African American Experiences: 50 Titles for February 2014, Black History Month

By Molly McArdle

On a February day in 1926 Washington, DC, Carter Woodson, one of the first historians to focus on people of African descent in the United States, announced the inaugural “Negro History Week.” Woodson chose that first wintery week because it marked both Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. Now, just under a century later, Americans celebrate African American history for a whole month. Below are some books to consider for this year’s celebration and beyond. Any excuse to dig into these titles is a good one: they deserve attention all year long.


Anderson, Karen. Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School. Princeton Univ. Nov. 2013. 344p. ISBN 9780691159614. pap. $24.95. HIST

Emeritus history professor Anderson takes another look at the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, paying particular attention to policymakers and activists.

Beasley, David. Without Mercy: The Stunning True Story of Race, Crime, and Corruption in the Deep South. St. Martin’s. Jan. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9781250014665. $31. HIST

In December 1938, a Klansman sat in the Georgia governor’s chair and, in under 81 minutes, ordered the executions of six black men—some just weeks after their arrest—by electrocution. Atlanta journalist Beasley exposes this gross miscarriage of justice and connects it to the racially biased use of the death penalty today.

The Black Power Mixtape: 1967–1975. Haymarket. Nov. 2013. 192p. ed. by Goran Olsson. ISBN 9781608462964. $21.95. HIST

Based on the 2011 documentary of the same name, this book collects transcripts from archival footage shot by Swedish journalists of Black Power movement leaders, interspersed with recent interviews with and about the same activists; it features new sections on Huey P. Newton and Shirley Chisholm that did not appear in the film.

The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Lib. of America. Apr. 2014. 1024p. ed. by Aaron Sheehan-Dean. ISBN 9781598532944. $40. HIST

Sheehan-Dean’s four-volume series comes to a close with this installment, which covers the Civil War from March 1864 to June 1865 through primary source materials, including writing from Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and many freed slaves.

Goudsouzian, Aram. Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear. Farrar. Feb. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9780374192204. $28. HIST

After civil rights leader James Meredith was shot and injured while marching from Memphis to Jackson, his contemporaries flocked to Mississippi to take up his torch, resulting in a three-week demonstration that resisted brutal attacks from state police and brought together old guard and new.

Honey, Michael K. Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and the African American Song Tradition. Macmillan. Nov. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9780230111288. $28. HIST

Folk singer and songwriter John Handcox grew up in a family of Arkansas sharecroppers during the worst of Jim Crow. Historian Honey compiles an oral history that allows this artist and farmer whose life spanned the 20th century to tell his own story.

Matlin, Daniel. On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis. Harvard Univ. Nov. 2013. 368p. ISBN 9780674725287. $39.95. HIST

Using psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, writer Amiri Baraka, and visual artist Romare Bearden as a lens, King’s College London historian Matlin examines black urban unrest in the 1960s.

Northrup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: A Memoir of Kidnap, Slavery and Liberation. Hesperus. Nov. 2013. 300p. ISBN 9781843914716. pap. $15.95. MEMOIR

With a film adaptation of Northrup’s classic 1853 slave narrative set to release in October, this work will be in increased demand.

Oakes, James. The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War. Norton. May 2014. 160p. ISBN 9780393239935. $23.95. HIST

Civil War historian and two-time Lincoln Prize winner Oakes examines the strategies abolitionists employed to discourage and eventually destroy slavery. In the book, the institution is symbolized by a scorpion which, trapped on all sides, stings itself to death.


Denby, Ramona & Carla M. Curtis. African American Children and Families in Child Welfare: Cultural Adaptation of Services. Columbia Univ. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9780231131858. pap. $40. SOC SCI

Professors of social work Denby and Curtis propose a new model for caring for African American children in the child welfare system.

High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing. McSweeney’s. 2013. 304p. ed. by Audrey Petty. ISBN 9781938073373. pap. $16. SOC SCI

An oral history of Chicago’s iconic, and infamous, high-rise public housing projects. Ford Foundation grantee and English professor Petty interviews former residents about their lives before and after the citywide demolition of the towers.

Kopano, Baruti N. & Tamara Lizette Brown. Soul Thieves: White America’s Appropriation of African American Culture. Macmillan. May 2014. 224p. ISBN 9780230108974. $25. HIST

A communications professor from Morgan State University and a women’s studies professor from Bowie State team to look at the ­(mis)appropriation of black popular culture by the white, commercial mainstream.

