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9 Must-Read Black History Memoirs

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9 Must-Read Black History Memoirs

9 Must-Read Black History Memoirs

This Black History Month, see a glimpse of the world through the eyes of people who fought for civil rights throughout history through their own stories, told in their own words. From diaries of former slaves to more recent stories of those who suffered at the hands of an unjust criminal justice system, these memoirs testify to the resilience of Black people throughout history.

If you’d like to purchase any of these books, we’d highly recommend seeking out your local independent bookstore. Your business helps ensure the survival of these vital cultural institutions during this difficult time.

1. 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (G&D Media)

This harrowing true story of Solomon Northup, the basis for the Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave, takes the reader on an unforgettable journey from the slave markets in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans to the major cotton and sugar plantations in Louisiana.

2. Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley

Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley (Mint Editions)

Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery and experienced a traumatic upbringing riddled with physical and sexual violence. One attack resulted in the birth of her son, whom she named George. Elizabeth was a gifted seamstress who used her skills to save money to buy her and her son’s freedom. She ventured North and started a career as a dressmaker to influential women in political circles. One of her most notable clients was Mary Todd Lincoln, with whom she developed a close friendship.

Behind the Scenes is a harrowing story of one woman’s unshakable drive. Despite her limiting circumstances, Elizabeth Keckley earned her freedom and became a successful entrepreneur. It’s an inspiring tale that provides a personal account of one of the most volatile times in American history.

3. My Race to Freedom by Gwendolyn Patton

My Race to Freedom
My Race to Freedom by Gwendolyn Patton (NewSouth Books)

The civil rights movement was defined by figures thrust into positions of importance; be they participants in a sit-in, Freedom Riders, or marchers in protests, those involved with the movement didn’t imagine being in that position ten years earlier. Gwendolyn Patton’s life centered around Detroit, Michigan, until she came to Montgomery in 1956 to visit relatives and found herself in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That experience sparked a lifetime of civil rights activism, as Patton became a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, supported the Freedom Riders, organized in Tuskegee, and participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Patton came to call Montgomery her home, and the movement and its legacy became the most important aspect of her life. My Race to Freedom is the story of how a young woman found her voice and used it to help her community.

4. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (City Lights Books)

A masterpiece of African American literature, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is the powerful story of an enslaved youth coming into social and moral consciousness by disobeying his white slavemasters and secretly teaching himself to read.

Achieving literacy emboldens Douglass to resist, escape and ultimately achieve his freedom. After escaping slavery, Douglass became a leader in the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, a bestselling author and U.S. diplomat.

In this critical edition from City Lights Books, legendary activist and feminist scholar Angela Y. Davis sheds new light on the legacy of Frederick Douglass.

5. Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

Up From Slavery
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (Mint Editions)

From a child slave put to hard labor to a college president and advisor to presidents, Booker T. Washington’s autobiography powerfully describes his journey and what it taught him about the possible future of Black people in the United States.

6. Solitary by Albert Woodfox

Cover Art for Solitary
Solitary by Albert Woodfox (Grove Press)

Solitary is the unforgettable life story of a man who served more than four decades in solitary confinement–in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, 23 hours a day, in notorious Angola prison in Louisiana–all for a crime he did not commit. That Albert Woodfox survived was, in itself, a feat of extraordinary endurance against the violence and deprivation he faced daily. That he was able to emerge whole from his odyssey within America’s prison and judicial systems is a triumph of the human spirit, and makes his book a clarion call to reform the inhumanity of solitary confinement in the U.S. and around the world.

Arrested often as a teenager in New Orleans, inspired behind bars in his early twenties to join the Black Panther Party because of its social commitment and code of living, Albert was serving a 50-year sentence in Angola for armed robbery when on April 17, 1972, a white guard was killed. Albert and another member of the Panthers were accused of the crime and immediately put in solitary confinement by the warden. Without a shred of actual evidence against them, their trial was a sham of justice that gave them life sentences in solitary. Decades passed before Albert gained a lawyer of consequence; even so, sixteen more years and multiple appeals were needed before he was finally released in February 2016.

7. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (Mint Editions)

Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl, the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, was initially written with the intention of illuminating white abolitionists to the appalling treatment of female slaves in the pre-Civil War South of the United States. The book was later rediscovered in the 1960’s, and it was not until the 1980s that it was proved to be an extraordinary work of autobiographical memoir as opposed to fiction.

In this astonishing book, Harriet Jacobs uses the pseudonym of Linda Brent to recount her story as a slave, a mother, and her eventual escape to the north. Born into a relatively calm life as a young child to slaves, she is taken into the care of a kind mistress when her mother dies. Linda is taught to read and write, and is generally treated with respect. When the mistress passes away Linda is handed over to Dr. Flint. He is a negligent and cruel new master who subsequently pressures Linda for sexual favors, yet she resists his demands for years. In an attempt to circumvent the situation, Linda enters into a relationship with Mr. Sands, a white neighbor who ends up fathering her two children. Expecting that she and her children will be sold to Mr. Sands, Dr. Flint instead decides to subject them to further degradation. Linda escapes and goes into hiding in a small attic, and her children are eventually sold to Mr. Sand. For over seven years, Linda remains in hiding, until she ultimately escapes North to be reunited with her children. Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl is a devastating yet empowering document that uniquely focuses on the psychological and spiritual effects that bondage had on women slaves and their families.

8. The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano

The Life of Olaudah Equiano
The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Olaudah Equiano (G&D Media)

A remarkable account of early slavery and later freedom, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself, is the 1789 autobiography of former slave Olaudah Equiano. This memoir is a slave narrative, travel tale, and spiritual journey all-in-one. His life is a tale of terror as well as an exciting adventure. This fascinating account describes Equiano’s abduction from Africa at the age of ten and the years spent in labor on slave ships. It documents his attempts at becoming an independent man through his study of the Bible and his eventual success in gaining his own freedom in 1766. What follows is success in business, in literacy, and a move to becoming an influential African advocate of abolishing the slave trade in Britain during the late 18th century. Equiano’s degraded youth and respected later life in England are told with verve and sophistication in this spirited quest for fulfillment.

9. Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth

Narrative of Sojourner Truth
Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth (G&D Media)

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth is the memoir of an African-American woman who struggled against the bondages of slavery in the early 1800s. It is one of the most famous slave narratives of all time and is one of the most important documents of slavery ever written. This is her story. This is her voice. Dictated to her friend Olive Gilbert and first published privately in 1850, this partial autobiography of the woman who became a pioneer in the struggles for racial and sexual equality is a lens into the little-known world of northern slavery and an inspiring account of a black woman striving for personal and political empowerment.

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