As a college student on a tight budget, I was more than eager to sell back my books every semester. However, as an African-American Studies minor there were just some books I couldn’t bear to part with and have hung onto since graduating a couple years ago. These books mostly fall in the realm of Black literature and enriched my learning experience as well as my mind. So for those of you that enjoy a thought provoking read, here are 10 books that engage Black consciousness, encourage social awareness and will make the collection on your bookshelf look provocative at the least:
1. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
“Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice.”
During a semester with one of my favorite English professors, I was introduced to this collection of letters from political prisoner and revolutionary George Jackson. After being sentenced to one year to life in prison for allegedly robbing a gas station for $70, Jackson spent the last twelve years of his life in San Quentin prison before being killed by a security guard during an altercation between prisoners and security. As he uses his situation to bring awareness and action to the larger issues of racism and the prison industrial complex, Jackson presents psychoanalytic theory and Black revolutionary prose in his letters which both enlightens and challenges the readers. George Jackson’s writing proves that regardless of physical constraints, a mind always has the ability to free itself.
2. The Condemnation of Little B.
When it comes to the criminalization of Black men—youth in particular—author Elaine Brown hits the nail on the head. The former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party provocatively lays out the discrepancies in the case of 13 year-old Michael “Little B” Lewis who, in Brown’s opinion, was wrongfully accused of murder in 1997. Elaine Brown goes on to critique the larger issue of Black criminalization, the pitfalls of the legal system and the harsh punishments unjustifiably imposed on Black youth. Brown argues that there are many “Little Bs” throughout this country, wrongfully condemned by society and even their own communities.
You may gasp, turn away or even feel sick after viewing the horrible images presented in Without Sanctuary, but unfortunately these disgusting acts took place. The book shows photographs and postcards discovered by historical collector James Allen, which were taken as souvenirs at lynchings throughout America. It also includes essays by congressmen John Lewis, James Allen and others on the issue of lynching. It can be disturbing to see images of innocent Black men, women and children (and even Whites in some instances) hanged and/or burned, but what is even more troubling is seeing the crowds that eagerly looked on in fascination. And while it may hurt or even anger you to look, this book forces us to remember and discuss the inhumane treatment our people have faced during and since slavery. Hopefully history will never repeat itself.
4. The Mis-education of the Negro
Carter G. Woodson
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”
Founder of what we now celebrate as “Black History Month,” Carter G. Woodson lays out the argument that many Black students are being indoctrinated, rather than educated in the American educational system. Woodson explains the failure of the educational system’s failure to encourage independent thinking and self-sufficiency, and how it has resulted in many internal conflicts in Black communities and the unwillingness to “do for self.” While this book often sparked debate between the “I want to graduate and make a difference in the Black community” students and the “What’s wrong with graduating and getting a good job?” students, at the least, The Mis-education of the Negro will make you ponder what you have been taught and may even make you wonder how it has influenced your goals.
5. Assata: An Autobiography
In her autobiography, Assata Shakur vividly exposes the reality of police brutality and the motives behind Black oppression, by detailing her shocking experiences at the hands of the law. A member of the Black Panther Party as well as the Black Liberation Army, in 1973 Shakur was involved in an incident on the New Jersey Turnpike during which State Trooper Werner Foerster and BLA member Zayd Malik Shakur were killed (Shakur and another officer were wounded). After being charged with first-degree murder Assata Shakur was sentenced to life in prison, but managed to escaped from prison in 1979 and has been living in Cuba in political asylum since 1984. The cruelty Assata faced and her amazing escape will have you engulfed in her story. And, if you’re like me, the injustice Shakur exposes will almost have you toying with the idea of retreating to Cuba your darn self.
6. The Wretched of the Earth
“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”
Born in Martinique in 1925, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon went on to one of the most poignant voices in liberation philosophy on the subjects of racism, colonialism and Black liberation. Published in 1961, The Wretched of the Earth was inspired by Fanon’s observation of the struggles the Algerian nation faced while striving for independence from French colonizers. Fanon eloquently breaks down and challenges the psychological, social and economic effects of racism and colonization all over the world.
7. No Disrespect
While most of us have probably read Coldest Winter Ever, and have often heard the name Sister Souljah spoken of in the realm of Black conscious figures, what do we really know about this powerful woman? In No Disrespect, Sister Souljah boldy and openly shares various chapter in her life that have molded her into the women she is today. Trials, tribulation and funny anecdotes from her childhood in the projects of the Bronx, her love life and her eye-opening experiences in college, make this an engaging and insightful read. As a young woman who could identify with some of her struggles, I found myself anxiously reading each page excited for what she would reveal or experience next.
8. The Souls of Black Folk
In one of his most noted works, groundbreaking sociologists W.E.B. Du Bois discusses what he believes to be the greatest problem of 21st century America –the color line—through a collection of essays. He explores what it means to be Black in America and coins the term “double-consciousness” (which explains a level of self-consciousness many Blacks feel due to the racial climate of this country). The idea of the “veil” and the “talented tenth” are introduced and unpacked in The Souls of Black Folks as well. To this day the work of DuBois continues to be glorified, studied and at times even challenged, and this timeless book has undoubtedly solidified its place as classic Black literature.
9. Black Like Me
John Howard Griffin
Black Like Me is an account of White journalists, John Howard Griffin’s curious experience “passing” as Black for six weeks. In 1959, after undergoing a regimen of the anti-vitiligo drug Methoxsalen; which darkened his skin significantly, Griffin embarked on a journey through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia disguised as a Black man; his aim was to explain the difficulties facing Black people in these southern areas. As he made his way through the South, Griffin wrote extensively about the discrimination he encountered. Yet despite his experiences, the question many have posed is whether a White man “passing” as Black could ever fully comprehend the difficulties of being Black in America. Whatever your stance is, this will definitely make for an interesting read.
10. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black
If you’ve ever been put in your place for getting in grown folks business as a child, you will fully understand the concept and consequences of “talking back.” However, highly-acclaimed feminist, social activist and author, bell hooks, explores the challenges of being a Black woman in both the larger society and in the Black community. Hooks discusses her experiences growing up in a male-dominated household, finding her voice as a writer while studying at a predominately white college all while facing various obstacles due to sexism and racism. And so, if you are a sister who thinks arguing for our rights and fair treatment as Black women is contradictory or unnecessary to our struggle, you may want to read Talking Back, as bell hooks unapologetically begs to differ.