Morris, Monique W. Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century. New Pr. Jan. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781595589194. pap. $14.95. SOC SCI

Novelist and Soros Justice Fellow Morris brings together a broad range of statistics about the black experience in America, forming an invaluable critical tool.

Skrentny, John. After Civil Rights: Racial Realism in the New American Workplace. Princeton Univ. Jan. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780691159966. $35. SOC SCI

Arguing against race-blind hiring policies and for employers to recognize racial difference (and diversity in general) as an asset, professor and author Skrentny insists that civil rights laws be amended to encourage this change of attitude.

Van Deburg, William L. Hoodlums: Black Villains and Social Bandits in American Life. Univ. of Chicago. Nov. 2013. 298p. ISBN 9780226847191. $29. pap. ISBN 9780226104638. $17.50. SOC SCI

Van Deburg (Afro-American studies, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison) presents an extensive take on black villains—from slaveholders to gangsta rappers—in the American popular imagination.


Berger, Martin A. Freedom Now! Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle. Univ. of California. Jan. 2014. 192p. ISBN 9780520280199. $49.95. PHOTOG

Collecting photographs of an aggressive, active civil rights movement, University of California, Santa Cruz, art history professor Berger challenges the popular (and nonthreatening) image of this period of activism as solely passive and pacifist.

Braxton, Toni. Unbreak My Heart: A Memoir. It: HarperCollins. Jan. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780062293282. $27.99. MUSIC

Titling this memoir after her most popular song, R&B star Braxton talks reality TV, health, and family, sharing how she overcame her own struggles with heart problems and Lupus and her son’s autism.

Cooke, Mervyn. The Chronicle of Jazz. Oxford Univ. Nov. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780199341009. $39.95. MUSIC

A broad look at jazz from its roots in the American South, where it emerged from a potent brew of African and European influences, to its global presence today by University of Nottingham jazz historian Cooke. (See review on p. 90.)

Gaskin, Gerard H. Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene. Duke Univ. Nov. 2013. 120p. ISBN 9780822355823. $45. PHOTOG

Photographer Gaskin documents the pageantry of house balls, an underground scene populated by queer and transsexual people of color, from New York to Richmond. These balls, made famous by the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, have significantly influenced pop culture from Madonna to RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Gilmore, Michael T. The War on Words: Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature. Univ. of Chicago. Dec. 2013. 340p. ISBN 9780226101699. pap. $30. LIT

Tracking the effects of slavery and race on 19th-century American literature, Gilmore argues that the gravity of both subjects often forced writers, white and black, into an uncomfortable silence.

Goodman, Jordan. Paul Robeson: A Watched Man. Verso. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781781681312. $29.95. BIOG

The first new book on the legendary activist and performer in over ten years, this biography reveals the extent of the surveillance ordered on Paul Robeson by the U.S. government by drawing on materials from the FBI, U.S. State Department, and MI5. (LJ 9/15/13)

Greenough, Nancy K. & Nancy Anderson. Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial. Yale Univ. 2013. 228p. ISBN 9780300197730. $55. FINE ARTS

Two-hundred years after the all-black Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry charged Fort Wagner under Col. Robert Shaw Gould (the subject of the 1989 film Glory), the National Gallery of Art celebrates the monument Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpted in its honor.

Henry, David & Joe Henry. Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. Algonquin. Nov. 2013. 400p. ISBN 9781616200787. $25.95. PERFORMING ARTS

The brothers Henry animate the blazing talent of the late comedian Richard Pryor in this irreverent, profanity-laced biography that follows him from his brothel childhood (his mother was a sex worker, his grandmother a madam) to his furious and ferocious adulthood. (LJ 9/15/13)

Sakakeeny, Matt. Roll with It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans. Duke Univ. Nov. 2013. 248p. ISBN 9780822355670. pap. $23.95. MUSIC

New Orleans brass bands help define the city’s character—exuberant, communal, and thoroughly musical—but the musicians who play in them suffer the same marginalization as other black men. Ethnomusicologist Sakakeeny explores their dual roles as celebrated cultural icons and men at the mercy of a society stacked against them.


Booth, Dexter L. Scratching. Graywolf. Nov. 2013. 88p. ISBN 9781555976606. pap. $15. POETRY

Winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Booth comes recommended by poet and professor Major Jackson, who selected this manuscript for the award. This book is all family and ghosts, hometowns and memories. “You are complaining about the itch,/ the burn; scratch the ghost of your calf and heel.”

