The most recommended books about the Great Migration

Who picked these books? Meet our 15 experts.

15 authors created a book list connected to the Great Migration, and here are their favorite Great Migration books.
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Book cover of Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City

Roxanna Asgarian Author Of We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America

From my list on how our systems are failing vulnerable children.

Who am I?

I’m an investigative journalist and author, and a decade ago I began digging into the child welfare system—what we call the patchwork web of child protection agencies around the country. The more I learned, the more I realized how this system, which is ostensibly to help children in need, is actually perpetrating deep and lasting harm on generations of children and families. These books have helped me understand how we punish poor people instead of helping them, and how our racist systems harm Black and Indigenous children. They’ve also helped me to sit with the reality of child abuse, and begin to see a different way of preventing harm and healing those who’ve been hurt. 

Roxanna's book list on how our systems are failing vulnerable children

Roxanna Asgarian Why did Roxanna love this book?

Andrea Elliott, a New York Times reporter, spent nearly a decade reporting on Dasani Coates, a Black child growing up in a New York City shelter, and the result is a deeply humane look at a family in poverty.

This Pulitzer-winning book makes clear that the child protection system is a downstream solution to problems that begin with the failure of our society to meet families’ basic human needs.

As Dasani’s journey becomes public in a front page New York Times series, she is afforded an opportunity to escape poverty and become educated in an elite institution, but Elliott shows that plucking a favored child out of her family—even for the most positive of reasons—is still painful for the child.

By Andrea Elliott,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Invisible Child as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A “vivid and devastating” (The New York Times) portrait of an indomitable girl—from acclaimed journalist Andrea Elliott

“From its first indelible pages to its rich and startling conclusion, Invisible Child had me, by turns, stricken, inspired, outraged, illuminated, in tears, and hungering for reimmersion in its Dickensian depths.”—Ayad Akhtar, author of Homeland Elegies

ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, Time, NPR, Library Journal

In Invisible Child, Pulitzer Prize winner…


Book cover of Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series

David G. Nicholls Author Of Conjuring the Folk: Forms of Modernity in African America

From my list on understanding the Great Black Migration.

Who am I?

I'm a lifelong reader and wanted to study literature from an early age. I grew up in Indianapolis, one of the cities reshaped by the Great Black Migration. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and found myself once again in the urban Midwest. My research for Conjuring the Folk led me to discover a trove of short stories by George Wylie Henderson, a Black writer from Alabama who migrated to Harlem. I edited the stories and published them as Harlem Calling: The Collected Stories of George Wylie Henderson. I'm a contributor to African American Review, the Journal of Modern Literature, and the Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration

David's book list on understanding the Great Black Migration

David G. Nicholls Why did David love this book?

Harlem painter Jacob Lawrence composed a series of sixty panels, applying tempera to composite board, to tell the story of the Great Black Migration; he numbered them sequentially and added captions to tie it all together. It opened to acclaim in 1941. You can see the entire work in the book Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series. Read it and you will discover the conditions African Americans faced in the South, the networks that migrants used to make the journey northward, and the lives they formed in the cities. Lawrence’s images are bold and geometric, using expressionistic brushstrokes and a consistent color palette from panel to panel. I saw the series exhibited in Chicago and was impressed by the intimate scale of the panels—they measure only 18 by 12 inches. 

By Leah Dickerman (editor), Elsa Smithgall (editor),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then just twenty-three years old, completed a series of sixty small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration. Within months of its making, Lawrence's Migration series was divided between The Museum of Modern Art (even numbered panels) and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (odd numbered panels). The work has since become a landmark in the history of African-American art, a monument in the collections of both institutions, and a crucial example of the way in which history painting was radically reimagined in the modern era. In 2015 and 2016, marking the centenary of the Great…


Book cover of Tougaloo Blues

James E. Cherry Author Of Edge of the Wind

From my list on contemporary African American authors.

Who am I?

I'm a contemporary African American writer born and raised in the South. It was this sense of place that has shaped my artistic sensibilities. I was in my mid-twenties, searching, seeking for answers and direction on my own, when other Black southern writers were instrumental in pointing me in the right direction: Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, Ernest J Gaines, Alice Walker, Arna Bontemps, Albert Murray, just to name a handful. Their writings were revelatory. The same issues that they were dealing with a generation earlier were the same ones I was struggling with every day. It opened my eyes, mind, heart and creativity to put into perspective what I was feeling. 

James' book list on contemporary African American authors

James E. Cherry Why did James love this book?

Kelly Norman Ellis is the Chairperson for the Department of English, Foreign Languages, and Literatures at Chicago State University. And like those who have made the “Great Migration” before her, she too has taken the South with her in this wonderful debut collection of poetry. In this book, she deftly taps into the Blues ethos to conjure vivid imagery of a Mississippi unique with its patois, cuisine, and customs that have unmistakably shaped her worldview as an adult. It was the South that would try to degrade and dehumanize Black life. But it was the same South where family and a village would instill pride, confidence, and self-worth. This is a book of a poet coming to terms with where she has come from and celebrating the journey. It reinforces the notion that everywhere you go, home is already there.

By Kelly Norman Ellis,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This collection of poems explores the author's southern roots through a blues/narrative voice and revisits her Mississippi youth, while revealing the contemporary voice of a Black woman searching for place and community outside of her southern past.


Book cover of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Dannagal Goldthwaite Young Author Of Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive Our Appetite for Misinformation

From my list on understanding identity-driven wrongness in the United States.

Who am I?

I’m a professor of communication and political science who’s been researching and publishing on the effects of political media on democratic health for 25 years. More recently, I’ve been trying to understand the roots of inter-party hostility, the drop in trust in institutions, and the rise in Americans’ belief in breathtakingly false information. My hope is that through this selection of books, you’ll start to understand the synergistic dynamics between America’s complicated history with race, changes in America’s parties, media, and culture, and various social psychological processes, and maybe even start to see a way out of this mess.

Dannagal's book list on understanding identity-driven wrongness in the United States

Dannagal Goldthwaite Young Why did Dannagal love this book?

I cannot count the number of times I let out an audible, “My god,” reading this richly detailed account of the lives of three complicated and infinitely brave Black Americans who dared leave the Jim Crow South for cities North and West in the early-mid 1900s.

In school (in New England, not the South), I didn’t get an intimate sense of how routine and oppressive the violence and injustice were against southern Blacks during Jim Crow. And I certainly didn’t learn how, even in the “free” Northern cities, the subjugation continued, just in quieter ways.

Since reading the book, when I see references to people celebrating “simpler times from a bygone era,” I increasingly wonder if part of that simplicity involves them not having to share cultural or political power. 

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Warmth of Other Suns as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In this beautifully written masterwork, the Pulitzer Prize–winnner and bestselling author of Caste chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.

From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official…


Book cover of Redwood and Wildfire

Caroline Stevermer Author Of The Glass Magician

From my list on historical fantasy for armchair travel.

Who am I?

I write fantasy novels, including A College of Magics, River Rats, and When the King Comes Home. With Patricia C. Wrede, I wrote half of the Kate and Cecy series: Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician.

Caroline's book list on historical fantasy for armchair travel

Caroline Stevermer Why did Caroline love this book?

As brilliantly written as it is sometimes difficult to read, this fantasy novel set in the early 20th century travels from rural Georgia to Chicago, part of the Great Migration. Hairston says "I wrote Redwood and Wildfire to celebrate folks like my great-aunt and grandfather who faced impossible choices." In so doing, she has told stories history has all but forgotten. I began to read this book because I knew it contained a passage involving a visit to the 1893 Columbian Exposition—The White City—but my favorite parts of this novel involve the show folk and the Black film industry in Chicago. Hairston's characters don't just do magic. They are magic.

By Andrea Hairston,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

At the turn of the 20th century, minstrel shows transform into vaudeville, which slides into moving pictures. Hunkering together in dark theatres, diverse audiences marvel at flickering images. This 'dreaming in public' becomes common culture and part of what transforms immigrants and 'native' born into Americans.

Redwood, an African American woman, and Aidan, a Seminole Irish man, journey from Georgia to Chicago, from haunted swampland to a 'city of the future.' They are gifted performers and hoodoo conjurors, struggling to call up the wondrous world they imagine, not just on stage and screen, but on city streets, in front parlors,…


Book cover of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America

David G. Nicholls Author Of Conjuring the Folk: Forms of Modernity in African America

From my list on understanding the Great Black Migration.

Who am I?

I'm a lifelong reader and wanted to study literature from an early age. I grew up in Indianapolis, one of the cities reshaped by the Great Black Migration. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and found myself once again in the urban Midwest. My research for Conjuring the Folk led me to discover a trove of short stories by George Wylie Henderson, a Black writer from Alabama who migrated to Harlem. I edited the stories and published them as Harlem Calling: The Collected Stories of George Wylie Henderson. I'm a contributor to African American Review, the Journal of Modern Literature, and the Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration

David's book list on understanding the Great Black Migration

David G. Nicholls Why did David love this book?

The Promised Land is written in an engaging, eloquent style that makes it an excellent introduction to the history of the Great Black Migration. A noted journalist, Lemann interviewed dozens of migrants and their descendants to create a richly textured story of their experiences. Layered onto this story is description and analysis of the political contexts for the migration, including the civil rights movement and the Great Society programs. He follows a group of Black Americans from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and, in some cases, back. He shows how the migration affected not just the migrants themselves, but America as a whole, for it shifted race relations from a regional to a national problem. Chicagoans like me will enjoy its wealth of local detail.

By Nicholas Lemann,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Promised Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times bestseller, the groundbreaking authoritative history of the migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A definitive book on American history, The Promised Land is also essential reading for educators and policymakers at both national and local levels.