The best books about Black women disruptors

Katie McCabe Author Of Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights
By Katie McCabe

The Books I Picked & Why

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

By Patricia Bell-Scott

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

Why this book?

Patricia Bell-Scott’s study of Eleanor Roosevelt and the fiercely driven civil rights activist Pauli Murray is a captivating portrait of two social justice warriors who by all the logic of time and place should never have met, much less produced changes neither one could have accomplished alone. Roosevelt is rendered with deftness and fresh insight, but it’s Bell-Scott’s unforgettable depiction of the lesser-known figure of Constitutional lawyer, NOW founder, and groundbreaking Episcopal minister Pauli Murray which, for me, sets this book apart. Having first learned of Murray in my interviews with her legal protégé, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, I was hungry for a deeper understanding of the complex, enigmatic woman Eleanor Roosevelt called a “firebrand,” and I found that understanding in the pages of this extraordinary book. 


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Harriet Jacobs: The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By Jean Fagan Yellin

Harriet Jacobs: The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Why this book?

Like the thousands of other readers who’d been haunted by Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl when it resurfaced during the civil rights era, I had questions.  Were the horrific events of her enslavement and escape really true?  Did Jacobs herself write the book, or was it the work of the white abolitionist she identified as her “editor”? In this biography, we’re given answers based on the documentary evidence Jean Yellin unearthed over 30 years of research. We learn that Jacobs’ stranger-than-fiction slavery narrative is factually accurate and that it was the work of Jacobs herself. In our present age of exploded myths, there’s something breathtaking about that discovery, and about Yellin’s masterful rendition of the life of an icon of Black female resistance.


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Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

By Barbara Ransby

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Why this book?

For me, this book is more a mystery story with a carefully calibrated punchline than a standard biography. Barbara Ransby goes to the heart of the question of how any woman could wield as much influence as did NAACP branch organizer and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “godmother” Ella Baker in the notoriously sexist civil rights movement.  The “outsider within,” Ransby calls her subject, revealing the way Baker managed to introduce alongside the all-male, church-based stream of the movement a tidal wave of grassroots activism powered by legions of ordinary folk, including the young activists she mentored as SNCC’s leading strategist.  In prose that’s academic but never inaccessible, Ransby mines the rich ore of Baker’s multi-faceted career to bring to life a searing example of Black female power. 


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Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

By Martha S. Jones

Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Why this book?

What a punch this quiet book packs, in its sweep of Black female freedom fighters over two centuries. Expecting a focus on the civil rights era, I was astonished to encounter such early political disruptors as Mary Ellen Watkins Harper, the only Black woman to speak at the 1866 convention of the American Equal Rights Association; and Maria Stewart, who dared in the early 19th century to call out to formerly enslaved women. Vanguard, inspired by the author’s female ancestors’ brave and lonely fight for civil rights, pulses with deep feeling for unheralded greatness. On the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial, this book shines a long-overdue light on the ability of doubly marginalized Black women to lend their voices to the battle for universal suffrage.


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On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker

By A’Lelia Bundles

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker

Why this book?

Cemented in popular consciousness by the 2020 Netflix series starring Octavia Spencer, African American millionaire and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker stands as one of the foremost emblems of Black economic achievement. The woman born Sarah Breedlove to former slaves in 1867 transformed herself from cotton picker to washerwoman to direct sales pioneer to iconic beauty empire head and social activist at a time when even educated Black women of privilege were constrained by the white male hierarchy. The bare bones of this narrative would be sufficient for a book. But in the hands of Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, journalist A’Lelia Bundles, the rags-to-riches story becomes a window into the social, economic, and racial realities of the times and a riveting portrait of the shrewd, unflinching and ambitious woman who triumphed despite them.


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