The best books about African-American men

32 authors have picked their favorite books about African-American men and why they recommend each book.

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The New Jim Crow

By Michelle Alexander,

Book cover of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

This is the most popular introduction to mass incarceration. Alexander views mass incarceration through the lens of racial justice, focusing on how locking up millions of people, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, amounts to a new system of racial segregation. The New Jim Crow has been a catalyst for understanding and activism for thousands of people across the country and has spent several years on the New York Times bestseller list. 


Who am I?

I've been a social justice activist all my life. In my younger years, I turned to violence to bring about liberation. That landed me a federal arrest warrant which I avoided for 27 years by living as a fugitive. I spent most of that time in southern Africa, joining freedom movements against apartheid and colonialism. Arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2002 I spent 6 1/2 years in California prisons while observing the impact of mass incarceration. I vowed to direct my energy to end mass incarceration through grassroots organizing. Since then I've been a writer, researcher, and activist in my local community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois as well as being partner and father to my two sons.


I wrote...

Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

By James Kilgore,

Book cover of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

What is my book about?

Drawing on a growing body of literature and activism, Understanding Mass Incarceration describes competing theories of criminal justice—from rehabilitation to retribution, from restorative justice to justice reinvestment. In a lively, accessible style, author James Kilgore, who spent six years in prison himself, illuminates the difference between prisons and jails, probation and parole, laying out key concepts and policies such as the War on Drugs, broken windows policing, three-strikes sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, recidivism, and prison privatization. Informed by the crucial lenses of race and gender, he addresses issues typically omitted from the discussion: the rapidly increasing incarceration of women, Latinx folk, and transgender people; the growing imprisonment of immigrants; and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities.

Suder

By Percival L. Everett,

Book cover of Suder

Any novel that shines a light on the adventures and misadventures of a fictional Seattle Mariners third baseman with a pet elephant that answers to the name Renoir is worthy of your time and attention. I’m late to the party on this but so glad I sparked to it. 


Who am I?

I’m a writer and a lifelong baseball fan with a weakness for baseball-ish fiction. For a lot of folks, this means reading the usual suspects: Kinsella, Malamud, Coover, Roth, DeLillo... But I especially enjoy stumbling across under-the-radar novels that can’t help but surprise in their own ways. I enjoy this so much, in fact, I went out and wrote one of my own – inspired by the life and career of an all-but-forgotten ballplayer from the 1880s named Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, one of the greats of the game in his time. In the stuff of his life there was the stuff of meaning and moment… of the sort you’ll find in the books I’m recommending here.


I wrote...

A Single Happened Thing

By Daniel Paisner,

Book cover of A Single Happened Thing

What is my book about?

A father, a daughter, a forgotten icon of 1880s baseball... these are the players in Daniel Paisner's haunting novel about the specter of love and legacy that fills our days and colors our relationships.

A Single Thing Happened
tells the story of a going-nowhere book publicist, David Felb, who encounters the ghost of a former ballplayer - Fred "Sure Shot" Dunlap, a once-legendary second baseman whose career has lapsed into obscurity. Soon, the spirit of Dunlap begins to unsettle Felb's relationships and cloud his already murky worldview. As his tether on reason appears to unravel, the protagonist's daughter Iona - a colorful teenager with a penchant for DayGlo-dyed hair, body piercings, and our national pastime - joins Felb in his quest to be proven sane and whole. In the end, it is Iona's emergence as a confident, self-reliant young woman that sets Felb right, even as his marriage unravels on the back of this ghostly apparition. 

Bad Blood

By James H. Jones,

Book cover of Bad Blood

This in-depth account of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study is considered a classic in the field of medical ethics. Though Greg Dober and I have recently discovered the true origins of the Public Health Service’s “non-treatment study” and former Surgeon General Thomas Parran’s critical role in the ugly saga, Jones’s book is still the best chronicle available, and lays out a devastating narrative of how a sophisticated but uncaring and racist scientific establishment could annually examine and not treat hundreds of unschooled Alabama sharecroppers suffering from a deadly disease. 


Who am I?

