Black History Month: Biography and Memoir

Will Harlan | January 29, 2021



Black History Month: Biography and Memoir

We are celebrating Black History Month with weekly reading recommendation lists throughout February. This list features biographies and memoirs for readers of all ages. Each book is available through the Minuteman Library Network. All you need is your library card!

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Black Creators: Biography and Memoir — books by or about Black creators and their lives


Eloquent Rage

Brittney Cooper

NAMED A BEST/MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018 BY: Glamour • Chicago Reader With searing honesty, intimacy and humor too, America’s leading young black feminist celebrates the power of rage. Melissa Harris Perry says: “I was waiting for an author who wouldn’t forget, ignore, or erase us black girls as they told their own story...I was waiting and she has come—in Brittney Cooper.” Michael Eric Dyson says: “Cooper may be the boldest young feminist writing today. Her critique is sharp, her love of Black people and Black culture is deep, and she will make you laugh out loud.” Rebecca Traister says: "Brittney Cooper is a national treasure." Mychal Denzel Smith says: "Brittney Cooper is the Black Feminist Prophet we urgently need." So what if it’s true that Black women are mad as hell? They have the right to be. In the Black feminist tradition of Audre Lorde, Brittney Cooper reminds us that anger is a powerful source of energy that can give us the strength to keep on fighting. Far too often, Black women’s anger has been caricatured into an ugly and destructive force that threatens the civility and social fabric of American democracy. But Cooper shows us that there is more to the story than that. Black women’s eloquent rage is what makes Serena Williams such a powerful tennis player. It’s what makes Beyoncé’s girl power anthems resonate so hard. It’s what makes Michelle Obama an icon. Eloquent rage keeps us all honest and accountable. It reminds women that they don’t have to settle for less. When Cooper learned of her grandmother's eloquent rage about love, sex, and marriage in an epic and hilarious front-porch confrontation, her life was changed. And it took another intervention, this time staged by one of her homegirls, to turn Brittney into the fierce feminist she is today. In Brittney Cooper’s world, neither mean girls nor fuckboys ever win. But homegirls emerge as heroes. This book argues that ultimately feminism, friendship, and faith in one's own superpowers are all we really need to turn things right side up again.

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The Cooking Gene

Michael W. Twitty

A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom. Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine. From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors’ survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia. As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together. Illustrations by Stephen Crotts

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How We Fight for Our Lives

Saeed Jones

WINNER OF THE 2019 KIRKUS PRIZE IN NONFICTION WINNER OF THE 2020 STONEWALL BOOK AWARD-ISRAEL FISHMAN NONFICTION AWARD ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES’S 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2019 One of the best books of the year as selected by The Washington Post; NPR; Time; The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; Harper’s Bazaar; Elle; Kirkus Reviews; Publishers Weekly; BuzzFeed; Goodreads; School Library Journal; and many more. “A moving, bracingly honest memoir that reads like fevered poetry.” —The New York Times Book Review “Jones’s voice and sensibility are so distinct that he turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down.” —NPR’S Fresh Air “People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’” Haunted and haunting, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir. Jones tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves. An award-winning poet, Jones has developed a style that’s as beautiful as it is powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one-of-a-kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

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The Body Is Not an Apology

Sonya Renee Taylor

The Body Is Not an Apology The Power of Radical Self-Love Against a global backdrop of war, social upheaval, and personal despair, there is a growing sense of urgency to challenge the systems of oppression that dehumanize bodies and strip us of our shared humanity. Rather than feel helpless in the face of oppression, world-renowned activist, performance poet, and author Sonya Renee Taylor teaches us how to turn to the power of radical self-love in her new book, The Body Is Not an Apology. Radical self-love is the guiding framework that transforms the learned self-hatred of our bodies and the prejudices we have about other people's bodies into a vision of compassion, equity, and justice. In a revolutionary departure from the corporate self-help and body-positivity movement, Taylor forges the inextricable bond between radical self-love and social justice. The first step is recognizing that we have all been indoctrinated into a system of body shame that profits off of our self-hatred. When we ask ourselves, “Who benefits from our collective shame?” we can begin to make the distinction between the messages we are receiving about our bodies or other bodies and the truth. This book moves us beyond our all-too-often hidden lives, where we are easily encouraged to forget that we are whole humans having whole human experiences in our bodies alongside others. Radical self-love encourages us to embark on a personal journey of transformation with thoughtful reflection on the origins of our minds and bodies as a source of strength. In doing this, we not only learn to reject negative messages about ourselves but begin to thwart the very power structures that uphold them. Systems of oppression thrive off of our inability to make peace with bodies and difference. Radical self-love not only dismantles shame and self-loathing in us but has the power to dismantle global systems of injustice—because when we make peace with our bodies, only then do we have the capacity to truly make peace with the bodies of others.

