4 books to read to learn about the Black American experience

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“Strength to Love” by Martin Luther King Jr. (Beacon Press)

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an appropriate time to reflect on the plight of Black people living in America. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the freedom, equality and dignity of all races and peoples through nonviolence, but as much as we like to think our society has evolved beyond its torrid racist past, we still have a long way to go. Consider reading these books to get a glimpse into the Black American experience. 

“Dear Martin”

by Nic Stone (Crown Books).

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“Dear Martin” by Nic Stone. (Crown Books)

Nic Stone’s 2017 debut “Dear Martin” shows the modern-day ramifications of America’s troubled history with race relations through the eyes of Justyce McAllister, an honor student at a primarily white prep school. But his good grades and dreams of going to Yale don’t matter to the police — all they see is his skin color, and Justyce falls victim to racial profiling, which inspires him to look into King’s teachings for answers. Stone drew inspiration from the real-life shooting deaths of unarmed Black teenagers for this young adult read. It pairs well with Angie Thomas’ debut novel turned feature film, “The Hate U Give,” also published in 2017. Where “Dear Martin” shows what it’s like to be a young, racially profiled Black man, “The Hate U Give” looks at the shooting of an unarmed Black male and its effects through the eyes of a female witness.

“Somebody’s Daughter”

by Ashley C. Ford (Flatiron).

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“Somebody’s Daughter” by Ashley C. Ford. (Flatiron)

I can’t say enough great things about Ashley C. Ford’s debut memoir. It’s artfully written, evocative, powerfully moving, and shows the rippling effects of incarceration. Ford brings readers into her upbringing as a poor Black girl living with an incarcerated father, as she struggles to deal with puberty, sexual assault and a fraught relationship with her mother. Yet, the “Somebody’s Daughter” author was able to emerge on the other side triumphant and unapologetic. This memoir is a fantastic choice if you’re looking for an audiobook recommendation. It’s read by Ford, allowing you to fall deeper into the story of her life. 

“Strength to Love”

by Martin Luther King Jr. (Beacon Press).

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“Strength to Love” by Martin Luther King Jr. (Beacon Press)

I’d be remiss not to include a book written by King himself. According to his wife, Coretta Scott King, “If there is one book Martin Luther King Jr. has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is ‘Strength to Love.’” The book, much of which was written during the clamorous civil rights movement, including King’s time in jail during the Albany Movement, consists of a collection of sermons that combine Christian teachings and social consciousness. At the time of its publication, it was a landmark piece of work, the first volume of sermons by a Black preacher widely available to a white audience.

“Invisible Man”

by Ralph Ellison (Vintage).

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“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. (Vintage)

Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel is a must-read for anyone and everyone, especially when discussing race in America. It follows an unnamed narrator and his upbringing in a Black community in the South to hiding out in a basement lair in Harlem as the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. A New York Times reviewer wrote that “Ellison believed that the conditions his novel exposes (racial discrimination, the erasure of Black identity, the failings of American democracy) might soon improve to the point that the book would no longer resonate … We now know what Ellison could not: that many of the conditions he described have not only persisted but propagated.”

Jordan Snowden: jordan.alif.snowden@gmail.com; . Jordan Snowden is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh whose work has been published in Apartment Therapy, Pittsburgh City Paper, Wear Your Voice and elsewhere. She also runs @jord_reads_books, a book-focused Instagram account where she connects with other bookworms.