I began working in prisons 50 years ago. I was just out of grad school and I accepted the challenge of starting a literacy program in the Philadelphia Prison System. The shock of cellblock life was eye-opening, but the most unexpected revelation was the sight of scores of inmates wrapped in bandages and medical tape. Unknown to the general public, the three city prisons had become a lucrative appendage of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. As I would discover years later, thousands of imprisoned Philadelphians had been used in a cross-section of unethical and dangerous scientific studies running the gamut from simple hair dye and athlete’s foot trials to radioactive isotope, dioxin, and US Army chemical warfare studies. My account of the prison experiments, Acres of Skin, helped instill in me an abiding faith in well-researched journalism as an antidote to societal indiscretions and crimes.


I wrote...

Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

By Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, Gregory J. Dober

Book cover of Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America

What is my book about?

This groundbreaking book explores the underbelly of American medicine, the sordid history of scientific researchers using developmentally impaired children in overcrowded and underfunded state institutions as raw material for medical research. Against Their Will documents how thousands of children in hospitals, orphanages, and other public asylums became unwilling subjects in countless experimental studies during the 20th century.

Men We Reaped

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Ward’s memoir examines the untimely losses of five young men in her life in the span of four years. The book is a stunning, sobering meditation on the impact of trans-generational mourning on the present moment, and the ways in which the cumulative grief of a community relates to decades-worth of institutional bigotry in the U.S. In one of the book’s many wrenching scenes, Ward, as a young woman, observes her mother cleaning the mansion of a rich white family. The wife—her mother’s employer—asks Ward about what she’s learning in school, as “the family’s parrot… kept in a four-foot-high cage in a corner squawked and spread its wings.” As the scene progresses, the image of the caged parrot gathers an almost impossible gravity and power.


Who am I?

Like many who carry over childish curiosity into adulthood, I'm attracted to forbidden places. I trespass. When I heard that a portion of South Africa’s coast was owned by the De Beers conglomerate and closed to the public for nearly 80 years, plunging the local communities into mysterious isolation, I became obsessed with visiting the place. Afterward, I began studying carrier pigeons—the amazing flying things that folks use to smuggle diamonds out of the mines. I wrote a book about this, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers. I'm also the author of nonfiction books about the first-ever photograph of the giant squid, working on a medical marijuana farm, and American food culture.


I wrote...

Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa

By Matthew Gavin Frank,

Book cover of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa

What is my book about?

For nearly eighty years, a huge portion of coastal South Africa was closed to the public. With many of its pits now deemed “overmined” and abandoned, American journalist Matthew Gavin Frank sets out across the infamous Diamond Coast to investigate an illicit trade that supplies a global market. Immediately, he became intrigued by the ingenious methods used in facilitating smuggling, particularly, the illegal act of sneaking carrier pigeons onto mine property, affixing diamonds to their feet, and sending them into the air.

Frank soon meets Msizi, a young diamond miner, and his pigeon, Bartholomew, who helps him steal diamonds. It’s a deadly game: pigeons are shot on sight by mine security, and Msizi knows of smugglers who have disappeared because of their crimes.

Chokehold

By Paul Butler,

Book cover of Chokehold: Policing Black Men

Butler argues that the large increase of police assaults and killings of black men is not a breakdown in law enforcement or the activities of a few rogue cops. The system is doing what it has been designed to do. Police hurt black men, according to the author because “that is what they are paid to do.” Butler maintains that the Chokehold “is a way of understanding how American inequality is imposed.” It is a tool of oppression. One outcome of the Chokehold is mass incarceration. The construction of the thug is a means of justifying the Chokehold. Butler traces the “Ape” or “dehumanization” thesis.

The book contains loads of data showing how in city after city black people are disproportionately targeted by police officers. Programs such as Obama’s My Brothers’ Keeper ignores women and plays into perpetuating stereotypes of black men as the primary victims of racism.


Who am I?

I am Professor Emeritus of History at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  I grew up in Brooklyn, New York during the turbulent decades of the 1950s and 1960s where there were numerous social protest movements against the War in Vietnam, school segregation, and police brutality.  My books explore the men and women who battled institutional racism.


I wrote...

Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City

By Clarence Taylor,

Book cover of Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City

What is my book about?

I maintain that those in power have not taken the initiative to stop police brutality. Instead, the victims of police brutality have embarked on a crusade to stop police domination of black people. Groups that have not received enough attention have led the campaign to end police abuse.

