When I was in sixth or seventh grade, my older brother handed me a paperback book. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I knew by his words, and the look on his face, that I had to read it.
I didn’t understand the title, Manchild in the Promised Land, and I’d never heard of its author, Claude Brown. But once I opened the book I couldn’t put it down. It was based on Brown’s coming-of-age in Harlem in the 1940s and ’50s. His descriptions of gangs, drug addicts, pimps, and prostitutes made for a harrowing ride. As I turned the pages, I felt like I was holding a stick of dynamite.
My father had grown up not far from Harlem, and we visited New York City often. But Brown’s was a world altogether different from anything I had known, and it terrified me. I couldn’t understand why there was such a gulf between his childhood experiences and my own. I only knew that skin color played a defining role. It was a lesson I never forgot.
Celebrating Black History Month is a complicated endeavor. We honor the talents of inventors, doctors, artists, athletes, and musicians. But we also bear witness to the hundreds of thousands of people who lived in cruel bondage. We look with admiration upon those who escaped from slavery—and those who led them to freedom. We also revisit the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement who faced fire hoses and beatings for freedoms that never should have been denied them. Each time we do so, a piece of our hearts is pierced a bit more. We may want to lay the blame on the likes of Bull Connor and Orval Faubus, but the complicity extends much further.
Since the 1950s, when a Supreme Court ruling and a series of new laws began to dismantle Jim Crow, the harsh realities experienced by a kid like Claude Brown have become rarer, but not rare enough. Segregation is illegal but lives on in insidious ways.
The 50 books and 7 documentary films listed below will help you introduce students to the African-American experience in all of its dimensions. You’ll find Manchild in the Promised Land and other works of literature, a riveting account of Negro League Baseball, and lush picture books by artist Faith Ringgold. Also included is a brand-new biography of Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis, which dispels many myths about the so-called “weary seamstress” who refused to move to the back of the bus.
The titles are grouped according to grade bands K-12, with a range of genres. To help enrich your reading experience, check out this guide to creating evidence-based questions (PDF).
For middle-school students, I’ve appended a classroom play, “Crusader for Justice,” (PDF) about investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, who, in the 1890s, systematically led a campaign against lynching in the South. The play includes a lesson plan and a Strategic Reading work sheet. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (listed below) can be used as a stretch text, allowing students to analyze Wells’s accounts “of dehumanizing brutality” and explore the events that led to her writings.
All of these works offer a rich account of the struggles and triumphs of a people whose history in America is longer—and more agonizing—than most; who, with their grit, faith, and courage managed to endure and, in many cases, thrive. As Claude Brown wrote, it is “a story of their searching, their dreams, their sorrows, their small and futile rebellions, and their endless battle to establish their own place . . . in America itself.” It is our job to ensure that the battle ends with true equality.
Shana Corey (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2009)
The story of a skinny little boy with a funny name who became the first African-American President of the United States
Andrea Pinkney (Hyperion Book CH, 2006)
This “smooth-talkin’, slick-steppin’, piano-playin’ kid,” who was born in 1899, would grow up to dazzle the world with his music.
Kelly Starling Lyons (Putnam Juvenile, 2012)
A young girl describes a poignant tradition among slaves who are not able to get married legally.
David A. Adler (Holiday House, Reprint edition, 1995)
A pictorial depiction of a man who went from being a slave to a freer of slaves and a world-famous orator and civil rights activist
Ruby Bridges (Cartwheel Books, 2009)
Readers meet a courageous girl who stayed strong in the face of racism.
Andrea Pinkney (Hyperion Book CH, 2009)
A dynamic portrait of the freed slave whose physical and spiritual strength made her one of America's most powerful abolitionist voices
Faith Ringgold (Dragonfly Books, 1996)
“Quilt paintings” illustrate a Depression-era girl’s imaginative foray above the streets of New York City.
Aliki (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1988)
Brief text and pictures present the life of George Washington Carver, born a slave, who became a scientist and devoted his life to helping the South improve its agriculture.
Faith Ringgold (Dragonfly Books, 1995)
With Harriet Tubman as her guide, young Cassie retraces the steps that escaping slaves took on the real Underground Railroad.
Carole Boston Weatherford (Puffin, Reprint edition, 2007)
When Connie sees four young men take a stand for equal rights at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, she realizes that things may soon change in the South.
Kadir Nelson (Balzar + Bray, 2011)
A tale of discrimination and broken promises, determination and triumphs
Walter Dean Myers (Amistad, 2008)
An illustrated profile of a pioneering voice against lynching
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Schwartz & Wade; Har/Com edition, 2012)
Lifelike paintings by Kadir Nelson accompany King’s world-famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
Jen Bryant (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013)
After an injury in World War I, Pippin learned to draw again and became a famous painter whose works were displayed across the country.
Amar’e Stoudemire (Scholastic Press, 2012)
A heartfelt story based on the famous basketball player’s boyhood
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld (Candlewick, 2012)
The lives of black inventors and innovators are explored through the eyes of fictional twins.
Christopher Paul Curtis (Laurel Leaf, 2004)
It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. When 10-year-old Bud decides to hit the road to find his father, nothing can stop him.
Jerdine Nolen (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2011)
As she escapes slavery in Maryland for Canada, 12-year-old Eliza recites the stories her mother taught her.
Andrea Pinkney (Hyperion Book CH, 2012)
Lyrical narratives about 10 influential men from different eras in American history
Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin (Clarion Books, 2000)
The acclaimed civil rights leader Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) is brought to life in this accessible and well-researched biography.
Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad; Reprint edition, 2011)
Eleven-year-old Delphine has only a few memories of her mother, Cecile, who abandoned the family in Brooklyn. Then, in the summer of 1968, Delphine and her sisters visit Cecile in Oakland.
