Required Reading — Great Books of African American History

America is, and has always been, a melting pot of cultures, races, and theologies. It is our strength as a nation. This is also true of American literature, where African American writers have contributed many of the books that could (or should) be considered the best in America’s long publishing history.

Frederick Douglass, author of the singularly important slave narrative, photo by TradingCardsNPS

Frederick Douglass, author of the singularly important slave narrative, photo by TradingCardsNPS

African American history is American history. The two are one and same. So for any of you eager readers out there who have been woefully underexposed to some of our great writers of color, I present a list of a few of the great pieces of African American literature.

Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass – The abolitionist movement in the early to mid 1800s circulated many narratives from escaped or former slaves, but few were as influential and well written as the account of Douglass. The book is the life story of a man born into slavery, worked like an animal for year after year, even as he secretly learns to read, and eventually teaches other slaves. It gave a renewed power to the anti-slavery movement of the time, and remains a piece of American history.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou – Both an autobiography and a novel, Angelou boldly mixes the two, by taking the account of her own life and turning it into a vibrant, poetic piece of literature.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – The main character is never named. He is intended to represent the average African American man, and his journey through American culture from the backwards South of the 1920s through the explosive New York in the 1960s. Ellison touches on all facets of African American life during this time, and politics, religion, social convention, and the reality of race relations. One of the most powerful novels you can ever read, and it fully immerses you in a view of American history many of us have never seen.

Autobiography of Malcolm X – He was one of the most controversial political and religious figures in American history, and this brilliant, moving book lets him tell his story in his own words (with help from Alex Haley, see below). Malcolm X was known for firey rhetoric, but his book is a very simple, very moving tale of personal growth and spiritual evolution. If the point of a book is to give you a glimpse into someone else’s life to learn from it, this is one of the most eye opening books you can ever read.

Roots by Alex Haley – What began as one man’s exploration into his own heritage and family history became one of the greatest epics about American life. The historical novel deals with Kunta Kinte, an African teen who is captured and sold to American slavers, and the family he starts in the new country. It tracks the descendants of Kinte all the way down to author Haley himself.

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