In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the resulting protests, we recommend these works to help explain the ways in which the bloody legacy of slavery continues to impact the lives of modern-day Americans

By Morgan Smith and Sam Gillette
June 11, 2020 09:00 AM
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The United States is in the throes of a painful — and pivotal — reckoning with racism and the violence that's inflicted on black bodies by police. But one constant remains: the ability of books to educate readers so they can better understand their own experiences and those of people outside of their daily purview.

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read," said James Baldwin in an interview for LIFE Magazine in 1963. As was the case during the Civil Rights Movement, the need for books and thoughtful retrospectives feels necessary and urgent. (Books about racism have been selling out across the U.S. for the past couple of weeks.)

The recent deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police and Ahmaud Arbery by strangers have motivated protestors, who took to the streets to demand justice for those killed and the long line of black Americans who were murdered before them. While looting and violent interactions with police caused local officials to instate curfews in major cities throughout the U.S., the majority of the protests have been peaceful. And they haven't stopped yet.

"The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice," wrote Michelle Alexander in her acclaimed work of non-fiction, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, "to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society."

Keep reading for books that deconstruct racism, break down whiteness, and paint a vivid portrait of the black American experience. (And at the end, see a list of black-owned bookstores to support.)

Recommendations from black-owned bookstores:

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Chokehold by Paul Butler

In eye-opening detail, a former prosecutor reveals how the criminal justice system is set up to punish black men — and what needs to be done to bring about serious, lasting reform.

(Recommended by James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books, Los Angeles)

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The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

A literary and cultural classic since it was first published in 1963, Baldwin's account of his early years in Harlem is composed of two letters written on the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. A searing and personal reckoning with racial inequality, this book remains a clarion call to all Americans — imploring them to fight against the abominable heritage of slavery.

(Recommended by Ramunda Young, owner/co-founder of MahoganyBooks, Washington, D.C.)

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How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz

Moskowitz’s illuminating book explores all the systemic forces driving gentrification in major cities across the United States, casting a spotlight especially on New Orleans, San Francisco, New York and Detroit. Readers will walk away with a better understanding of the buzzword that’s dotted headlines for years, as well as of the intimate relationship between economic opportunity and racial justice in America.

(Recommended by Noëlle Santos, Proprietress, The Lit. Bar, The Bronx, N.Y.)

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The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

One of the most important discussions about race is often the one that's most forgotten. In Painter's exploration of whiteness, the renowned historian explores more than 2,000 years of Western history, explains how race is a human construct and reveals the ways central figures have manipulated the meaning of whiteness for centuries for political and economic advantage.

(Recommended by Derrick Young, owner/co-founder of MahoganyBooks, Washington, D.C.)

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Conversations in Black by Ed Gordon

Longtime journalist Ed Gordon gathers together some of the most well-known current black American leaders — including Stacey Abrams, Harry Belafonte, Charlamagne tha God, Al Sharpton, T.I. and Maxine Waters — to provide guidance about navigating race in these turbulent times. The result is an empowering look at black greatness and a way to move forward with pride.

(Recommended by Ramunda Young, owner/co-founder of MahoganyBooks, Washington, D.C.)

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Woke by Mahogany L. Browne, Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood

Three female poets join together to create a collection of poetry to inspire young activists. "It's a collection of proclamations, megaphoning to the young world that they are human and therefore have the right — I'd even go so far as to say the obligation — to talk back, to speak up, to connect with the fortifying elements outside of them, as well as those that exist within," writes author Jason Reynolds in the book's foreword.

(Recommended by Noëlle Santos, Proprietress, The Lit. Bar, The Bronx, N.Y.)

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An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz

This monumental work by scholar Paul Ortiz challenges foundational narratives of the United States, revealing the connections between the African American and Latinx experiences and revolutions led by people of the diaspora — from the United States to the Caribbean and Central America. "Paul Ortiz wields the engaging power of a social historian to bring vividly to life so many Black and Brown fighters for human rights in the Americas," wrote author Ibram X. Kendi, when praising the book. "Ambitious, original, and enlightening... a beautiful tapestry of struggle."