Giovanni, Nikki. Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid. Morrow. Nov. 2013. 160p. ISBN 9780688156978. $19.99. POETRY

Giovanni is a titan, and deservedly so. In her first book of poems in four years, she focuses on food. One poem pays homage to soup. (LJ 10/15/13)

Hill, Sean. Dangerous Goods: Poems. Milkweed. Feb. 2014. 104p. ISBN 9781571314574. pap. $16. POETRY

From Milledgeville, GA, where he was born, to London, Cairo, Minnesota, and the Caribbean, former Stegner Fellow Hill here explores the subject of travel. “Here is me; I am here; I am desire; I/ am nothing when you come, I fear./ I’ll miss you when you’re here. Stay/ home; keep me forever.”

Johnson, Amaud Jamaul. Darktown Follies. Tupelo. Nov. 2013. 70p. ISBN 9781936797394. pap. $16.95. POETRY

This second collection (after Red Summer) from poet Johnson focuses on black performers in vaudeville, skirting and shadowing around the subject and practice of blackface.

May, Jamaal. Hum. Alice James. Nov. 2013. 80p. ISBN 9781938584022. pap. $15.95. POETRY

A debut collection from Detroit-born Stadler Fellow May, who writes of the city as an alternately sublime and terrible landscape: “There is no work left for the husks….// So come/ collect us for scrap.”

Mullen, Harryete. Urban Tumbleweed. Graywolf. Nov. 2014. 120p. ISBN 9781555976569. pap. $15. POETRY

“Urban tumbleweed, some people call it,/ discarded plastic bag we see in every city/ blown down the street with vagrant wind.” Mullen, who teaches in the English department at UCLA, here ruminates on spaces where the natural and unnatural meet. (LJ 10/15/13)

Reeves, Roger. King Me. Copper Canyon. Nov. 2013. 72p. ISBN 9781556594489. pap. $15. POETRY

In this history-soaked first book from Reeves, he turns to young black men who have been deemed expendable, again and again. Full of elegies, praise songs, testaments, and suffering: “a punctured lullaby in my throat.”

Walcott, Derek. The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948–2013. Farrar. Jan. 2014. 640p. ed. by Glyn Maxwell. ISBN 9780374125615. $40. POETRY

A doorstop of a book, this collection reaches across Nobel laureate Walcott’s career. A defining, definitive postcolonial poet, he writes of St. Lucia, the West, imperialism and identity, and memory and pain.


Baszile, Natalie. Queen Sugar. Pamela Dorman: Viking. Feb. 2014 384p. ISBN 9780670026135. $27.95. F

A mother and daughter leave Los Angeles behind to take up the 800 acres of Louisiana sugarcane left to them by the former’s late father. This debut novel that has been compared to Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees follows the characters’ first summer struggling to make the farm work within a racist industry, to mend family trauma, and to find themselves.

Dickey, Eric Jerome. A Wanted Woman. Dutton. Apr. 2014. 384p. ISBN 9780525954279. $26.95. F

Best-selling author Dickey has written another thrilling story of murder and romance, this time involving assassins in Barbados.

Gay, Roxane. An Untamed State. Grove: Atlantic. May 2014. 368p. ISBN 9780802122513. pap. $17. F

In her debut novel, prolific Internet essayist, editor, and fiction writer Gay tells the story of Mireille Duval Jameson, a rich and self-assured Haitian woman kidnapped by a gang of heavily armed men who intend to hold her until her unwilling father pays up.

Guillory, Marcus J. Red Now and Laters. Atria. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9781451699111. pap. $15. F

Another debut novel about black Creole culture and a young boy growing up in it in 1980s Houston. Ti John, even with a rodeo-star father, an overprotective mother, and a host of supernatural guides, struggles to make it through an inner-city childhood haunted by Reaganomics.

Oyeyemi, Helen. Boy, Snow, Bird. Riverhead. Mar. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9781594631399. $27.95. F

Somerset Maugham Award winner Oyeyemi reimagines Snow White in 1950s Massachusetts, where a woman must grapple with the revelation that her husband and stepdaughter are black Americans who can and do pass as white.