Patricia C. McKissack (Scholastic Paperbacks, 1994)
This forceful narrative offers a startling portrait of a pivotal yet appalling era in American history, centering on the life of a remarkable woman born into slavery in 1797 in New York.
Christopher Paul Curtis (Laurel Leaf, 2000)
A boisterous family makes a journey from Flint, Michigan, straight into one of the most chilling moments in American history: the burning of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church with four little girls inside.
Kadir Nelson (Hyperion Book CH, 2008)
A lost piece of American history comes to life in Kadir Nelson's elegant and eloquent story of the Negro leagues and their gifted baseball players.
Gerda Lerner (Vintage, 1992)
From the first women who fought slavery to the great Fannie Lou Hamer, this book profiles some of America’s most extraordinary women.
Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic Press, 1997)
This songlike poem relates the story of a people who settle in New York City, hoping to improve their lots in life, only to discover that racism can still keep them from achieving success.
Catherine Clinton (Back Bay Books, 2005)
The famous conductor of the Underground Railroad is revealed as a singular and complex character.
Langston Hughes (Dover Publications, 2008)
This 1930s coming-of-age tale, the only novel by the great poet, unfolds in rural Kansas in a racially divided society.
Edited by Jacqueline Jones Royster (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997)
This volume collects three pamphlets that constitute Wells’s major works during the anti-lynching movement: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases; A Red Record; and Mob Rule in New Orleans.
Edited by James M. Washington (HarperOne; Reprint edition, 1990)
King is revealed in his many roles—philosopher, theologian, orator, essayist, and author.
Booker T. Washington (Dover Publications, 1995)
This 1901 narrative details Washington’s slow and steady rise in the years after the Civil War.
Marcus Rediker (Viking Adult, 2012)
In this powerful account, the author reclaims the famous slave rebellion for the African rebels who risked death to stake a claim for freedom.
(Pathfinder Press, 1992)
In eleven speeches and interviews, Malcolm X presents a revolutionary alternative to societal injustices.
Alice Walker (Mariner Books, 2003)
This moving story, set in rural Georgia, tells of a 14-year-old girl’s shame and suffering after her father rapes and beats her
Condoleezza Rice (Three Rivers Press, 2011)
The former Secretary of State recalls her childhood in the segregated South and how she overcame prejudice with the help of her exceptional parents and an extended family and community.
Juan Williams (Penguin Books; Reprint edition, 1988)
The events of the 1950s and ’60s are brought to life with photographs and vivid text, including first-person accounts. Written in conjunction with the PBS TV series of the same name.
Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006)
One of the most important works of 20th-century American literature, Hurston's 1937 classic is a Southern love story that sparkles with wit and wisdom.
(Dover Publications, 2003)
Douglass, who was born into slavery in 1818, recounts his harrowing escape and how he later risked his own freedom as an antislavery advocate, orator, writer, and publisher.
W. E. B. DuBois (Dover Publications, 1994)
First published in 1903, this classic work remains a crucial document in African-American literary history.
Joseph Caver, Jerome Ennels, and Daniel Haulman (NewSouth Books, 2011)
Here, in pictures and words, is the full story of the Tuskegee Airmen and the world in which they lived, worked, played, fought, and sometimes died.
Edited by Norman R. Yetman (Dover Publications, 2002)
More than 2,000 interviews with former slaves provide often-startling first-person accounts of their lives in bondage.
Edited by Harold Holzer (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2010)
This book collects every article that the Times published about the war from 1861 to 1865.
Barack Obama (Crown, Reprint edition, 2007)
A poignant, probing memoir by the man who would become America’s first black President
Ralph Ellison (Vintage, 1995)
First published in 1952, this award-winning novel tells the story of a disaffected young black man who makes his way from the segregated South to an often-violent Harlem.
Veronica Chambers (Riverhead Trade, 1997)
A personal story of perseverance and achievement, this book is Chamber's self-examination as an African-American woman.
James Baldwin (Beacon Press, 2012)
Written during the 1940s and early ’50s, these essayscapture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Richard Wright (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008)
The shocking tale of a young African-American man living in a black neighborhood of Chicago
Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, 1989)
This volume, the first of two, offers an unsurpassed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to greatness.
Toni Morrison (Vintage; Reprint edition, 2004)
A powerful, poetic exploration of four generations of a family mistakenly named Dead
Jeanne Theoharis (Beacon Press, 2013)
A new biography, published 100 years after the birth of the great activist, fleshes out Parks’s sometimes-surprising role in the fight for civil rights
Claude Brown (Touchstone, Reprint edition, 2011)
Based on Brown’s coming-of-age in Harlem, this book is considered the definitive account of everyday life for the first generation of African Americans raised in the Northern ghettos of the 1940s and ’50s.
Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt and Co., 2010)
The true story of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South
A PBS series hosted by Henry Louis Gates
In search of lost history, the great scholar probes the ancestry of well-known African Americans.
Directed by Ken Burns, 1990
This award-winning documentary series tells the story of the war with archival photographs, paintings, and newspaper images.
Directed by Henry Hampton, 1987
A “peerless” series that brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present
Directed by Ken Burns, 2000
A history of the music that is considered one of America’s greatest cultural achievements
Directed by Spike Lee, 1997
The story of the 1963 murder of four African-American girls at a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama
Directed by Keith Beauchamp, 2005
With archival photos, footage, and interviews, this film tells the haunting story of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s senseless murder.
Directed by Leon Gast, 1996
A documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire between champion George Foreman and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali
Many of the titles above—and other great books that honor Black History Month—are available on the Scholastic Teacher Store.
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