Literature

Books about Race, Power and the Black Experience, Chosen by Four Black Boston Authors

These works by bell hooks, Frederick Douglass, and other luminaries unpack long histories of injustice—and will help you be a more informed activist today.


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As we organize, march, and donate to demand justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, now is a good time to refresh your understanding of the historical context behind them or get more educated on the ideology and practice of antiracism. There are hundreds of titles to choose from if you’re looking to explore the systemic oppression of Black people in America—so we suggest starting close to home. Below are the works of four Boston-area authors who have explored racism, police brutality and the Black experience through writing, along with their suggestions for further reading.

If you’re inspired to make a purchase, consider supporting Roxbury’s Frugal Bookstore, the only Black-owned bookstore in Boston. We’ve linked to their catalog when possible below.

Danielle Allen

An accomplished political theorist, Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and the Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She is best known for her work regarding justice in both modern America and ancient Athens. She is a former Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Her work:

Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.
Michael Allen, the author’s cousin, was arrested for carjacking in LA at the age of 15, tried as an adult, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was released at age 26—but was murdered just three years later. In this memoir, Danielle Allen attempts to understand the tragedy of her cousin’s short life. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called it “unbearably moving.”

Her recommendations for further reading:

Shadows of Doubt: Stereotypes, Crime, and the Pursuit of Justice by Brendan O’Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi
In this provocative read, O’Flaherty and Sethi, both economists, explore the way that stereotypes shape the way crimes unfold, and the insidious ways they color our justice system.

The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence by Laurence Ralph
In Chicago, the prevalence of torture at the hands of the police is an open secret—three to five new claims are submitted to the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission of Illinois each week. In The Torture Letters, a collection of open letters written to protesters, victims, and students, Ralph outlines the history of torture in the city and the rising movement pushing back against police violence.

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton
In the U.S., one in every eleven Black men is under some form of penal control. In this book, Harvard history and African and African-American Studies professor Elizabeth Hinton attempts to map how we got here, tracing back the rise of mass incarceration to, somewhat ironically, the social welfare policies of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. ed. by Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry
Martin Luther King Jr. is a ubiquitous figure—but in To Shape a New World, Harvard professors Shelby and Terry posit that the significance of King’s writings and political thought is still under-appreciated and misunderstood. The authors argue that King’s ideas have been marginalized and romanticized, which both strips King of his originality and renders the civil rights movement overly conservative. The authors featured in this collection provide a different lens on King’s work, critically engaging with his lesser-known writings on labor rights, reparations, nationalism, and more.

Jabari Asim

Asim is a poet, playwright, and writer of books for both children and adults. He also served as the editor in chief of Crisis magazine, the NAACP’s journal of politics, culture, and ideas, and as an editor at the Washington Post, where he wrote a column on politics, popular culture and social issues. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Arts. Currently, Asim serves as an associate professor and graduate program director in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing department at Emerson College.

His work:

Not Guilty: Twelve Black Men Speak Out on Life, Justice, and the Law (ed.)
In this essay collection from 2001, 12 prominent black male writers from a broad swath of social and economic backgrounds offer their perspectives on what it’s like to be a Black man living in America.

The N Word: Who Can Say, Who Shouldn’t and Why
In which Asim untangles the long, complicated history of the slur, and makes an argument for its proper usage.

We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival
Through the eight essays in this collection, Asim paints a portrait of the Black community’s resistance and survival in the face of America’s deep-seated racism, exploring topics from the importance of Black fathers to the significance of Black writers and Black stories.

Stop and Frisk: American Poems (publishes June 19)
In this forthcoming collection of dramatic monologues, described as “part rap sheet, part concept album,” Asim confronts the injustices entrenched in the fabric of American culture, exposing that darkness and calling for bold change.

His recommendations for further reading, in his own words:

The Black Book edited by Middleton A. Harris, et. al, with a foreword and preface by Toni Morrison
“Morrison oversaw this project when she was an editor at Random House. Originally published in 1974, it’s a single-volume encyclopedia brimming with documents, photos, poems, song lyrics, and other items revealing the African-American experience from 1619 to the mid-twentieth century. It includes high and low points, from Emancipation to lynchings and mob violence.”

