The United States has always had African Americans who beat, or played, an unfair system to succeed.
There is plenty to read about.
Michelle Obama’s Becoming is not news. It has been out for a couple of years now, and I haven’t heard a bad thing about it. If you haven’t read it, it is worth your time.
Although we appreciate what the Obamas have done and continue to do for the United States, they are also a symbol of how far this country has come in the last 400 years.
Becoming is pretty long, however..around 400 pages, depending on whether you count all of the back matter. If that’s too much for you, try The Meaning of Michelle, a collection of essays about Michelle Obama.
Each essay is about a totally different aspect of Ms. Obama, including her style and her clothes. The side benefit is that you will have a chance to discover some great contemporary African-American authors.
African American Women
The United States has a long history of strong Black women who succeeded in a very unfair system, often by exploiting openings they found in a system that was stacked against them.
Some Amazing African-American women you might not know about.
First, don’t forget about Condoleezza Rice, who actually served as the U.S. Secretary of State under Republican President George W. Bush.
That’s the same role that Hillary Clinton had under Democrat President Barack Obama, and is the third most senior role in the U.S. Executive Branch of government after the president and vice-president. The Secretary of State is the U.S.’s name for Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Condoleezza Rice’s family is similar to Michelle Obama’s in that they were a middle-class family on the rise, but the Rice’s were from the South, where the rules were different than in Chicago, where Michelle Obama was raised, and Rice was also raised during a different time.
I’ve always been fascinated by Madam C.J. Walker. She made her fortune inventing and selling hair products to Black women to help them achieve the styles they were after.
Like those of many African Americans, her story is complicated to modern eyes because of how she made her money, but she’s important to know about, nonetheless.
Hattie McDaniel might look familiar to you if you like old movies as she was in quite a few of them, usually, unfortunately playing a maid, but she is famous for pointing out that it’s better to play a maid than to be one!
She took the constraints place on her all the way to the Oscars by becoming the first African-American woman for winning one, in her role a..a maid…Mammy…in Gone with the Wind. Though the film won best picture in 1940, only she and Vivien Leigh won Oscars for acting, and Hattie McDaniel beat her costar Olivia De Havilland (Melanie) for the honor.
In addition, there’s a lot more to Hattie McDaniels that you may not know about; she was a multitalented woman who, among other things, sang the blues.
Zora Neale Hurston was a renowned female author who was part of the Harlem Renaissance. She went out of print, but was “rediscovered” after Alice Walker (The Color Purple) wrote an essay about her that was published in Ms. in 1975.
You can find free teaching resources along with free excerpts of Hurston’s work here.
Negroland is a memoir by one of the African-American community’s elite, which have always existed. This book offers a window into that world that many people don’t know about.
An excerpt of Negroland from The Guardian
Black Female Math Whizzes
To read about Hidden Figures, African American women as mathematicians, and a bit about good math education, click here.
Octavia Butler writes all kind of fiction, including fantasy. Try her trilogy, below, or, if you want a quicker read, the graphic novel adaptation of the first book in the series.
The Great Migration from a Child’s Perspective written for children
Lois Lenski was famous for her artwork and her award winning novels for older children. Strawberry Girl, which won the Newbery Award, was a part of a series called the “Regionals”. To write them, Lenski spent time with a variety of American families that she thought were under represented in children’s literature, and then wrote novels and created illustrations. One of the novels she wrote for this series is Mama Hattie’s Girl, is about a family who takes part in the “Great Migration” of African-American families from the south to the north during the middle of the 20th Century.
From my perspective, Lenski did a wonderful job depicting this family and others in a kind, yet authentic way.
Nearly all the books are back in print and, at this writing, are available through Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s book subscription service.
Mama Hattie’s Girl is a great short read for adults; I’ve actually been trying to read my way through the whole series! I read Mama Hattie’s Girl first because I thought the subject matter would be among the most difficult.
Among other aspects of life during the time that Jim Crow was reaching its end and the Great Migration was happening, Lenski paints a compassionate and probably fair portrait of a Black girl attending an integrated school in the north for the first time as well as the tensions between the “old” and “new” ways in the conflict between Mama Hattie and her daughter.
She shows the contrast between “Mama Hattie” and her daughter and the different ways they have learned to live, under the “old” system and the changes that were occurring in the 1950’s.
It’s amazing to have such a well researched and thoughtfully written (and illustrated) record of this aspect of American life.
I’m not sure any other book like this on the Great Migration…for and about children with first person experiences…exists.
To read The Lois Level on Dorothy Sterling, who wrote the first young adult novels on Black history and experiences, click here.
…and the adults
The Warmth of Other Suns is a full length, full on nonfiction work about The Great Migration; settle yourself in for a long read on this one.
Or if you don’t have the time, here is a graphic novel version.
Check out this post of amazing vintage photography of African American women taken during the Harlem Renaissance from the website Vintage Everyday.
Ida B. Wells was born a slave. After the Emancipation Proclamation, she got her education and spent her live working for civil rights for African Americans.
You can read a short biography here, and her autobiography is below.
Phillis Wheatley was captured from Africa and became a renowned (and published poet) in the United States.
To really appreciate her work, I suggest moving on past the free poems you can find online and read her collected work. To a modern reader, it can be a little off putting on the surface because 1) Sometimes she writes about her appreciation for being brought to the U.S. and Christianity (Note: she traveled as a slave in a cargo hold) and 2) Because many of her poems are written, “To…” or are titled to commemorate events. Also, they are long and complex.
But if you take time to actually read some of them, you will appreciate her use of language and imagery:
“The billows rave, the wind’s fierce tyrant roars,
And with his thund’ring terror shakes the shores:
Broken by waves the vessel’s frame is rent,
And strows with planks the wat’ry element.”
from “To a LADY on her remarkable Preservation in an Hurricane in North-Carolina” (sic), ll. 13-16
Note: Complete Writings does NOT include the memoir but does include letters.
Well known YA author Ann Rinaldi’s version is an easy way into the story that adults will enjoy.
You can read a short biography of Phillis Wheatley’s life and a sample of her poetry here.
I just discovered this book, A Black Women’s History of the United States, and I’m excited to read it.
If all of this isn’t enough, check out the anthology Well-Read Black Girl. It is a unique text with a range of book lists by and about Black women in the United States. There’s a good range of books for Young Adult and up (and remember, you don’t need to be Young Adult to read Young Adult). Compiler Glory Edum has included more than novelists, so you will find a range of options including plays, poetry, nonfiction (especially books about Black feminism), and more. She’s got a good range of the classics and a good range of heavier and lighter texts.
You don’t have to be Black to enjoy this book. Just pointing that out lol.
I hope you enjoy these books and are encouraged to find more about the rich history of African Americans in the U.S.!
Please add your recommendations below or at The Lois Level Facebook page.