In no particular order, below you’ll find a short reading list in honor of Juneteenth 2023 (with thanks to the Smithsonian, whose researchers curated their own list that jump-started our thinking).
First up: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead has written a list of amazing books, each with their own gifts to give (with a new must-read book coming out this year). But this Pulitzer winning novel is the one that unfailingly changes lives.
Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America by W.E.B Du Bois. Brilliant sociologist, writer, and Black rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois has better known works. But, with his exhibition of data visualizations at the Paris Exposition of 1900, Du Bois conveyed elements of Black American culture and the struggle for justice in a way that was both visually stunning and undeniable. Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America transforms Du Bois’s 1900 exhibition into book form, which remains powerful, yet has its own entirely unique beauty.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson deservedly won the LA Times Book Award for Nonfiction Current Interest in 2021. (Wilkerson’s earlier book, The Warmth of Other Suns, won the Pulitzer.) Both books are powerful, and very much worth your time. But Caste is, as fellow Pulitzer winner Tracey Kidder wrote, “….a renewed way of understanding America’s longest, fiercest trouble.
in all its complexity.”
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta – Nehisi Coates. Ta-Nehisi Coates is inarguably one of our nation’s best living essayists. This collection, which was originally printed in The Atlantic Magazine between 2008 – 2016, chronicles his thoughts, insights, and observations during the Obama administration. Each essay is introduced with Coates’ post writing reflections. As a whole, the book is a perfect choice for anyone who wants their own thinking jump-started.
By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners by Margaret A. Burnham. This remarkably researched work by Margaret Burnham won this year’s LA Times Book Award for History. Burnham, who is a civil rights lawyer, a judge, and the founding Director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, spent years on the project. The result is devastating, illuminating, and feels absolutely necessary.
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by widely respected economist, lawyer, and social policy expert Heather McGhee is, as author George Saunders put it, “a vital, urgent, stirring, beautifully written book.” It is also full of hope.
And finally…African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, edited by Kevin Young. This incandescent volume contains the work of more than 240 poets, and covers African American poetry from 1770 through today. It was rightly described as historic and indispensable when it was first published in 2020. Three years later the fact still remains that if you love poetry, you need this book.
So, Happy Juneteenth. And happy reading!