My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass
“The second of Douglass’s memoirs and the best, in my estimation. Douglass grew up in Maryland but spent pivotal moments of his adult life in New Bedford, Lynn, and Boston. His recollections of his journey from enslaved to the most photographed man of his time covers a lot of historical ground and pulls no punches regarding white mob violence and anti-black racism.”

Kerri Greenidge

Currently the interim Director of American Studies and the Co-director of the African American Trail Project at Tufts’ Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Greenidge’s specialty is African-American history, American political history, and African-American and African diasporic literature. She has taught at BU, UMass, and Emerson, and has conducted research for the Oxford African American Studies Center and PBS.

Her work:

Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Greenidge’s 2019 book, which won the Mark Lynton History Prize and was named to the New York Times Critics Top Books of 2019, tells the story of the unsung civil rights hero William Monroe Trotter, who edited and published a weekly Boston newspaper that was read nationwide.

Her recommendations for further reading:

Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence by Kellie Carter Jackson
One of the tenets of the white-led American abolitionist movement in the 1750s was nonviolent resistance. However, 100 years later, legislation like the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision had completely oppressed Black Americans, and Black abolitionist leaders had to embrace violence as the only means of instigating change. Force and Freedom is the first historical analysis to exclusively focus on the use of violence as a tactic by antebellum Black activists. Through violence, the author argues, Black abolitionist leaders were finally able to do what white abolitionists’ nonviolent tactics couldn’t: Create the conditions that led to the Civil War, instigating monumental change.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcom X, as told to Alex Haley
Malcom X was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, and reading his story in his own words is both difficult and galvanizing. The autobiography, a collaboration with the activist and journalist Alex Haley, outlines Malcom X’s journey from his childhood in Boston, to his involvement in organized crime, to his conversion to Islam and pilgrimage to Mecca. When The Autobiography was published, shortly after Malcom X’s assassination, The New York Times deemed it a “brilliant, painful, important book.”

Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class by Robin D.G. Kelley
An adaptation of several articles published by Kelley, Race Rebels examines the impact of the Black working class on American politics and culture. Kelley’s thesis is, essentially, that many strategies of daily resistance by Black people have been obscured—that “race rebels” have employed unconventional strategies from the Jim Crow era to today to resist oppression.

Nakia Hill

Hill, who was named a Boston Artist-in-Residence in 2018 by Mayor Walsh, is a writer, journalist, and educator who focuses on empowering women to use writing as a tool for healing. She is the founder of Girls, Write!, a creative writing program for girls of color in Boston, and she is the director of the Writers’ Room program at 826 Boston.

Her work:

Water Carrier
Subtitled “A collection of poetry dedicated to my healing journey,” Hill’s debut collection of poetry pays tribute to women of color learning to speak their truth and set boundaries. The collection featured handwritten poems pulled directly from Hill’s journal from her teen years.

I Still Did It
This intergenerational anthology features stories written by girls and women of color in Boston, from age 10 to age 88.

Her recommendations for further reading, in her own words:

More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth
“As a Black woman, who has worked in predominantly White spaces in my adulthood, Elaine Welteroth’s part-memoir and part-manifesto More Than Enough is a refreshing and relatable read. She keeps it so real about her experience navigating the world and the workplace as a Black mixed race woman. If you’ve ever felt the discomfort of negotiating your salary or getting a promotion which still has undertones of not respecting your worth then this book will resonate with you. More than Enough is one of those books that I found myself talking back to each page literally out loud.”

Where To Begin by Cleo Wade
“I often pick up Cleo’s collection of the ideas, mantras, and poems in Where To Begin when I am feeling weary of the ways of the world. This intimate body of work mirrors internal conversations that we often have with ourselves but on the page of Cleo’s book. Pre-pandemic, I devoured this book in one day during my commute to and from work on the Orange Line.”

Woman of Color by Latonya Yvette
“I see a reflection of myself when I pick up this gorgeous book. It lives on my kitchen table. When I open Woman of Color I feel like I am sitting on a brownstone stoop in Brooklyn listening to Latonya tell me stories about her life and flipping the page of her photo album which archives transformative moments in her life. This beautiful body of work also offers style and beauty advice from special women of color in her life.”

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
“It’s bell hooks. Read the book. Drops mic!”

Looking for more?

