The best books for understanding Black history

Ian Zack Author Of Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest
By Ian Zack

Who am I?

Ian Zack is a New York-based journalist who has written two critically acclaimed biographies. The subjects of both his books—Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis and Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest—began their lives in the Jim Crow South before venturing North and making their voices heard.

I wrote...

Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest

By Ian Zack,

Book cover of Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest

What is my book about?

Odetta is the stirring but never-before-told story of the folk singer and civil rights icon who inspired countless artists—from Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan to Janis Joplin and Carly Simon—and provided the soundtrack to the protest movements of the 1960s. The book traces Odetta’s life from early childhood in deeply segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to her breakout stardom in the late ’50s and her deep commitment—through her music, trailblazing Afro and work on behalf of the civil rights movement—to foster black pride and freedom.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Why did I love this book?

This groundbreaking book tells the history of America through the lens of anti-black racism and shines a light on the tragic duality of our national narrative: the codification of democracy and freedom and, at the same time, the willful subjugation across centuries of people of African descent. A fascinating and important read.

By Ibram X. Kendi,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Stamped from the Beginning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Stamped from the Beginning is a redefining history of anti-Black racist ideas that dramatically changes our understanding of the causes and extent of racist thinking itself.

** Winner of the US National Book Award**

Its deeply researched and fast-moving narrative chronicles the journey of racist ideas from fifteenth-century Europe to present-day America through the lives of five major intellectuals - Puritan minister Cotton Mather, President Thomas Jefferson, fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, brilliant scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and legendary anti-prison activist Angela Davis - showing how these ideas were developed, disseminated and eventually enshrined in American society.

Contrary to popular…

Book cover of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

Why did I love this book?

Think slavery ended after the Civil War with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment? Think again. With painstaking detail, Blackmon recounts how white governments in the South maneuvered to re-enslave the black population after Reconstruction by taking advantage of a loophole in the amendment that made servitude acceptable “as punishment for a crime.” Black codes that criminalized “vagrancy” and a host of other vague offenses were used to funnel black people into a legal system that dispensed them into forced labor for local businesses, with little hope of seeing freedom again. These practices went on, in some cases, well into the 20th century.

By Douglas A. Blackmon,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Slavery by Another Name as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This groundbreaking historical expose unearths the lost stories of enslaved persons and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude shortly thereafter in “The Age of Neoslavery.”

By turns moving, sobering, and shocking, this unprecedented Pulitzer Prize-winning account reveals the stories of those who fought unsuccessfully against the re-emergence of human labor trafficking, the companies that profited most from neoslavery, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, convicts—mostly black men—were “leased” through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments. Using a…

Book cover of Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

Why did I love this book?

Before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, there was Thurgood Marshall. As a young lawyer and head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Marshall spearheaded the civil rights organization’s slow but steady legal course in challenging and defeating segregation in the courts. Risking his life to represent black plaintiffs in the South and slowly building the legal precedents that led to Brown vs. Board of Education, Marshall had a profound effect on the course of history. This excellent biography takes you there.

By Juan Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thurgood Marshall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK • The definitive biography of the great lawyer and Supreme Court justice, from the bestselling author of Eyes on the Prize
“Magisterial . . . in Williams’ richly detailed portrait, Marshall emerges as a born rebel.”—Jack E. White, Time
Thurgood Marshall was the twentieth century’s great architect of American race relations. His victory in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the landmark Supreme Court case outlawing school segregation in the United States, would have made him a historic figure even if he had never been appointed as the first African-American to serve on…

Parting the Waters

By Taylor Branch,

Book cover of Parting the Waters

Why did I love this book?

This epic work (part 1 of a three-part trilogy) is more than just a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a history of the civil rights movement. It’s no less than a biblical narrative of heroes, villains and martyrs and the scores of ordinary people who sacrificed their bodies, livelihoods and lives to bring a measure of freedom to black Americans in the Jim Crow South.

By Taylor Branch,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Parting the Waters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Parting the Waters, the first volume of his essential America in the King Years series, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch gives a “compelling…masterfully told” (The Wall Street Journal) account of Martin Luther King’s early years and rise to greatness.

Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American Civil Rights Movement, Parting the Waters is destined to endure for generations.

Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the corridors of Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of…

Book cover of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Why did I love this book?

This book shatters the myth that “de facto” segregation—in essence, people’s choices about where to live, rather than legal barriers—led to most of the segregation that still exists in the United States. Rothstein documents case after case of local, state, and federal government actions all over the country to bar black people from neighborhoods, developments, and from homeownership in general until all-too-recent times. He also lays out the many ramifications of these policies, including the exclusion of black Americans from opportunities to build wealth through the purchase of real estate and from the benefits that spring from living in the most prosperous and economically healthy places. 

By Richard Rothstein,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Color of Law as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Widely heralded as a "masterful" (The Washington Post) and "essential" (Slate) history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law offers "the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation" (William Julius Wilson). Exploding the myth of de facto segregation arising from private prejudice or the unintended consequences of economic forces, Rothstein describes how the American government systematically imposed residential segregation: with undisguised racial zoning; public housing that purposefully segregated previously mixed communities; subsidies for builders to create whites-only suburbs; tax exemptions for institutions that enforced…

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