But during this new adventure, as Esteban pushed deeper and deeper into the unknown north, Spaniards far to the south began to hear strange rumors of his death at Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.Filled with tales of physical endurance, natural calamities, geographical wonders, strange discoveries, and Esteban’s almost mystical dealings with Native Americans, Crossing the Continent challenges the traditional telling of our nation’s early history, placing an African and his relationship with the Indians he encountered at the heart of a new historical record.
  3. Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers by Richard Newman
    Freedom’s Prophet is a long-overdue biography of Richard Allen, founder of the first major African-American church and the leading black activist of the early American republic. A tireless minister, abolitionist, and reformer, Allen inaugurated some of the most important institutions in African-American history and influenced nearly every black leader of the nineteenth century, from Douglass to Dubois. Allen (1760-1831) was born a slave in colonial Philadelphia, secured his freedom during the American Revolution, and became one of the nation’s leading black activists before the Civil War. Among his many achievements, Allen helped form the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, co-authored the first copy righted pamphlet by an African American writer, published the first African American eulogy of George Washington, and convened the first national convention of black reformers. In a time when most black men and women were categorized as slave property, Allen was championed as a black hero. As Richard S. Newman writes, Allen must be considered one of America’s “Black Founding Fathers.”In this thoroughly engaging and beautifully written book, Newman describes Allen’s continually evolving life and thought, setting both in the context of his times. From Allen’s early antislavery struggles and belief in interracial harmony to his later reflections on black democracy and black emigration, Newman traces Allen’s impact on American reform and reformers, on racial attitudes during the years of the Early Republic, and on the black struggle for justice in the age of Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Washington. Whether serving as America’s first Black bishop, challenging slave holding statesmen in a nation devoted to liberty, or visiting the “President’s House” (the first black activist to do so), this important book makes it clear that Allen belongs in the pantheon of America’s great founding figures. Freedom’s Prophet reintroduces Allen to today’s readers and restores him to his rightful place in our nation’s history.
  4. Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story; The American Odyssey of NASCAR’s First Black Driver by Brian Donovan
    Hard Driving is the dramatic story of one man’s dogged determination to live the life he loved, and to compete, despite daunting obstacles, at the highest level of his sport.Wendell Scott figured he was signing up for trouble when he became nascar’s version of Jackie Robinson in the segregated 1950s. Some speedways refused to let him race. “Go home, nigger,” spectators yelled. And after a bigoted promoter refused to pay him, Scott appealed directly to the sport’s founder, nascar czar Bill France Sr. France made a promise Scott would never forget – that nascar would never treat him with prejudice.For the next two decades, Scott chased a dream whose fulfillment depended on France backing up that promise. Persevering through crashes, health problems, and money troubles, Scott remained convinced he had the talent to become one of nascar’s best. Hard Driving documents a previously untold chapter in the history of integration, politics, and sports in America. It reveals how France, founder of the multibillion-dollar nascar empire, reneged on his pledge and allowed repeated discrimination against Scott by racing officials and other powerful figures. It details France’s alliances with leading segregationist politicians such as George Wallace, the reluctance of auto executives such as Lee Iacocca to sponsor a black driver; and the inspiring support Scott received from white drivers such as nascar champions Ned Jarrett and Richard Petty, who admired his skill and tenacity.
  5. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
    Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction.  This epic work tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to the third American president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family’s dispersal after Jefferson’s death in 1826. It brings to life not only Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson but also their children and Hemings’s siblings, who shared a father with Jefferson’s wife, Martha. The Hemingses of Monticello sets the family’s compelling saga against the backdrop of Revolutionary America, Paris on the eve of its own revolution, 1790s Philadelphia, and plantation life at Monticello. Much anticipated, this book promises to be the most important history of an American slave family ever written.
  6. Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching by Paula J. Giddings
    In the tradition of towering biographies that tell us as much about America as they do about their subject, Ida: A Sword Among Lions is a sweeping narrative about a country and a crusader embroiled in the struggle against lynching: a practice that imperiled not only the lives of black men and women, but also a nation based on law and riven by race.At the center of the national drama is Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), born to slaves in Mississippi, who began her activist career by refusing to leave a first-class ladies’ car on a Memphis railway and rose to lead the nation’s first campaign against lynching. For Wells the key to the rise in violence was embedded in attitudes not only about black men but about women and sexuality as well. Her independent perspective and percussive personality gained her encomiums as a hero — as well as aspersions on her character and threats of death. Exiled from the South by 1892, Wells subsequently took her campaign across the country and throughout the British Isles before she married and settled in Chicago, where she continued her activism as a journalist, suffragist, and independent candidate in the rough-and-tumble world of the Windy City’s politics.In this eagerly awaited biography by Paula J. Giddings, author of the groundbreaking book When and Where I Enter, which traced the activist history of black women in America, the irrepressible personality of Ida B. Wells surges out of the pages. With meticulous research and vivid rendering of her subject, Giddings also provides compelling portraits of twentieth-century progressive luminaries, black and white, with whom Wells worked during some of the most tumultuous periods in American history. Embattled all of her activist life, Wells found herself fighting not only conservative adversaries but icons of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements who sought to undermine her place in history.
