Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All , Coverage

All Biography Coverage

When then-California Senator Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for vice president of the United States, she spoke of a long history of inspiring women, including the impoverished Mississippi sharecropper-turned-human rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. “We’re not often taught their stories, but as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders,” Harris said. Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America ensures that Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

The granddaughter of enslaved people and the youngest of 20 children growing up on a plantation in the Jim Crow South, Hamer’s formal education ended in the sixth grade. Her parents needed her to pick cotton in order to put food on the table. In 1962, at age 44, Hamer attended a meeting organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and learned for the first time that she had a constitutional right to vote.

After attempting to exercise that right got her thrown off the plantation, Hamer began organizing voter education workshops and registration drives. Her family became targets of violence, her husband and daughter were arrested and jailed, and their home was invaded. Eventually her work with SNCC activists almost cost Hamer her life: Jailed after a voter workshop in Winona, Mississippi, she took a beating that left her with kidney damage and a blood clot in one eye.

Undeterred, Hamer went on to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegates at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, arguing that the delegation couldn’t represent the state when Black Democrats had been excluded from the selection process. President Lyndon Johnson held an impromptu press conference to prevent television coverage of her graphic testimony, in which she detailed her beating, but it aired anyway and sparked outrage. Eventually the credentials committee offered the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which included white and Black people, two at-large seats with no voting power. Hamer’s response: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.” Four years later, she would become a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

With SNCC, Hamer helped organize the legendary Freedom Summer in 1964 and later launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative to tackle rural poverty. She fought for inclusion in the women’s movement, and until her death in 1977, she remained strident about the global need to liberate all marginalized groups seeking political and economic justice. As readers take in Hamer’s life story throughout this rallying cry of a book, they will find that her message still resounds today: “You are not free whether you are white or black, until I am free.”

Historian Keisha N. Blain’s extensively researched chronicle ensures that Fannie Lou Hamer’s story—and her lessons for activists—will live on.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called Constance Baker Motley “one of my favorite people,” and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited Motley with showing her and others of her generation “that law and courts could become positive forces in achieving our nation’s highest aspiration.” However, far too few Americans know Motley’s name or her legacy, and that dearth of recognition struck Harvard professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin as “a kind of historical malpractice.” She hopes to right this wrong with her meticulously researched, fascinating biography, Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality.

The fact that Motley became such a civil rights legend is ironic, given that her father said he “couldn’t stand American blacks.” Her mother, meanwhile, advised Motley to become a hairdresser. Regal, stately and tall, Motley was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1921 to parents who had emigrated from the Caribbean island of Nevis. Despite her family’s poverty, she was raised to think of herself as “superior to others—to African Americans in particular.” Nonetheless, living in the shadow of Yale University, she received an excellent education and developed an intense interest in racial inequality. In the end, Motley spent her life trying to improve “the lives of the very people [her father] had spent a lifetime castigating.”

Motley’s trailblazing career included work as a lawyer, politician and federal judge, and at every stage of her incredible journey, readers will feel as though they have a backstage pass. Brown-Nagin excels at packing in intriguing minute details while still making them easily understood, as well as at contextualizing each scene historically. Thurgood Marshall became Motley’s mentor on the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and she played a crucial role in litigating Brown v. Board of Education. The sweep of history Motley inhabited is full of many such significant moments: visiting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in jail in Georgia; serving as James Meredith’s lawyer as he fought for admission to the University of Mississippi; having a heated televised debate with Malcolm X and more. She was the first Black woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing 10 cases and winning nine of them. Later, she was the first Black woman to become a New York state senator, as well as the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary.

While Motley’s storied career is precisely explored, readers may still feel at arm’s length from the woman herself. This may be due to the fact that Motley was a notably reserved woman, although by all accounts warm and engaging. As Brown-Nagin explains, Motley cultivated an “unperturbable demeanor out of the often unfriendly, if not downright hostile, environments she encountered as a result of being a first. Through these qualities, she protected herself; only a select few could peek behind her mask.”

Motley spent years paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and later as a judge, she helped implement it in a variety of areas. Civil Rights Queen is the unforgettable story of a legal pioneer who changed the course of history, superbly elucidated by Brown-Nagin.