Fight the Power looks at the efforts of the black press, especially the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s the People’s Voice, in the struggle to end police brutality. I argue that at the heart of police brutality is the amount of power police have over citizens, thus, reform measures, such as racial sensitivity training, diversity training, body cameras, and community policing will not work. A sure way of eliminating police brutality is to reduce the power of the police and to find ways to allow citizens to determine how police operate in their communities

Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison,

Book cover of Invisible Man

You may in fact have read this in college as I did, but it will richly reward a return. The protagonist doesn’t have a name because his humanity is invisible to the white world. Sitting in a room with its hundreds of lightbulbs run on power stolen from the city, he reflects on the life that brought him from the rural South to Harlem, and it’s all one grotesque, horrible, comic, and inescapable bad dream. No one sees him, but everyone, from sadistic southern whites, to black nationalists, to the doctrinaire Leftists of “The Brotherhood,” wants to use him.

This is an essential American novel.


Who am I?

Growing up in Salt Lake City in the 1950s I was very soon aware that I was living in a world of borders, some permeable and negotiable, and some almost impossible to cross. It was a city of Mormons and a city of those who weren’t; a city of immigrants like my grandparents, and about whom my mother wrote (and wrote well); and a Jim Crow town where Black men and women couldn’t get into the ballroom to hear Duke Ellington play. Finally, it was a city haunted by its Indian past in a state keeping living Indians in its many bleak government reservations. What to make of those borders has been a life-long effort.


I wrote...

An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

By Zeese Papanikolas,

Book cover of An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

What is my book about?

An American Cakewalk is about a group of American jazz musicians, poets, writers, philosophers, and yes, cakewalkers, who didn’t crash head on into the borders of racism, poetic tradition, received ideas and economic orthodoxy that surrounded them, but, like the enslaved men and women who watched their masters’ pompous cotillion, glanced off them through satire and sly subversion. I write about Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane, Scott Joplin and Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton and William and Henry James, Thorstein Veblen and Abraham Cahan – and squeeze in some others too.

The Ballad of Black Tom

By Victor LaValle,

Book cover of The Ballad of Black Tom

Set in 1920’s New York, a con man and mediocre guitarist strums his way through a city beleaguered by racism, the occult, and the impending arrival of a powerful being from another dimension. One of the many great things about this book is that it brings African-Americans, historically invisible in speculative fiction, to the forefront. The book has a bone to pick with the racism of the Lovecraft oeuvre and his story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” LaValle is a master storyteller, and you find yourself engaged in a tale that is funny, poignant, and chilling. Yes, Black Tom is grappling with Lovecraft, but it’s evident LaValle doesn’t need him.


Who am I?

I read history to better understand myself, others, and the world around me; I write historical fiction to share what I have learned. At New York University, I was the Jacob K. Javits Fellow in fiction. In addition to Our Man in the Dark, I am the author of The Abduction of Smith and Smith, one of Huffington Post's 25 Necessary Books By Black Authors (2015), and Huffington Post's 50 Amazing Books By Black Authors from the Past Five Years (2019).


I wrote...

Our Man in the Dark

By Rashad Harrison,

Book cover of Our Man in the Dark

What is my book about?

Our Man in the Dark is a noir take on the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have led the civil rights struggle to a point of unprecedented progress. J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI want to ruin King.

Their best chance falls on John Estem, a lonely accountant working for the SCLC, who has just embezzled $10,000. Estem’s greed and desperation attract the attention of the FBI, and they seize the opportunity to blackmail and force him into becoming an informant.

The Names of All the Flowers

By Melissa Valentine,

Book cover of The Names of All the Flowers: A Memoir

I have not read a book like Melissa Valentine's The Names of All the Flowers, which is a beautiful, painful, and exquisitely written narrative about her brother Junior, who was gunned down on the streets of Oakland when he was 19. "Say his name, say her name," we chant when yet another one of our brothers or sisters is killed. In this memoir, Valentine gives us not only Junior's name but an intimate look into his head, his heart, his fears, his dreams, his joy.

Who am I?

My writing background started in the newsroom where, as a reporter, my job was to interview and tell the stories of others. At one point in my career, my editors assigned me a bi-monthly column, and while I used this space to write about a variety of issues happening in the community, I also used it occasionally to write personal essays. I love this form because the personal story helps us drill down on an issue and, in essence, make deeper connections with the collective. When I left the newsroom, I continued to study and write in essay and memoir form. In my MFA program, I was able to focus on this form exclusively for two years, and I have spent many years crafting my first book-length memoir into form. 


I wrote...

We Are Bridges: A Memoir

By Cassandra Lane,

Book cover of We Are Bridges: A Memoir

What is my book about?