(Recommended by Derrick Young, owner/co-founder of MahoganyBooks, Washington, D.C.)

Fiction recommendations from PEOPLE editors:

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Native Son by Richard Wright 

Wright’s heartbreaking novel introduces readers to Bigger Thomas, a young, black man living in Chicago’s South Side during the 1930s. Tortured by society’s perception of him — poor, stupid, dangerous — Thomas becomes caught in a downward spiral of fear and crime. Native Son is a powerful, gripping reflection on what it means to be a black man in America.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Long considered one of the most important works of twentieth-century American literature, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 classic follows Janie Crawford, a lively, independent black woman, on her journey to selfhood through life’s many joys and trials in America’s rural South. A captivating novel rooted in American history and feminist thought.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Three narrators give powerful voice to Ward's story of a meth-addicted mother and her two young children on the road to pick up their dad from the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Haunting and keenly observed.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a stunning work of fiction that follows two Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they depart their military-ruled country for the United States and United Kingdom, where they learn what it means to be black in a mostly white society. A moving, funny love story that tackles race, immigration and identity in the 21st century.

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If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Set in Harlem during the early 1970s, this love story offers a searing portrait of racial injustice. If Beale Street Could Talk is narrated by Tish, a 19-year-old girl in love with Fonny, a young sculptor. The two begin planning their lives together — until Fonny is falsely accused of a serious crime and sent to prison.

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

A young man is wrongfully incarcerated and fights desperately to save his marriage while in prison — only to learn that his wife has fallen in love with someone else. And that's just the beginning of Tayari Jones's tense, timely love story. Told in letters and from alternating perspectives, packed with brave questions about race and class, An American Marriage is the perfect book-club book — one the whole group will finish and discuss with conviction.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

In this transportive memoir by the beloved poet and activist, Angelou delves into the abandonment and abuse that bruised her as a child. But she also celebrates the grace she found by loving herself and embracing the words of the powerful authors who came before her. "She comprehended the perversity of life, that in the struggle lies the joy," Angelou writes.

Non-fiction recommendations from PEOPLE editors:

Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

When blacks fought to claim their rights after the Civil War, a vicious backlash kept them down. And after the country’s first black president? Gates’s fascinating history helps make sense of where we are now.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Drawing on his own life, a historian examines racism’s structural roots and points the way to winning "the basic struggle we’re all in, the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human."

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

In this book, first published in 1964, the civil rights leader and supporter of black nationalism delves into his remarkable life, while also laying bare the falsehoods that hold up the American Dream. "Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different," wrote former President Barack Obama in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. "His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will."

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White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo 

This book is a great resource for anyone troubled by current events yet unsure of how to dive into the work toward racial justice. DiAngelo challenges white people to reckon with the guilt and anger many feel when discussing race and offers a path forward through the discomfort to help create change.

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So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Racism is a difficult, but necessary subject to talk about. So You Want to Talk About Race is a great place to start. Using facts, humor and anecdotes, Oluo offers a clear examination of race in America and guides readers from all backgrounds on how to have honest, productive conversations about such issues ranging from police brutality to cultural appropriation.

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The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Alexander’s meticulously researched book explores how the U.S. criminal justice system has disproportionately targeted African Americans, reinforcing a vicious cycle of discrimination and oppression many assumed ended with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As she writes: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

What does it mean to be a black man in America today? Coates set out to explain his heritage, lay bare the ever-present dangers and share his hopes for change with his son. His searing, transformative book is a must-read for us all.

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Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

In 1927 Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) sat on a porch with Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the last slave ship, eating peaches and hearing his tale. Ninety-three years later, her (their) brilliant oral history is finally in our hands.

Support black-owned bookstores:

Semicolon Bookstore, Chicago

The Lit. Bar, The Bronx, N.Y.

MahoganyBooks, Washington, D.C.

Eso Won Books, Los Angeles

Wild Fig Books, Lexington, Kentucky

Sister's UptownNew York City

EyeSeeMeUniversity City, Missouri