When I was in sixth grade, my older brother handed me a paperback book. I don’t remember what he said, but I knew by the look on his face that I had to read it.
I didn’t understand the title, Manchild in the Promised Land, and I’d never heard of its author, Claude Brown. But once I opened the book I couldn’t put it down. It was based on Brown’s coming-of-age in Harlem in the 1940s and ’50s. His descriptions of gangs, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes made for a harrowing ride. As I turned the pages, I felt like I was holding a stick of dynamite.
My father had grown up not far from Harlem, and we visited New York City often. But Brown’s was a world altogether different from anything I had known, and it terrified me. I couldn’t understand why there was such a gulf between my life—in a white suburb—and Brown's. I only knew that skin color played a defining role. It was a lesson I never forgot.
Examining the experiences of African Americans is a complicated endeavor that cannot, and should not, be consigned to one month of the year. We honor the talents of inventors, doctors, artists, athletes and musicians. We also bear witness to the hundreds of thousands of people who once lived in bondage.
We look with admiration upon those who escaped from slavery—and those who led them to safety. And we revisit the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement who faced fire hoses and beatings for freedoms that never should have been denied them.
Each time we do so, a piece of our hearts is pierced a bit more. We may want to blame the likes of Bull Connor and Orval Faubus, but the complicity extends much further. It's called turning a blind eye.
Since the 1950s, when a Supreme Court ruling and a series of laws began to dismantle Jim Crow, the harsh realities experienced by a kid like Claude Brown have eased, but not enough. Although illegal, segregation lives on in insidious ways.
The books below will help you introduce students to black culture in all of its dimensions. You’ll find Manchild in the Promised Land and other works of literature, a riveting account of Negro League Baseball, and lush picture books by artist Faith Ringgold. Also included is a Rosa Parks biography that dispels myths about the so-called “weary seamstress” who refused to move to the back of the bus.
The titles are grouped according to grade bands with a range of genres. To help deepen your students' understanding, here are tips on crafting evidence-based questions.
These works offer a rich account of the struggles and triumphs of a people whose history in America is longer—and more agonizing—than most; who, with their grit, faith, and courage managed to endure and, in so many cases, thrive.
As Claude Brown wrote, it is “a story of their searching, their dreams, their sorrows, their small and futile rebellions, and their endless battle to establish their own place . . . in America itself.” It is our job to ensure that the battle finally ends in true equality.
(A version of this essay originally appeared on scholastic.com/commoncore.)
Barack Obama: Out of Many, One
Shana Corey (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2009)
The story of a skinny little boy with a funny name who became the first African American President of the United States
Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra
Andrea Pinkney (Hyperion Book CH, 2006)
This “smooth-talkin’, slick-steppin’, piano-playin’ kid,” who was born in 1899, would grow up to dazzle the world with his music.
Kelly Starling Lyons (Putnam Juvenile, 2012)
A young girl describes a poignant tradition among slaves who are unable to marry legally.
A Picture Book of Frederick Douglass
David A. Adler (Holiday House, Reprint edition, 1995)
A pictorial depiction of a man who went from being a slave to a freer of slaves and a world-famous orator and civil rights activist
Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story
Ruby Bridges (Cartwheel Books, 2009)
The story of a tough little girl who rises above racism.
Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride
Andrea Pinkney (Hyperion Book CH, 2009)
The portrait of a freed slave whose physical and spiritual strength made her one of America's most powerful abolitionist voices
Faith Ringgold (Dragonfly Books, 1996)
The artist's signature quilt paintings chart a Depression-era girl’s imaginative foray above the streets of New York City.
A Weed is a Flower: The Life of George Washington Carver
Aliki (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1988)
An introduction to George Washington Carver, a scientist who was born a slave
Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky
Faith Ringgold (Dragonfly Books, 1995)
With Harriet Tubman as her guide, young Cassie retraces the steps that escaping slaves took on the Underground Railroad.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa
Andrea Davis Pinkney (Hyperion Books for Children, 2007)
The story of a remarkable musician as told by Scat Cat Monroe, a feline fan
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins
Carole Boston Weatherford (Puffin, Reprint edition, 2007)
When Connie sees four young men take a stand for equal rights at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, she realizes that things may soon change in the South.
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
Kadir Nelson (Balzar + Bray, 2011)
A tale of discrimination and broken promises, determination and triumphs
Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told
Walter Dean Myers (Amistad, 2008)
An illustrated profile of a pioneering voice against lynching
I Have a Dream
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Schwartz & Wade, 2012)
Paintings by Kadir Nelson accompany King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin
Jen Bryant (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013)
After an injury in World War I, Pippin learned to draw again and became a famous painter whose works were displayed across the country.
STAT: Standing Tall and Talented
Amar’e Stoudemire (Scholastic Press, 2012)
A heartfelt story based on the famous basketball player’s boyhood
What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld (Candlewick, 2012)
The lives of black inventors and innovators are explored through the eyes of fictional twins.
Bud, Not Buddy
Christopher Paul Curtis (Laurel Leaf, 2004)
It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. When 10-year-old Bud decides to hit the road to find his father, nothing can stop him.
Eliza’s Freedom Road: An Underground Railroad Dairy
Jerdine Nolen (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2011)
As she escapes slavery in Maryland for Canada, 12-year-old Eliza recites the stories her mother taught her.
Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America
Andrea Davis Pinkney (Hyperion Book for Children, 2012)
Lyrical narratives about 10 influential men from different eras in American history
Ida B. Wells, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement
Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin (Clarion Books, 2000)
Civil rights leader Ida B. Wells is brought to life in this accessible and well-researched biography.