Here are some additional antiracism book recommendations we gathered from local booksellers, organized by genre.

Fiction

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
“Reading this book is a revelation. Woodson’s writing is gorgeousness embodied, and the style is such that she quietly, seemingly effortlessly, creates an intensely compelling story of family, of inheritances, of love in many ways. Of race. Of gender. Of age.” —Jordan, bookseller at Brookline Booksmith

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
“Who determines what the truth is? And at what cost? In this remarkable debut, we enter a courtroom where Frannie Langton, a former slave, is accused of the murder of her employers. What Frannie can’t recall about the crime is supplemented by what she can testify to about her own life—the horrors of growing up as a slave followed by the horrors of living in England with employers she at turns loves and loathes. Race is at the heart of this story, along with a sharp examination of power: Who wields it, and why.”—Nick, bookseller at Brookline Booksmith

Nonfiction

On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century by Sherrilyn Ifill
“A book which offers both an historical examination of lynching, and a reflection on its sociocultural impacts—which persist to this day. Ifill also offers ideas on how to help communities with histories of lynchings heal, drawing on techniques used in restorative justice, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” —Read D., bookseller at Harvard Book Store

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman
“How do we write the stories of people whose stories have been systematically erased, omitted and lost? Hartman combines archival research with her own imagination to begin writing a record of the intimate lives of Black women at the turn of the century. An urgent, radical, and gorgeously written history.” —Bradley, bookseller at Brookline Booksmith

How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Resistance by Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin
“A book written by black people, and for black people. For those of us looking for inspiration, hope, or instruction on how to cope and survive in our fight against white supremacy. This book is a collection of thought and wisdom from black creators and activists as they speak about all the ways we find to resist white supremacy—from art, to direct action, education, and more.” —Read D., bookseller at Harvard Book Store

Back In The Days by Jamal Shabazz
“One of my favorite street photographers of all time. This collection depicts ’70s/’80s New York City communities and their positive influence on American culture. Definitely check out Shabazz’s other works, too.” —Carl, bookseller at Brookline Booksmith

For Young Adult Readers 

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
“In this remix for young readers of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi and Jason Reynolds break the history of anti-Black racism and anti-racism all the way down to its roots in Europe before the transatlantic slave trade. But as Reynolds says, this is not merely a history book full of dates and names that feel so far away…. it is a present book, “a book about the here and now” that connects this history to realities young people face today.” —Kayleigh O., bookseller at Harvard Book Store

Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Dear Martin is a slim but powerful read, a necessary reckoning. It refuses to shy away from the ugly truths of discrimination and police violence, and the ways in which microaggressions contribute to a culture of racist violence in America.” —Olivia M., bookseller at Harvard Book Store

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
“This book is inspired by #BlackLivesMatter and it is an important addition to our lexicon of writings on police brutality and violence. But even more, it is an important look at what it’s like to grow up as a black girl in America today.” —Read D., bookseller at Harvard Book Store

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
“Jason Reynolds is one of the best writers of this generation. He could write about any topic, but chooses to use his literary gifts to focus on topics that urgently affect our world. Police brutality against people of color is no exception. This immaculately written book was published in 2016. Unfortunately, we need it just as much today as we did then.” —Audrey S., bookseller at Harvard Book Store

For Kids

What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado
“Maldonado really nails it in his second middle grade novel. It’s an #ownvoices story about the complications of having two separate friend groups and being mixed-race, with a core cast of 12 year old boys. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to give the main character, Stephen, a hug. His relationship with his best friend, Danny, (who’s white), was kind and genuine and imperfect. This is a great book to read as an introduction to talking about racial profiling and how to be an ally. Or just, you know, because it’s an awesome book.” —Sara, bookseller at Brookline Booksmith

Front Desk by Kelly Yang
“Mia’s Chinese immigrant family thinks their luck has finally changed when they become caretakers of a hotel – but things are never simple, are they? An awesome novel about family, community, and thriving in a world that isn’t always fair.” —Alex, bookseller at Brookline Booksmith

I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont
“It’s never too early to teach kids to love their unique, quirky selves! This fun, beautifully illustrated book about self-esteem is a great place to start. And it rhymes!” —Kiersten, bookseller at Brookline Booksmith