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Proud (Young Readers Edition)

Ibtihaj Muhammad

The inspiring and critically acclaimed all-American story of faith, family, hard work, and perseverance by Olympic fencer, activist, New York Times bestselling author, and Time "100 Most Influential People" honoree Ibtihaj Muhammad At the 2016 Olympic Games, Ibtihaj Muhammad smashed barriers as the first American to compete wearing hijab, and she made history as the first Muslim American woman to win a medal. But before she was an Olympian, activist, and entrepreneur, Ibtihaj was a young outsider trying to find her place. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Ibtihaj was often the only African American Muslim student in her class. When she discovered and fell in love with fencing, a sport most popular with affluent young white people, she stood out even more. Rivals and teammates often pointed out Ibtihaj's differences, telling her she would never succeed. Yet she powered on, rising above bigotry and other obstacles on the path to pursue her dream. Ibtihaj's inspiring journey from humble beginnings to the international stage is told in her own words and enhanced with helpful advice and never-before-published photographs. Proud is an all-American tale of faith, family, hard work, and self-reliance.

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March Forward, Girl

Melba Pattillo Beals

From the legendary civil rights activist and author of the million-copy selling Warriors Don't Cry comes a powerful, timely new memoir about growing up in the segregated South. Civil rights heroine Melba Patillo Beals puts readers right in her saddle oxfords as she struggles to understand--and fight back against--the laws that told her she was less just because of the color of her skin. Includes photos and illustrations.

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When They Call You a Terrorist

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, asha bandele

THE INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER. New York Times Editor’s Pick. Library Journal Best Books of 2019. TIME Magazine's "Best Memoirs of 2018 So Far." O, Oprah’s Magazine’s “10 Titles to Pick Up Now.” Politics & Current Events 2018 O.W.L. Book Awards Winner The Root Best of 2018 "This remarkable book reveals what inspired Patrisse's visionary and courageous activism and forces us to face the consequence of the choices our nation made when we criminalized a generation. This book is a must-read for all of us." - Michelle Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of The New Jim Crow A poetic and powerful memoir about what it means to be a Black woman in America—and the co-founding of a movement that demands justice for all in the land of the free. Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin. Championing human rights in the face of violent racism, Patrisse is a survivor. She transformed her personal pain into political power, giving voice to a people suffering inequality and a movement fueled by her strength and love to tell the country—and the world—that Black Lives Matter. When They Call You a Terrorist is Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s reflection on humanity. It is an empowering account of survival, strength and resilience and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent Black life expendable.

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The Beautiful Struggle (Adapted for Young Adults)

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Adapted from the adult memoir by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Water Dancer and Between the World and Me, this father-son story explores how boys become men, and quite specifically, how Ta-Nehisi Coates became Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates grew up in the tumultuous 1980's in Baltimore, known as the murder capital back then. With seven siblings, four mothers, and one highly unconventional father: Paul Coates, a larger-than-life Vietnam Vet, Black Panther, Afrocentric scholar, Ta-Nehisi's coming of age story is gripping and lays bare the struggles of inner-city kids. With candor, Ta-Nehisi Coates details the challenges on the streets and within one's family, especially the eternal struggle for peace between a father and son and the important role family plays in such circumstances. Praise for the adult edition of THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE Ta-Nehisi Coates is the young James Joyce of the hip-hop generation. --Walter Mosley Haunting and healing . . . a splendid memoir --Essence A brilliant coming-of-age story. --People

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Seen: Edmonia Lewis

Jasmine Wells

It’s about being seen. Both for who you are, and who you hope you can become. History is a mirror, and all too often, the history we’re told in school reflects only a small subset of the population. In the new ongoing graphic novel program; Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers, you’ll find the stories of the real groundbreakers who changed our world for the better. Meet Edmonia Lewis, the woman who changed America during the Civil War by becoming the first sculptor of African-American and Native American heritage to earn international acclaim. In the tradition of March, Science Comics, and A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, Jasmine Walls and Bex Glendining shine a light on a true story of courage, determination and perseverance through one of America’s most violent eras to create true beauty that still resonates today.

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Call Me American (Adapted for Young Adults)

Abdi Nor Iftin

Adapted from the adult memoir, this gripping and acclaimed story follows one boy's journey into young adulthood, against the backdrop of civil war and his ultimate immigration to America, in search of a better life. In Somalia, Abdi Nor Iftin grew up amidst a blend of cultures. His mother entertained him with vivid folktales and bold stories about her rural, nomadic upbrinding. As he grew older, he spent his days following his father, a basketball player, through the bustling street of the capital city of Mogadishu. But when the threat of civil war reached Abdi's doorstep, his family was forced to flee to safety. Through the turbulent years of war, young Abdi found solace in popular American music and films. Nicknamed Abdi the American, he developed a proficiency for English that connected him--and his story--with news outlets and radio shows, and eventually gave him a shot at winning the annual U.S. visa lottery. Abdi shares every part of his journey, and his courageous account reminds readers that everyone deserves the chance to build a brighter future for themselves.

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Becoming Muhammad Ali

James Patterson, Kwame Alexander

From two heavy-hitters in children's literature comes a critically acclaimed biographical novel of cultural icon Muhammad Ali. *"This utterly delightful story about Ali's childhood is a smash hit." --School Library Journal (starred review) Five starred reviews! Before he was a household name, Cassius Clay was a kid with struggles like any other. Kwame Alexander and James Patterson join forces to vividly depict his life up to age seventeen in both prose and verse, including his childhood friends, struggles in school, the racism he faced, and his discovery of boxing. Readers will learn about Cassius' family and neighbors in Louisville, Kentucky, and how, after a thief stole his bike, Cassius began training as an amateur boxer at age twelve. Before long, he won his first Golden Gloves bout and began his transformation into the unrivaled Muhammad Ali. Fully authorized by and written in cooperation with the Muhammad Ali estate, and vividly brought to life by Dawud Anyabwile's dynamic artwork, Becoming Muhammad Ali captures the budding charisma and youthful personality of one of the greatest sports heroes of all time.

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Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature A New York Times Bestseller and National Book Award Winner Jacqueline Woodson, the acclaimed author of Another Brooklyn, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse. Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become. A National Book Award Winner A Newbery Honor Book A Coretta Scott King Award Winner Praise for Jacqueline Woodson: Ms. Woodson writes with a sure understanding of the thoughts of young people, offering a poetic, eloquent narrative that is not simply a story . . . but a mature exploration of grown-up issues and self-discovery.”—The New York Times Book Review

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Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged

Jody Nyasha Warner

Tells the story of Viola Desmond, an African Canadian woman who, in 1946, challenged a Nova Scotia movie theater's segregation policy by refusing to move from her seat to an upstairs section designated for use by blacks.

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Trombone Shorty

Troy Andrews

A 2016 Caldecott Honor Book and Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Award Winner Hailing from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. A prodigy, he was leading his own band by age six, and today this Grammy-nominated artist headlines the legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest. Along with esteemed illustrator Bryan Collier, Andrews has created a lively picture book autobiography about how he followed his dream of becoming a musician, despite the odds, until he reached international stardom. Trombone Shorty is a celebration of the rich cultural history of New Orleans and the power of music.

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Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History

Vashti Harrison

Meet the little leaders. They're brave. They're bold. They changed the world. NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER Featuring 40 trailblazing black women in the world's history, this book educates and inspires as it relates true stories of women who broke boundaries and exceeded all expectations. Debut author/illustrator Vashti Harrison pairs captivating text with stunning illustrations as she tells the stories of both iconic and lesser-known female figures of black history, including: Nurse Mary Seacole Politician Diane Abbott Mathematician Katherine Johnson Singer Shirley Bassey Among these biographies, readers will find heroes, role models and everyday women who did extraordinary things.

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Someday Is Now

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

"Not only does this book highlight an important civil rights activist, it can serve as an introduction to child activism as well as the movement itself. Valuable." — Kirkus Reviews starred review "Relatable and meaningful ... A top addition to nonfiction collections." — School Library Journal starred review More than a year before the Greensboro sit-ins, a teacher named Clara Luper led a group of young people to protest the segregated Katz drugstore by sitting at its lunch counter. With simple, elegant art, Someday Is Now tells the inspirational story of this unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement. As a child, Clara Luper saw how segregation affected her life. When she grew up, Clara led the movement to desegregate Oklahoma stores and restaurants that were closed to African Americans. With courage and conviction, she led young people to “do what had to be done.” Perfect for early elementary age kids in encouraging them to do what is right and stand up for what is right, even at great cost, this is a powerful story about the power of nonviolent activism. Someday Is Now challenges young people to ask how they will stand up against something they know is wrong. Kids are inspired to follow the lessons of bravery taught by civil rights pioneers like Clara Luper. This moving title includes additional information on Clara Luper’s extraordinary life, her lessons of nonviolent resistance, and a glossary of key civil rights people and terms.

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Looking for more resources? We have you covered. Check out our entire list of Black History Month: Biography and Memoir recommendations. For more personalized recommendations, fill out our recommendation form.

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