When Cassandra Lane finds herself pregnant at thirty-five, the knowledge sends her on a poignant exploration of memory to prepare for her entry into motherhood. She moves between the twentieth-century rural South and present-day Los Angeles, reimagining the intimate life of her great-grandparents Mary Magdalene Magee and Burt Bridges, and Burt's lynching at the hands of vengeful white men in his southern town.

We Are Bridges turns to creative nonfiction to reclaim a family history from violent erasure so that a mother can gift her child with an ancestral blueprint for their future. Haunting and poetic, this debut traces the strange fruit borne from the roots of personal loss in one Black family—and considers how to take back one’s American story.

Imperium in Imperio

By Sutton E. Griggs,

Book cover of Imperium in Imperio

I read Imperium in an Afro-American Literature course in college. The instructor was excellent. I was the only non-Afro-American male in the class. I sat in the back. As soon as I finished reading Imperium I said to myself “This would make a great movie.” About ten years later I adapted the book into a screenplay. I typed it myself on my old typewriter. There was gunk on some of the keys and they needed cleaning. I realized that around Scene Five. If you ever read my old manuscript, I apologize for the first twenty pages. You can tell Sutton Griggs I’m sorry, also.


Who am I?

I’m an old lawyer, a writer, and now I’ve stumbled into acting, but reading, just plain old sitting on the couch and reading, has always been my personal slice of heaven. I was a history major but not a history buff like those folks that can rattle off dates or win $287,000 on Jeopardy. These stories from history can be told realistically, romantically, impressionistically, philosophically, and lots of other ways. But satirically is how stories capture and move me the most. Nothing stirs me or grows goosebumps on me as effectively as a story of hard times and hard-hearted people who deserve a bit of exposure from some well-aimed wit.


I wrote...

A Cottonwood Stand: A Novel of Nebraska

By Chuck Redman,

Book cover of A Cottonwood Stand: A Novel of Nebraska

What is my book about?

Nebraska: not just a place on a map. It has a heart and it has a voice. It has a Then. It has a Now.

Lark, a young Sioux, rebels against traditions and crosses the plains to save her adopted sister from a bad marriage and return the girl to the Pawnee village where she was abducted in childhood. At the end of her journey, Lark finds herself the center of a mysterious Pawnee ritual that undermines her plan as well as her confidence. Janet is a small town editor crusading against a meatpacking plant that will destroy the fabric of the town along with its landmark stand of cottonwoods. Sounds like two stories but it’s not. Guess who winds them into one?

The Legend of Bagger Vance

By Steven Pressfield,

Book cover of The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life

I suspect more people saw the movie (starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron and Jack Lemmon in his final role) than read the book by Steven Pressfield. Too bad, because the book’s pretty good.

It tells the entirely fictional tale of a 36-hole showdown match during the Depression between Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, and a local hero named Rannulph Junuh and his caddie, Bagger Vance. Grantland Rice and O.B. Keeler are there (famous sportswriters in the 1920s), and, of course, there is a femme fatale. But there is an underlying respect and honor for the game, which makes this novel a keeper.


Who am I?

I started writing about golf years ago… I went from freelancing to working for Golfweek and pretty soon had a career! I thought I had a brilliant idea: a series of mysteries with a golf theme! Then I learned there were about 267 other golf mysteries already out there, starting with Dame Agatha’s Murder on the Links! Oops.  I eventually wrote seven Hacker novels, finally getting my golf-writer-turned-sleuth through all four majors. I also published a historical novel set in Scotland (sorry, no golf) and just launched the new Swamp Yankee Mystery series, set in a small Rhode Island town remarkably similar to the one I live in!


I wrote...

The Majors Collection: Hacker Golf Mystery Box Set

By James Y. Bartlett,

Book cover of The Majors Collection: Hacker Golf Mystery Box Set

What is my book about?

My first two Hackers (Death is a Two-Stroke Penalty and Death from the Ladies Tee) are like tasty little hors d’oeuvres or maybe count as ‘prequels.’ But Member-Guest launched the narrative arc that continues through the rest of the Hacker series.  Golf writer Hacker is invited to a fun weekend of golf with the guys. And then the club president is murdered in the cart barn and Hacker has to help find which of the many suspects at the country club did the foul deed! And, this being Massachusetts, the Boston Mob is involved.  

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