Books for Black History Month

October is a huge month for the publishing industry, with an actual gazillion books being published to time well with Christmas shopping plans. There is also the king of all book fairs, Frankfurt Book Fair, as well as Halloween and a slew of other holidays like World Vegetarian Day, United Nations Day, Ally Week and Diwali, and “holidays” like International Frugal Fun Day, Dictionary Day, Be Bald and Free Day, Evaluate Your Life Day and National Tell a Story Day. We know about all of the wacky dates from doing a bit of quick googling to see what’s going on this month, with the aim of planning some goofy tweets – you know, the spice of life.

So if it is so easy to discover that the 28th of October is Plush Animal Lover’s Day (I kid you not!), my question is this: why was it not far, far easier to discover that October is Black History Month here in the UK?

I don’t doubt that the organisers of Black History Month have done their fair share of promotion; thousands of people are involved in events and other activities to celebrate this month. So why are mainstream media outlets, or even book trade magazines, not shouting about it? Why, at a time such as this – in which racism, xenophobia and jingoism seem to be the prevailing attitude; in which so-called micro-aggressions against people of colour are being called out and then trampled down under the guise of Political Correctness Gone Mad – why is this celebration of Black culture and achievement in Britain not given more importance than ever?

Being an American expat, my erstwhile excuse for being unaware was that we celebrate Black History Month in February, not October. However, I’ve been in the UK for over five years now, and had never once heard anybody mention it in my personal or professional life. So imagine my surprise when I happened across just one lone tweet from an author I follow mentioning Black History Month, the “nationwide celebration of Black History, Arts and Culture throughout Britain… an acknowledgement and celebration of diversity and the richness it brings to our society”. My first thought was that we should be talking about it here.

I truly hope this doesn’t leave a bitter taste in any mouths, given that I am in fact the dreaded white, middle-class girl from a white, middle-class town living a quite privileged life and working in an industry that is frequently called out for its shocking lack of diversity; its mono-culture; its use of unpaid interns, furthering excluding non-middle class talent from getting a foot in the door. Yes, I am all of these things. However, my time working at Turnaround, a company with a rich history of selling diverse books of all varieties, has opened my eyes to many walks of life unlike my own. Reading, promoting – and even just being aware of – books about other peoples and cultures has helped me shed the ignorance that came with growing up in a town where something like 94% of all people were white. And we all know that ignorance is the root of fear, which is in the turn the root of hate.

How better to shed our collective cultural ignorance and better celebrate Black achievements and struggle than through books?

We have searched through our archives to compile a list of some of our most influential and most important books by or about celebrated Black icons and the Black experience, as well as discussions of race relations in today’s political climate. We’ve also tried to flag up some interesting titles about Black artists and excellent fiction by Black authors. This is an incredibly small list compared to everything that’s out there, all of which deserves to be shouted about, but we think it makes a great start (presented in no particular order, but with an attempt at categorisation):

