Whether you’re looking for a light read or something filled with historical relevance this Juneteenth, here are four books that explore the Black experience in America. Either way, remember: This day is a time for celebration. 

“On Juneteenth”

by Annette Gordon-Reed (Liveright, $15.95)

Now that Juneteenth is a nationally recognized holiday in America, most are probably aware that June 19 marks the effective end of slavery in the U.S. More than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and a group of federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to proclaim and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. But there’s much more to the story than that. What was it like for Black Texans before and after that fateful day? In “On Juneteenth,” Texas local and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed combines memoir and American history, resulting in a short yet impactful clear-eyed dive into the country’s journey to Juneteenth and the poignant, oft not talked about roles slavery and Black Americans play in Texas history. “To understand what happened on June 19, 1865 … one needs to understand the Lone Star State, and Gordon-Reed offers a timely history lesson,” wrote Washington Post reviewer Daina Ramey Berry. “She does so with beautiful prose, breathtaking stories and painful memories. Like the story of Juneteenth itself, the history she tells is one of yarns woven, dark truths glossed over and freedom delayed.”

“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”

by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, $32)

While we celebrate the end of slavery, it is important to remember its longstanding effects on Black Americans’ lives. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson explains in her 2020 release “Caste,” this systemic oppression is more than racism — it’s a caste system. Wilkerson defines this as “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits.” Or, metaphorically, she says, “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.” From Jim Crow to the election of President Barack Obama, Wilkerson examines America’s complicated relationship with race and shows readers how throughout history, the U.S. has been shaped by this underlying artificial hierarchy, whether knowingly or not. Because once a group of individuals is seen as less than others, it’s a perception that is arduous to change. But Americans can move past this, and realizing that there are destructive separations of human divisions in place may be the first step. “It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away,” wrote New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner. “I told more than one person, as I moved through my days this past week, that I was reading one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered.”

Illustration by Jenny Kwon


“Hell of a Book: A Novel”

by Jason Mott (Dutton, $27)

Speaking of slavery’s long-lasting effects, Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book,” winner of the 2021 National Book Award for fiction, is a spectacular look at racism, police violence and the price of being Black in America through a fantastical, entertaining lens. It’s not the kind of book to pick up if you’re looking for a straightforward, plot-driven book, but “Hell of a Book” is a fantastic choice for those looking to learn more about the Black experience without taking on a dense nonfiction read. The story begins with an unnamed Black author embarking on a book tour across the U.S. to promote his bestselling book. That’s all that needs to be known, because the less you know going into “Hell of a Book,” the better. But be aware the narrator is very unreliable — just let this novel take you on its magical journey. 

“Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations”

by Nicole A. Taylor (Simon & Schuster, $29.99)

Kind of like how Juneteenth just became a federal holiday last year, the U.S. is only now getting a cookbook honoring the day of celebration. The subtitle of Nicole A. Taylor’s most recent release says it all: “Watermelon & Red Birds” is “A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations.” According to The Washington Post, Sharon Bowers, the longtime literary agent of Taylor, suggested the author write a Juneteenth cookbook after learning about Taylor’s celebration of the holiday in “The Up South Cookbook,” Taylor’s first book, released in 2015. Taylor was resistant to the idea at first — that is, until the spring of 2020. Taylor told The Post that “after being in lockdown and seeing and being a part of the Black terror, the depressive state caused by the murder, the massacre of unarmed Black people … being a part of that and experiencing that, I knew that I wanted this cookbook to be a guide to joy. I knew for certain that this book is needed, and I can do this.” Juneteenth is a time for celebration, and while much of the Black experience in America comes with hardship, there’s just as much delight to be found. And if there’s one place to find comfort and joy, it’s food.