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Library Favorites for Black History Month

Collage of book covers from this list, including Luster, Notes of a Native Son, and The Afro-Latin@ Reader

In recognition of Black History Month, the staff of the Library would like to share these recommendations for works by Black authors or that tell the stories of remarkable Black people. Our picks include multigenerational family stories, science fiction, academic works, tales of entrepreneurship and the complexities of romance, and more.

The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery by Vincent Brown. During the eighteenth century, Jamaica was the most profitable of all the British colonies, but it was also the most catastrophic: both white immigrants and Black captives expected to die soon after their arrival on the island. This book explores how African spiritual beliefs explained illness and the desecration of the body during the slave trade, the ghostly presence of ancestors after death, and the communal rites of burials. Written with an understanding of African and Christian traditions, Brown demonstrates how spiritual beliefs shaped social relations in a slave society and raises questions about the dynamics of Christianization of enslaved peoples throughout the Western hemisphere. Recommended by Mary Beth Corrigan, curator of collections on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This page-turner is a multigenerational tale of 2 half-sisters and their descendants over a 250-year period that starts in Ghana and ends in Harlem. Recommended by Beth Marhanka, head of Gelardin New Media Center.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. To reframe the discussion about race and racism, Wilkerson applies instructive metaphors (an old house, bones under skin, pathogens lurking in permafrost) to describe the invisible caste system that preserves inequality, bias, and privilege throughout our society. She explains how those with power use arbitrary characteristics to fabricate deeply damaging hierarchies, leading to humanity's most shameful structures and systems. Wilkerson includes both historical and personal narratives to show us the consequences of letting caste determine value, a reality that is both stomach-churning and eye-opening. Recommended by Emily Guhde, director of Library assessment.

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler. Everything by Butler is worth reading, but this trilogy (comprising Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago) was my introduction to her work and holds a special fondness. (Aided in part that it was recommended by LeVar Burton in a speech I saw at a library conference.) In this mind-expanding allegory, humanity has nearly destroyed itself. The alien Oankali offer a means for the species to continue—by interbreeding and evolving into something new. Recommended by Greg Landgraf, communications and marketing coordinator.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. This powerful collection of essays is honest and probing. Highly recommended for anyone who has not yet read James Baldwin. Recommended by Jade Madrid, Latin American studies and Iberian languages liaison and reference librarian.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. This novel floats through time and between the members of two families and three generations. The scars of racism, gentrification, age, and parenthood never fade from the narrative, grounding Woodson's dreamy prose that whispers to us about love, pride, and family secrets. Recommended by Emily Guhde, director of Library assessment.

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles; and Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker by Beverly Lowry. Two biographies about Madam C.J. Walker, the inventor, entrepreneur, who founded a business empire in the Black cosmetics industry in the late 1800s, becoming arguably the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. In the late 1800s, before any self-made millionaire, there was this inventor who made her money in the black cosmetics industry. Also see Two Dollars and a Dream, a documentary directed by Stanley Nelson that is available for streaming. Recommended by Jennifer Boettcher, business liaison and reference librarian.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I read this book depicting a young black man's journey through the segregated and racially divisive world of pre-Civil Rights-era America as an undergrad, and it has stuck with me for decades. Recommended by Beth Marhanka, head of Gelardin New Media Center.

Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities, by Craig Steven Wilder. This book profoundly informed my understanding of the roots of scientific racism in American institutions of higher education and the role of these institutions as slaveholders. Recommended reading for anyone seeking to learn more about slavery above the Mason-Dixon line. Recommended by Roxie France-Nuriddin, reference and program specialist, Bioethics Research Library.

Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) by Kara Walker. In fifteen monumental prints, Walker juxtaposed black figure silhouettes against landscape scenes published in Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden's Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (1866-68). Walker’s silhouettes address issues of racial and gender stereotypes, violence, and exploitation. In these prints, the artist enlarged original woodcuts from Harper’s Weekly and then layered silhouetted shapes of varied human forms against the historic backdrops. The provocative figures seem to engage symbolically within an iconic tableau from the Civil War. Recommended by LuLen Walker, art collection curator.

Luster by Raven Leilani. This quick read introduces a fresh voice with a story about the complicated ways that people need each other. In prose that is equally painful and hopeful, Leilani (who is also a visual artist), wields language like the bold stroke of shiny oil paint on canvas. The result is vivid and rich, and a little wild. This is Leilani's first novel, and I cannot wait to read her next. Recommended by Emily Guhde, director of Library assessment.

The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, edited by Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores This essential volume includes everything from poetry to scholarly essays—all centered on complexibilities and invisibility of Afro-Latinidad in the United States. Recommended by Jade Madrid, Latin American studies and Iberian languages liaison and reference librarian.

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill. The incredible story of a woman abducted from Africa and brought to South Carolina who over the 6 decades eventually ends up in New York, Nova Scotia, and even back in Africa. Recommended by Beth Marhanka, head of Gelardin New Media Center.

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Ona Judge was Martha Washington’s personal servant working at the President's House in Philadelphia. In 1796, the threat to bequeath Judge to one of Martha Washington's granddaughters led her to escape. Dunbar’s narrative describes the assistance offered by members of the free black community, and the family and community that Judge created once she settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Recommended by Mary Beth Corrigan, curator of collections on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This novel is a celebration of life and the many ways to live one. With overlapping tales told from the perspective of each of her richly developed characters—something delightfully similar to Homegoing—Evaristo pulls on a thread that picks up emotion and intensity along the way. We are meant to experience a wide spectrum of feelings alongside this group of Black British women: their loathing and desires, their struggles for belonging and creativity, their choices between duty and escape. Recommended by Emily Guhde, director of Library assessment.

Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology by Deirdre Cooper Owens. This incredible historical study examines the central, involuntary role that enslaved women played in the development of American obstetrics, and the ways in which Black humanity was devalued, while Black bodies were prized for medical experimentation. This book is a must-read as we continue to grapple with staggering racial inequities in public health in relation to the pandemic and beyond. Recommended by Cassandra Berman, Maryland Province Archives archivist.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. The story of Janie Crawford, a beautiful fair-skinned black woman who returns to her family's hometown after 3 tragic marriages. Recommended by Beth Marhanka, head of Gelardin New Media Center.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass. In the first of his three autobiographies, Frederick Douglass describes in heart wrenching fashion the impact of sexual abuse and family separations upon himself and the members of his family who were enslaved by one of the wealthiest families of Talbot County in Maryland. Douglass also shares how he learned to read, seized his own freedom, and made himself into one of the strongest advocates for emancipation and racial equality in the nineteenth century. Recommended by Mary Beth Corrigan, curator of collections on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.