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Text Publishing, 9781925240702). Hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” a bold and personal literary exploration of America’s racial history by “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States” (The New York Observer), Between the World and Me is on everyone’s reading list this autumn, and with good reason! Framed as a letter to the author’s teenaged son, the book attempts to answer these questions: What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
  • From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Haymarket, 9781608465620). In this stirring and insightful analysis, activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor surveys the historical and contemporary ravages of racism and the persistence of structural problems, arguing that this new struggle against police violence holds the potential to reignite a broader push for Black liberation.
  • Among the Bloodpeople by Thomas Glave (Akashic Books, 9781617751707). Each of Professor Glave’s essays is a commitment to social justice and human truth, and extends beyond race politics. Whether confronting Jamaica’s prime minister on anti-gay bigotry or challenging repressive tactics employed at Cambridge University, Glave expresses the observations of a global citizen with the voice of a poet.
  • Ready for Revolution by Stokely Carmichael (Scribner, 9780684850047). From the prison farms and lynch mobs of Mississippi to the political intrigue of the African liberation wars, Stokely Carmichael’s remarkable life story covers the full range of the Black liberation struggle in our time. A fascinating personal testimony.
  • The New Black, edited by Kenneth Mack and Guy-Uriel E. Charles (The New Press, 9781595586773). Through insightful essays, The New Black challenges contemporary images of black families, defies accepted notions of what “black” means, transforms ideas about political power of people of colour and challenges the boundaries of debates over race.
  • Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer and Sabrina Jones (The New Press, 9781595585417). Mauer’s Race to Incarcerate is the essential text for understanding the exponential growth of the US prison system, and it has become canonical for those active in the US criminal justice reform movement. Now Sabrina Jones has collaborated with Mauer to adapt his seminal book into a vivid graphic narrative designed to reach a mainstream audience.
  • Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy (Vintage, 9780375713712). In this explosive and controversial bestseller, distinguished legal scholar Randall Kennedy takes on American attitudes, culture and law, asking: Should the Black community be able to use the word in ways forbidden to others? Should its use be seen as an act of violence, cost people their jobs, and books their place on library shelves? In exploring these questions, Kennedy addresses the racism embedded in our society.
  • A History of Pan-African Revolt by C.L.R. James (PM Press, 9781604860955). Originally published in England in 1938 and expanded in 1969, this work remains the classic account of global Black resistance. Robin D.G. Kelley’s substantial introduction contextualizes the work in the history and ferment of the times, and explores its ongoing relevance today.
  • Chinua Achebe: Tributes & Reflections, edited by Nana Ayebia Clarke and James Currey (Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 9780956930767). Chinua Achebe is renowned as Africa’s most famous novelist and author. This important volume traces the formative years of Modern African writing in English and Achebe’s role in helping to shape and nurture the next generation of African writers.
  • Modern Politics by C.L.R. James (PM Press, 9781604863116). Originally delivered as a series of lectures in Trinidad in 1960. James analyses revolutionary history and the role of literature, art and culture in society. He also interrogates the ideas and philosophy of such thinkers as Rousseau, Lenin and Trotsky, making this is a magnificent tour de force from a critically-engaged thinker at the height of his powers.
  • The Great Marcus Garvey by Liz Mackie (Hansib Publications, 9781906190057). Marcus Garvey was one of the greatest black leaders of the 20th century. This is an in-depth biography and history of this great man who envisaged so much and inspired so many.
  • The John Carlos Story by John Carlos, Dave Zirin and Cornel West (Haymarket, 9781608462247). Seen around the world, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute on the 1968 Olympic podium sparked controversy and career fallout. John Carlos tells his own version of the story.
  • But Some of Us Are Brave by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith (The Feminist Press, 9781558618985). Regarded as THE seminal text on Black women’s studies, the book features essays that capture everything from a Black woman’s place in art, racism and sexism, feminist thought, lesbian studies, political theories and ideologies.
  • The Black Power Mixtape, edited by Goran Olsson (Haymarket, 9781608462964). Featuring images recently discovered in the archives of Swedish television, The Black Power Mixtape shows the Black Power movement as never seen before. Powerful interviews with key figures, such as Stokely Carmichel, Angela Davis and others who shaped the struggle are mixed with the contemporary reflections of leading activists, musicians and scholars, expanding on the legacy of Black Power. Featuring fascinating and rare photos throughout, The Black Power Mixtape was described by the New York Times as “an extraordinary feat of editing and archival research”.
  • I Mix What I Like by Jared A. Ball (AK Press, 9781849350570). Professor and mixtape producer Jared A. Ball analyses the colonisation and control of popular music and posits the home-made hip-hop mixtape as an emancipatory tool for community resistance.
  • Growing Out by Barbara Blake Hannah (Hansib Publications, 9781906190286). Britain’s first Black television journalist, recalls her time in Britain during the 1960s and her encounters with ‘swinging London’. Socialised from birth into a negative attitude towards her natural hair and beauty, she describes the process of ‘growing out’ of both her attitude towards her hair and her specifically Black consciousness.
  • What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal by Laina Dawes (Bazillion Points, 9781935950059). Canadian critic Dawes questions herself, her hardcore heroes and dozens of Black punk, metal and hard-rock fans to answer a knee-jerk question she’s heard a hundred times in the small clubs where her favourite bands play: “What are you doing here?” She investigates how Black female musicians and fans navigate the metal, hardcore and punk music genres that are regularly thought of as inclusive spaces.
