The best memoirs on Black family life in America

Who am I?

I was raised with my seven siblings on Bernard Street in Mill Creek Valley—454 acres in downtown St. Louis, which comprised the nation's largest urban-renewal project beginning in 1959. I started writing short stories about my childhood memories of the dying African-American community after retiring at age 66. The Last Children of Mill Creek was published when I was 70 years old. This memoir is about survival, as told from the viewpoint of a watchful young girl -- a collection of decidedly universal stories that chronicle the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.


I wrote...

The Last Children of Mill Creek

By Vivian Gibson,

Book cover of The Last Children of Mill Creek

What is my book about?

Vivian Gibson grew up in Mill Creek Valley, a segregated working-class neighborhood of St. Louis that was razed in 1959 to build a highway, an act of racism disguised under urban renewal as “progress.” The three rooms of her childhood home were heated by a wood-burning stove; her family had no hot water or furnace, but what Gibson lacked in material comforts she made up for in imagination. A moving memoir of family life at a time very different from the present, The Last Children of Mill Creek chronicles the everyday lived experiences of Gibson’s large family -- her seven siblings, her crafty, college-educated mother, and her hard-working father -- and the friends, shop owners, church ladies, teachers, and others who made Mill Creek into a warm, tight-knit African-American community.

In Gibson’s words, “This memoir is about survival, as told from the viewpoint of a watchful young girl -- a collection of decidedly universal stories that chronicle the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.”

The books I picked & why

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The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

By James McBride,

Book cover of The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother

Why this book?

I rarely read books a second time, but this book is an exception. McBride writes with charm and humor about his family of twelve children living in the projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn. His mother refused to admit she was white while raising her children with her Black minister husband. Coming-of-age, racial identity, and family secrets are ever-present themes in this powerful and poignant narrative.


Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates,

Book cover of Between the World and Me

Why this book?

Not since James Baldwin, then Toni Morrison does anyone write more intelligently about the struggles of Black families in America. In this letter to his son, Coates explores the painful truth about becoming a Black man in America. “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.”


Fire Shut Up in My Bones

By Charles M. Blow,

Book cover of Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Why this book?

With polished language and measured pace, Blow tells a fascinating coming-of-age story of growing up in a small Louisiana town. As the youngest in a family of five boys raised by a schoolteacher mother, with the help of her extended family, he unveils his struggles with sexual identity and masculinity.


Becoming

By Michelle Obama,

Book cover of Becoming

Why this book?

In this intimate memoir of a future first lady of the United States, we learn how the author’s father modeled hard work while her mother taught her to stand up for herself. From her older brother, with whom she shared a bedroom, divided by a hanging bedsheet, Obama learned to exhibit poise and grace when faced with the dizzying contradictions of success.


Men We Reaped: A Memoir

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Why this book?

Jesmyn Ward writes lucidly about losing five men in her life in five years. Their deaths force her to confront the reality that they all died because they lived in fear of the racism and poverty that smothers Black families and relationships.


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Interested in African-American men, Michelle Obama, and multiracial people?

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