  7. In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past by Henry Louis Gates
    Unlike most white Americans who, if they are so inclined, can search their ancestral records, identifying who among their forebears was the first to set foot on this country’s shores, most African Americans, in tracing their family’s past, encounter a series of daunting obstacles. Slavery was a brutally efficient nullifier of identity, willfully denying black men and women even their names. Yet, from that legacy of slavery, there have sprung generations who’ve struggled, thrived, and lived extraordinary lives.For too long, African Americans’ family trees have been barren of branches, but, very recently, advanced genetic testing techniques, combined with archival research, have begun to fill in the gaps. Here, scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., backed by an elite team of geneticists and researchers, takes nineteen extraordinary African Americans on a once unimaginable journey, tracing family sagas through U.S. history and back to Africa.Those whose recovered pasts collectively form an African American “people’s history” of the United States include celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Chris Tucker, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, and Quincy Jones; writers such as Maya Angelou and Bliss Broyard; leading thinkers such as Harvard divinity professor Peter Gomes, the Reverend T. D. Jakes, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; and famous achievers such as astronaut Mae Jemison, media personality Tom Joyner, decathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Ebony and Jet publisher Linda Johnson Rice.More than a work of history, In Search of Our Roots is a book of revelatory importance that, for the first time, brings to light the lives of ordinary men and women who, by courageous example, blazed a path for their famous descendants. For a reader, there is the stirring pleasure of witnessing long-forgotten struggles and triumphs–but there’s an enduring reward as well. In accompanying the nineteen contemporary achievers on their journey into the past and meeting their remarkable forebears, we come to know ourselves.
  8. Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein
    In the United States at mid-century, in an era when there were few opportunities for women in general and even fewer for African American women, Jackie Ormes blazed a trail as a popular artist with the major black newspapers of the day.Jackie Ormes chronicles the life of this multiply talented, fascinating woman who became a successful commercial artist and cartoonist. Ormes’s cartoon characters (including Torchy Brown, Candy, and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger) delighted readers of newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, and spawned other products, including fashionable paper dolls in the Sunday papers and a black doll with her own extensive and stylish wardrobe. Ormes was a member of Chicago’s Black elite in the postwar era, and her social circle included the leading political figures and entertainers of the day. Her politics, which fell decidedly to the left and were apparent to even a casual reader of her cartoons and comic strips, eventually led to her investigation by the FBI.The book includes a generous selection of Ormes’s cartoons and comic strips, which provide an invaluable glimpse into U.S. culture and history of the 1937-56 era as interpreted by Ormes. Her topics include racial segregation, cold war politics, educational equality, the atom bomb, and environmental pollution, among other pressing issues of the times.
  9. The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise by Paul Gardullo
    Nearly a century’s worth of Scurlock photographs combine to form a searing portrait of a black Washington in all its guises-its challenges and its victories, its dignity and its determination. Beginning in the early twentieth century and continuing into the 1990s, Addison Scurlock, followed by his sons, Robert and George, used their cameras to document and celebrate a community unique in the world, and a stronghold in the history and culture of the nation’s capital.Through photographs of formal weddings, elegant cotillions, ballet studios, and quiet family life, the Scurlocks revealed a world in which the black middle class refused to be defined or held captive by discrimination. From its home on the vibrant U Street corridor, the Scurlock Studio gave us indelible images of leaders and luminaries, of high society and working class, of Washingtonians at work and at play. In photograph after photograph, the Scurlocks captured an optimism and resiliency seldom seen in mainstream depictions of segregated society.Luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Ralph Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune, Alain Locke, Martin Luther King Jr., Lois Mailou Jones testify to the intellectual and cultural vibrancy that was unique to Washington and an inspiration to the nation. Photographs of a Peoples Drugstore protest and Marian Anderson’s Easter morning concert at the Lincoln Memorial remind us that the struggle for equality in black Washington began long before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Offering a rich lens into our past, The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington is a powerful trigger of personal and historical memory.
  10. The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves by Andrew Ward
    The first narrative history of the Civil War told by the very people it freed Groundbreaking, compelling, and poignant, The Slaves’ War delivers an unprecedented vision of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. An acclaimed historian of nineteenth-century and African-American history, Andrew Ward gives us the first narrative of the Civil War told from the perspective of those whose destiny it decided. Woven together from hundreds of interviews, diaries, letters, and memoirs, here is the Civil War as seen from not only battlefields, capitals, and camps, but also slave quarters, kitchens, roadsides, farms, towns, and swamps. Speaking in a quintessentially American language of wit, candor, and biblical power, army cooks and launderers, runaways, teamsters, and gravediggers bring the war to vivid life. From slaves’ theories about the causes of the war to their frank assessments of such major figures as Lincoln, Davis, Lee, and Grant; from their searing memories of the carnage of battle to their often startling attitudes toward masters and liberators alike; and from their initial jubilation at the Yankee invasion of the slave South to the crushing disappointment of freedom’s promise unfulfilled, The Slaves’ War is a transformative and engrossing vision of America’s Second Revolution.

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