  • Bob Marley & the Wailers by Roger Steffens (LMH, 9789768184757). Featuring the complete works of Bob Marley and The Wailers and provides a comprehensive list of dates and recordings of all their work. The collection avoids the stereotypical ‘dry’ reference method and includes information and details important to an understanding of the lyrics, mood and philosophy of the music.
  • Hair Story by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps (St Martin’s Press, 9781250046574). Tying the personal to the political and the popular, Hair Story takes a chronological look at the culture behind the ever-changing state of Black hair – from fifteenth-century Africa to the present-day United States. It is celebrated as a reference guide for understanding Black hair.
  • Listen, Whitey! by Pat Thomas (Fantagraphcs, 9781606995075). A provocative collection of African-American cultural history featuring graphics and sharp observations, capturing the sounds behind the movement. 90,000 words of text are accompanied by over 250 large sized, full-colour reproductions of album covers and 45 rpm singles.
  • Afrobeat! by Sola Olorunyomi (Africa World Press, 9781592210725). A dynamic mode of expression in the social history of post-independent West Africa, Afrobeat (a combination of traditional Ghana music, jazz, highlife, funk popularised in Ghana in the 1970s) comprises the lives, loves and politics of a people born to resist.
  • Who Asked You? by Terry McMillan (Signet, 9780451417039). A contemporary classic. Who Asked You? raises questions about how we care for one another and how we set limits for those we love when the demands are too great.
  • October by Zoë Wicomb (The New Press, 9781595589620). From one of the pre-eminent voices in international fiction. Abandoned by her partner in Scotland, where she has been living for 25 years, Mercia returns to her homeland of South Africa to find her family overwhelmed by secrets.
  • The Caine Prize for African Writing 2015 (yearly series published by New Internationalist; 9781780262284). Now entering its sixteenth year, the Caine Prize for African Writing is Africa’s leading literary prize, and is awarded to a short story by an African writer published in English. This collection brings together the five shortlisted titles and other stories written at the Caine Prize Writer’s Workshop.
  • Dopefiend by Donald Goines (Holloway House, 9780870679384). Heavily influenced by seminal street lit author Iceberg Slim, Goines is among the best-known authors of American urban fiction. Dopefiend was his first book and is considered to be his benchmark novel.
  • Nowhere is a Place by Bernice L. McFadden (Akashic Books, 9781617751318). Written by the multi-award-winning author Bernice L. McFadden. This story of relationships, resiliency and joy focusses on a mother and daughter with a fractured past as they embark on a road trip for a family reunion.
  • Into the Go Slow by Bridgett David (The Feminist Press, 9781558618640). A novel about a family in Detroit in the aftermath of the Black Power Movement. Angie, the youngest daughter, travels from 1980s Detroit to Lagos, Nigeria after her estranged older sister Ella mysteriously dies there.
  • Payback Ain’t Enough by Wahida Clark (Cash Money Content, 9781936399116). Filled with glamour, sex and danger, the “queen of thug lit”, Wahida Clark, plunges the reader into a hip-hop drama.
  • Black Images in the Comics by Fredrik Stromberg and Charles R. Johnson (Fantagraphics, 9781606995624). Turns the spotlight on over 100 comic strips, books and graphic novels to feature black characters from all over the world over the last century, resulting in a fascinating journey to enlightenment away from the hideously appalling caricatures of yore.
  • Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection Volume 1 by Christopher Priest (Marvel, 9780785192671). Hand-picked by our in-house comics expert as one of the best runs for this popular character. Black Panther reinvented as a sharp and witty political satire? Believe it! T’Challa is the man with the plan, as Christopher Priest puts the emphasis on the Wakandan king’s reputation as the ultimate statesman, as seen through the eyes of the U.S. government’s Everett K. Ross.
  • Deathlok: The Souls of Cyber-Folk by Dwayne McDuffie (Marvel, 9780785193340). McDuffie was also known for writing and producing the animated series Justice League Unlimited and Ben 10, and co-founding the pioneering minority-owned-and-operated comic-book company Milestone Media. This graphic novel collects Deathlok 1-15.
  • Journey into Mystery, illustrated by Doug Braithwaite (Marvel, 9780785185574). Braithwaite’s artwork on Journey Into Mystery during the 2011 “Fear Itself” storyline was critically acclaimed. Fans of Thor and Loki will see why!
  • House of M – Ultimate Edition, illustrated by Olivier Coipel (Panini, 9780785117216). Coipel has worked on just about everything, from The Avengers to Black Panther to Thor, Hulk and Spider-Man. We like this one for its dramatic inclusion of just about every Marvel superhero imaginable!
  • In Her Hands by Alan Schroeder and JaeMe Bereal (Lee & Low, 9781600609893). A gorgeously-illustrated children’s book about the life and work of Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta
  • I Love You Too by Ziggy Marley and Ag Jatkowska (Akashic Books, 9781617753107). An absolutely lovely multicultural children’s picture book based on Ziggy Marley’s beloved song by the same name.
  • Rainbow Stew by Cathryn Falwell (Lee & Low, 9781600608476). Three children visiting their grandpa are thrilled to go out in the rain and help pick colourful vegetables for grandpa’s famous rainbow stew.
  • We Shall Overcome by Debbie Levy (Disney-Hyperion, 9781423119548). The story of the classic song by the same name. From its humble beginnings in America’s era of slavery through to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond, it has come to represent the fight for equality and freedom around the world.
  • Go de Rass to Sleep by Kwame Dawes and Kellie Magnus (Akashic Books, 9781617752742). Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes’ profane and hilarious “adult children’s book” is translated into Jamaican patois. Probably best not to read this one to any actual children!


Do you think we’ve missed anything? What books do you think should be celebrated during Black History Month? Tell us in the comments below, or tweet us @turnarounduk.

Post by Sarah Wray.

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