Als, Hilton. White Girls. McSweeney’s. Nov. 2013. 300p. ISBN 9781936365814. $24. LIT

New Yorker drama critic Als returns with his first book since 1996. This collection includes essay, memoir, and fiction—all touch on questions of identity, race, and gender. Fluid and fluent. (LJ 9/1/13)

Clarke, Caroline. Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles, and a Whole Lot of Mail. Harper. Mar. 2014. 320p. ISBN 9780062103178. $24.99. MEMOIR

Journalist Clarke went looking for her biological mother and found Cookie, eldest daughter of Nat King Cole, with whom she struck up a voluminous correspondence.

Irby, Samantha. Meaty: Essays. Curbside Splendor. 2013. 250p. ISBN 9780988480421. pap. $15.95. LIT

In this book of essays, blogger Irby is just as funny and irreverent as she is on Expect the usual: sex, tacos, Crohn’s disease, and lousy (but hilariously so) men.

Mock, Janet. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. Atria. Feb. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781476709123. $24.99. MEMOIR

Writer and activist Mock came out as a transwoman when Marie Claire profiled her in 2011. In this memoir, she recounts her childhood belief in her true gender, her messy teenaged transition, and her adult life as a woman. A book sure to be both inspiring and important.

Terrence J. The Wealth of My Mother’s Wisdom: The Lessons That Made My Life Rich. It: HarperCollins. Mar. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9780062272959. pap. $14.99. MEMOIR

Actor and former host of BET’s 106 & Park, Terrence J credits his mother and the sacrifices she made for the success he’s found in his life.

Thomas, Michael. The Broken King. Grove: Atlantic. May 2014. 448p. ISBN 9780802120144. $26. MEMOIR

Tracing the men of his family across 150 broken and bloody years, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner Thomas steeps this memoir in dreams deferred (“does it dry up…?”) as much as he does history. A powerful statement about race, inheritance, and trauma.

Tyson, Mike. Undisputed Truth. Blue Rider. Nov. 2013. 592p. ISBN 9780399161285. $30. SPORTS

Former heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson has written a book. Did you know he is a vegan?

Williams, Richard. Black and White: The Way I See It. Atria. 320p. ISBN 9781476704203. $25.95. SPORTS

After watching Virginia Ruzici play tennis on TV, Williams decided his young daughters—Venus and Serena—could do that, too. He coached them himself, and here he reveals the methods he used to raise two of the greatest athletes tennis has known.


Harris, Frederick. The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and Rise and Decline of Black Politics. Oxford Univ. Jan. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9780199325238. pap. $17.95. POL SCI

Columbia University political scientist Harris discusses Obama’s presidency (and how he got there) in the context of black activism, moving from the civil rights movement to the present.

King, Desmond S. & Rogers M. Smith. Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America. Princeton Univ. (Princeton Studies in American Politics). Dec. 2013. 392p. ISBN 9780691142630. $35. pap. ISBN 9780691159621. $24.95. POL SCI

Though few would argue that racial inequality no longer exists in the United States, fewer still would be able to articulate precisely how and why our failure to erase it has been so spectacular. Here King and Smith tell the story of the political alliances and racial agendas that continue to shape our deeply flawed public policy.


Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations: 5,000 Years of Literature, Lyrics, Poems, Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs from Voices Around the World. Little, Brown. Nov. 2013. 832p. ed. by Retha Powers. ISBN 9780316010177. $40. REF

Bartlett’s is the definitive guide to finding just the right quotation, and here editor and writer Powers has selected appropriate passages that range in time from Ancient Egypt to the present day.

DeKnight, Freda. A Date with a Dish: Classic African-American Recipes. reprint. Dover. Jan. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780486492766. pap. $14.95. COOKING

Ebony cooking columnist DeKnight details recipes for hundreds of dishes from chicken and oyster gumbo to sweet potato pudding.

Harper, Hill. Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones. Gotham. Nov. 2013. 400p. ISBN 9781592407248. $27.50. SELF-HELP

In this third book in Harper’s “Letters” series, the actor offers incarcerated men words of advice and inspiration. His previous book, Letters to a Young Brother, was named Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association.

Former LJ Book Review editor Molly McArdle is currently pursuing an MFA at UMass Amherst

Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.


  1. Karl Helicher says:

    Delighted to see Michael Honey’s, SHARECROPPER TROUBADOR included. Honey is a terrific writer. Back in 2006, LJ sent me his,GOING DOWN JERICHO ROAD, which remains, IMHO, one of the finest books on Martin Luther King. Too bad that the hardback of Honey’s new book costs $80.46. Come on Palgrave MacMillian! For this price, I could buy the hardback edition of all trade hardbacks that interest me and enough Oreos to eat until I’ve finished the book.