Eight Recommended Books by Women to Understand Black History

Award-winning historian Keisha N. Blain shares some of the most vital books to read during Black History Month.


Black History Month is the opportune moment to learn about the rich and dynamic history of Black people in the United States. At a moment when conservatives are leading a campaign to limit the teaching of Black history in classrooms, it is especially important to resist these efforts. 

One significant step to counter the nationwide bans of Black history is to commit to reading and promoting books that deepen our individual and collective knowledge. On the occasion of Black History Month, here is a list of recommended readings—all written by women—that shed light on the richness and complexity of the Black experience in the United States.  

A Black Women’s History of the United States

Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross (2020) 

Black women have long argued for their central role within the history of the United States, and this remarkable book by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross confirms this fact. Berry and Gross chart the dynamic history of Black women in the United States, highlighting their efforts to challenge racial and gender oppression while maintaining their commitment to a vision of freedom that encompasses all people. For those interested in Black women’s history, this book is an excellent place to start.

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday

Angela Y. Davis (1998)

This important book from Angela Davis argues for the inclusion of three leading Black women blues singers within the mainstream narrative of feminism within the United States. She demonstrates how the lives and performances of “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday challenged the social norms of the 20th century and laid an intellectual groundwork for Black feminists to follow. Her attention to the dynamics of race, gender, sexuality and class results in a deeply nuanced exploration of these women’s lives and artistic expressions. 

Free Joan Little: The Politics of Race, Sexual Violence and Imprisonment

Christina Greene (2022)

In 1974, Joan Little was charged with first-degree murder after she killed a white prison guard who was sexually assaulting her at the Beaufort County jail. The campaign to free Little was a pivotal moment in the development of Black feminist politics and in the women’s rights movement of the 1970s. By taking a closer look at Little’s life before, during and after her trial, Christina Greene offers a moving, compelling and in-depth study on the politics of race, sexual violence, criminal justice and the law.

Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century

Tera W. Hunter (2019)

In this meticulously researched and beautifully written book, Tera W. Hunter provides a comprehensive examination of Black marriage and kinship in the United States. Bound in Wedlock illuminates how Black women and men formed relationships and pushed back against systemic exploitation during the 19th century. The history uncovered by Hunter serves as a powerful reminder of the strong bonds within Black families as well as their resilience against oppression. 

Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class

Blair LM Kelley (2023)

Blair LM Kelley’s Black Folk skillfully tells the stories of Black workers in the United States over two centuries to document how their labor and political activism pushed the United States toward a more democratic society. The book offers a narrative that is both sweeping and personal in scope, especially as Kelley weaves in the experiences of her ancestors. It also challenges the popular conception of the working class as universally white and male.

The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers (2023)

In this groundbreaking work of historical recovery, Amrita Chakrabarti Myers illuminates the complexities of race, gender and politics in American history and public memory. Focusing on Julia Ann Chinn—the enslaved wife of Richard Mentor Johnson, the ninth vice president of the United States—the book interrogates the silences around this relationship. A deeply researched and elegantly written biography, The Vice President’s Black Wife investigates Chinn’s life at home and within her community to explore how she navigated the racial and social hierarchies of the 19th century. 

Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle

Shannen Dee Williams (2022)

Focusing on the religious and political expressions of Black Catholic nuns, Shannen Dee Williams’s book is a vital contribution that unearths a history that few Americans know. Packed with dazzling insights and new revelations, the book tells the stories of the courageous Black women who agitated for social justice and equality in the Catholic church and beyond. Subversive Habits captures the interconnections between race, religion and politics in American history. 

The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire Before Stonewall

Cookie Woolner (2023)

The Famous Lady Lovers examines Black women’s queer relationships in the urban North during the 1920s and 1930s. This important addition to LGBTQ+ history considers how queer Black women carefully fashioned their lives amidst the existing sexual politics of the era. Drawing insights from diverse primary sources, including historical newspapers, diaries and government records, Woolner demonstrates the significant role Black women played in building and maintaining queer networks in the decades before the Stonewall uprising.

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Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is professor of Africana studies and history at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy.