The canon of Black literature in America spans centuries, from Phillis Wheatley’s poetry first published in 1773, to novelist William Wells Brown in the 1800s, to the Black literati of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Vivian Fisher, deputy chief of Enoch Pratt’s Central Library, was the first manager of its African American Department, which was unveiled in 2003. Today, the collection boasts some 45,000 volumes: books, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, letters, programs and microfilm.
Her advice on reading Black literature?
“Know about the classics,” Fisher said, ticking off James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison as just a few names in the pantheon of Black authors. She advises reading “contemporary” Black wordsmiths, too. Baltimore has produced several recent bestselling authors, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sheri Booker and D. Watkins, among others.
Amid recent book bans and pushback to historical teaching, Black History Month offers opportunities to discover diverse authors and genres anew. Said Fisher, “It helps shape the understanding of our larger society.”
Read on for 10 book selections to add to your reading list for February and beyond.
“Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing”
Benjamin Todd Jealous (Harper Collins/Amistad $22.39)
Ben Jealous, the former NAACP head and new executive director of the Sierra Club, is the son of a Black mother and white father. His parents had to leave Maryland in the 1960s because their interracial marriage was then illegal. The title of his latest book refers to something his late grandmother in Baltimore would regularly tell him. Jealous uses modern day parables (with glimpses of luminaries like the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu) to urge national unity. He writes: “All of us — every American of every race, gender, creed and color-must have faith that we can hand over a better, stronger, nation to our children.”
“The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State.”
Charles L. Chavis Jr. (Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95)
In December 1931, a mob of white men in Salisbury, Maryland, lynched and set ablaze Matthew Williams, a 22-year-old Black man. Decades later, historian Charles L. Chavis Jr., uses previously unreleased documents to reconstruct the harrowing case. Chavis is an assistant professor at George Mason University, and the national co-chair for the U.S. Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Movement. He writes that Maryland, which abolished slavery in 1864, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, had at least 40 “spectacle” lynchings during that era.
“Book of the Little Axe”
Lauren Francis-Sharma (Grove/Atlantic, $26)
Lauren Francis-Sharma’s critically acclaimed second novel is a sweeping epic that spans decades and oceans, from the Caribbean to the American West. “Readers will get a glimpse of the battle raging between the imperialist nations of the 1800s and the Rendon family, Black landowners who are determined to live free,” said Francis-Sharma, a corporate lawyer turned author who was raised in Baltimore and is the assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She adds that for readers who “love Black cowboy stories,” and want a “riveting tale that centers a Black woman on a thrilling hero’s journey, this is your story.”
“Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle.”
Shannen Dee Williams, Ph.D. (Duke University Press, $23.99)
Calling them “forgotten prophets,” author Shannen Dee Williams uses oral histories and previously sealed church records to write the first comprehensive history of Black Catholic nuns in the U.S. “Generations of Black Catholic women and girls were called to take sacred vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,” said Williams, an associate professor at the University of Dayton who discussed her work at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum last fall. “They fought against racism, sexism and exclusion to minister as consecrated women of God in the Roman Catholic Church.” The profiles of women of the cloth include Mother Mary Lange, a candidate for sainthood who in 1829 founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore. The first Roman Catholic sisterhood for Black women still thrives today.
“Black Women Will Save the World, An Anthem.”
April Ryan (Harper Collins/Amistad, $27.99)
In her fourth book, veteran White House correspondent and Baltimore native April Ryan celebrates the tenacity, power, and impact of Black women across America. “I am keenly aware that everyone and everything has a story,” said Ryan, who is the Washington bureau chief for theGrio and a CNN analyst. “Also, I have always marveled at Black women and how we work to move mountains and are never really thanked or recognized.” From Harriet Tubman to Vice President Kamala Harris, Ryan profiles “sheroes,” who also include U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, politician Stacey Abrams, and activist LaTosha Brown. The Morgan State University alumna also chronicles her own barrier-breaking journey in D.C.’s elite press corps. The book features a poignant dedication to her late mother, Vivian Ryan, and ancestral foremothers.
“Movements, Motions, Moments”
Judith Weisenfeld and Eric L. Williams (Giles, $16.95)
Drawing upon the photography collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, this coffee table book explores the dynamic ways African Americans practice religion and spirituality. The 19th, 20th and 21st century images of James Van Der Zee, Baltimore’s Kenneth Royster and other acclaimed photographers are showcased. Photos range from notable religious figures to snaps of celebrations, ritual practices and individual moments of faith.
Krystal Marquis (Dial Books, $19.19)
Author Krystal Marquis transports readers to opulent 1910s Chicago in her debut novel. Romance, heartbreak and courage are portrayed through four dynamic Black heroes: Olivia, Helen, Amy Rose and Ruby. Their adventures are inspired by the true story of automobile magnate C.R. Patterson, who flourished in the 1900s. The fictional family’s fortune was amassed by William Davenport, a formerly enslaved man turned entrepreneur who established the Davenport Carriage Company. While the Davenports and their social set enjoy endless parties in gorgeous settings, all that glitters is not gold.
“The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition”
Edited by John R. Kaufman-McKivigan, Robert S. Levine and John Stauffer (Yale University Press, $9.95)
Countless volumes have been written about Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist, orator and statesman. Yet the Talbot County native told his own story first. Douglass, who learned to read and write after his enslaver sent him to Baltimore as a child, published his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” in 1845. The book became an international bestseller. More books followed, including “My Bondage and My Freedom” and “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.” His only work of fiction, “The Heroic Slave,” is a retelling of an 1841 slave revolt. This 2015 edition, co-edited by University of Maryland professor Robert S. Levine, includes an introduction, Douglass’s full text and related writings.
Joyce J. Scott, edited by Mobilia Gallery (Libby Cooper and Jo Anne Cooper). (Arnoldsche Art Publishers)
Joyce J. Scott, a Baltimore-born MacArthur “genius,” has devoted her celebrated career to creating vibrant art from jewelry to beaded sculptures, all imbued with powerful social commentary. “Messages” features images of Scott’s dynamic creations along with scholarly essays. The book is a companion to Scott’s new work, which is traveling for exhibition in Iowa, Massachusetts and California. The book is available at the Baltimore Museum of Art gift shop for $50.
Kheris Rogers with illustrations by Mechal Renee Roe (HarperCollins Children’s Books, $18.99)
When bullies teased Kheris Rogers about her ebony skin, the Los Angeles teen launched the apparel brand Flexin’ In My Complexion. It became a viral sensation. Now her children’s book, “Shine Bright,” encourages youth to embrace their uniqueness. “Beauty has nothing to do with the outside,” says Rogers. “It has to do with your inside, by being nice, smart, creative.”