One Crazy Summer
Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad; Reprint edition, 2011)
Eleven-year-old Delphine has only a few memories of her mother, Cecile, who abandoned the family in Brooklyn. Then, in the summer of 1968, Delphine and her sisters visit Cecile in Oakland.
Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman?
Patricia C. McKissack (Scholastic Paperbacks, 1994)
The portrait of a pivotal yet appalling era in American history, centering on the life of a remarkable woman born into slavery in 1797 in New York.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
Christopher Paul Curtis (Laurel Leaf, 2000)
A boisterous family journeys from Flint, Michigan, straight into one of the most chilling moments in American history: the burning of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church with four little girls inside.
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Kadir Nelson (Hyperion Book CH, 2008)
A lost piece of American history comes to life in Kadir Nelson's eloquent story of the Negro leagues and their gifted baseball players.
Black Women in White America: A Documentary History
Gerda Lerner (Vintage, 1992)
From the first women who fought slavery to the great Fannie Lou Hamer, this book profiles some of America’s most extraordinary freedom fighters.
Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic Press, 1997)
This songlike poem relates the story of a people who settle in New York City hoping to improve their lots in life, only to discover that racism can still keep them from achieving success.
Harriet Tubman, The Road to Freedom
Catherine Clinton (Back Bay Books, 2005)
The famous conductor of the Underground Railroad is revealed as a singular and complex character.
Not Without Laughter
Langston Hughes (Dover Publications, 2008)
This 1930s coming-of-age tale, the only novel by the great poet, unfolds in rural Kansas in a racially divided society.
Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900
Edited by Jacqueline Jones Royster (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997)
This volume collects three pamphlets that constitute Wells’s major works during the anti-lynching movement: Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases; A Red Record; and Mob Rule in New Orleans.
A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.
Edited by James M. Washington (HarperOne; Reprint edition, 1990)
King is shown in his roles as philosopher, theologian, orator, essayist, and author.
Up From Slavery
Booker T. Washington (Dover Publications, 1995)
This 1901 narrative details Washington’s slow and steady rise in the years after the Civil War.
The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom
Marcus Rediker (Viking Adult, 2012)
The author reclaims the famous slave rebellion for the African rebels who risked death to stake a claim for freedom.
By Any Means Necessary: Malcolm X Speeches and Writing
(Pathfinder Press, 1992)
In 11 speeches and interviews, Malcolm X presents a revolutionary alternative to injustice.
The Color Purple
Alice Walker (Mariner Books, 2003)
This moving story, set in rural Georgia, tells of a 14-year-old girl’s shame and suffering after her father rapes and beats her.
Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family
Condoleezza Rice (Three Rivers Press, 2011)
The former Secretary of State recalls her childhood in the segregated South and how she overcame prejudice with the help of her exceptional parents and an extended family and community.
Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965
Juan Williams (Penguin Books; Reprint edition, 1988)
The events of the 1950s and ’60s are brought to life with photographs and vivid text, including first-person accounts. Written in conjunction with the PBS TV series of the same name.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006)
One of the most important works of 20th-century American literature, Hurston's 1937 classic is a Southern love story told with wit and wisdom.
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
(Dover Publications, 2003)
Douglass, who was born into slavery in 1818, recounts his escape and how he later risked his own freedom to become an antislavery advocate, orator, writer and publisher.
The Souls of Black Folk
W. E. B. DuBois (Dover Publications, 1994)
First published in 1903, this classic work remains a crucial document in African American literary history.
The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History: 1939-1949
Joseph Caver, Jerome Ennels, and Daniel Haulman (NewSouth Books, 2011)
Here, in pictures and words, is the full story of the Tuskegee Airmen and the world in which they lived, worked, played, fought and sometimes died.
When I Was a Slave: Memoirs From the Slave Narrative Collection
Edited by Norman R. Yetman (Dover Publications, 2002)
More than 2,000 interviews with former slaves provide often-startling first-person accounts of their lives in bondage.
The New York Times: The Complete Civil War
Edited by Harold Holzer (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2010)
This book collects every article that the Times published about the war from 1861 to 1865.
Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Barack Obama (Crown, Reprint edition, 2007)
A probing memoir by the man who would become America’s first black President
Ralph Ellison (Vintage, 1995)
First published in 1952, this award-winning novel tells the story of a disaffected young black man who makes his way from the segregated South to an often-violent Harlem.
Veronica Chambers (Riverhead Trade, 1997)
A story of perseverance and achievement, this book is Chamber's moving self-examination as an African American woman.
Notes of a Native Son
James Baldwin (Beacon Press, 2012)
Written during the 1940s and early ’50s, these essays capture a view of black life and thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Richard Wright (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008)
The shocking tale of a young African American man living in a black neighborhood of Chicago
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63
Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, 1989)
This volume, the first of two, offers an unsurpassed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to greatness.
Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison (Vintage; Reprint edition, 2004)
A powerful, poetic exploration of four generations of a family mistakenly named Dead
The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
Jeanne Theoharis (Beacon Press, 2013)
Published 100 years after the activist's birth, this account of Parks's life fleshes out her sometimes-surprising role in the fight for civil rights.
Manchild in the Promised Land
Claude Brown (Touchstone, Reprint edition, 2011)
The definitive account of everyday life for the first generation of African Americans raised in the Northern ghettos of the 1940s and ’50s
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Road That Sparked the Civil War
Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt and Co., 2010)
The story of one of America's most troubling figures
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
Isabel Wilkerson (Vintage, Reprint edition, 2011)
An account, as the author says, of "the biggest underreported story of the 20th century"