Harvard professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin finally gives Constance Baker Motley, a legal pioneer who steered the civil rights movement, the recognition she deserves.

Regardless of where you fall on slapstick humor (pun intended), to watch Buster Keaton on film is to witness magic. The genius behind silent-era masterpieces such as The General and Sherlock Jr. is invincible on screen; no matter what life throws at him, he keeps getting up. It’s almost like he’s from another planet—one without gravity, permanent injury or the despair that plagues life on this mortal coil.

Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Keaton’s finesse for falling was won through family dysfunction and physical abuse. But in Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century, film critic and Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” host Dana Stevens decenters Keaton’s hardship, using his life as a frame to explore the advent of film and its effect on visual culture today.

Keaton was born into a vaudeville family in 1895, the same year film projection technology debuted. He was performing by age 3, honing his comedic genius in a school of literal hard knocks. Buster’s father threw the boy “acrobatically” around the stage, using him as a mop, among other things. The on-stage domestic abuse Keaton endured from his sometimes-sober father was the stuff of legend, drawing both large audiences and investigation from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Though its historical wanderings read as windingly as one of Keaton’s famous chase scenes, Camera Man redeems details from Keaton’s life that previous biographers have misread or glossed over. For example, Buster’s time in the Cirque Medrano has often been cited as a hard-times clown gig rather than what it was: an invitation from European circus royalty to be the honored guest performer at a permanent, well-respected circus frequented by Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso.

Like the handsome, stone-faced performer himself, Camera Man has wide appeal. General readers, history buffs and deep-cut Keaton historians alike will laugh, cry and marvel at both the world of Buster Keaton and the effect he had on cinema.

Like the handsome, stone-faced performer himself, this new biography of Buster Keaton has wide appeal.

In many respects, Lorraine Hansberry could be called a one-hit wonder. But that hit, A Raisin in the Sun, is an iconic masterwork that continues to speak to audiences more than 60 years after its premiere. Hansberry was only 29 when she seemingly came out of nowhere to become the first Black female playwright produced on Broadway. Six years later, she died tragically young, precluding further literary greatness. Charles J. Shields, best known as a biographer of Harper Lee, delves into the short yet significant life of this great writer in Lorraine Hansberry, an evenhanded and informative study that reveals truths about a woman whose complexities were largely erased from the public portrait she and her heirs fashioned.

Shields has not written a glitzy showbiz biography that takes readers behind the scenes of the theater world. In fact, the triumph of A Raisin in the Sun only takes up a couple of chapters near the end of the book, and Hansberry and the team that mounted the show—including her cheerleader husband, Bob Nemiroff—were Broadway outsiders. Instead, the story Shields tells is of a smart, reserved and gifted young woman from the Black upper class who applied her intelligence, and sometimes anger, to a quest for her authentic personal identity in midcentury America.

Hers was a life of confounding contradictions. The Hansberry family wealth was amassed by Lorraine’s father, a Chicago real estate tycoon who fought racial covenants all the way up to the Supreme Court yet was himself a slumlord who preyed on Black tenants. His daughter’s rebellion manifested in part through her embrace of communist ideals (which triggered FBI surveillance), yet she did not refuse the monthly profit checks she received from the family business. Married to a Jewish man, Hansberry eventually came to terms with her lesbianism but stayed married. While she was at the center of the Black cultural dialogue in her time—counting Paul Robeson, James Baldwin and Alice Childress among her friends and influences—she maintained that her most famous play at its heart was about class rather than race.

To paint the full landscape of the time and place that Hansberry inhabited, Shields often detours from the writer’s immediate story to place the many supporting players in context. These side trips are generally informative, although some seem extraneous and interrupt the flow of the main narrative. Shields raises interesting questions about others’ contributions to Hansberry’s work—particularly those of original A Raisin in the Sun director Lloyd Richards, and of Hansberry’s husband, who worked doggedly to shape her posthumous image and keep her literary legacy alive—but the answers remain largely unexplored. Overall, this equitable portrait of Hansberry is thoughtful and deftly rendered, a welcome corrective for the carefully curated and sanitized version that has long constituted fans’ received wisdom.

An admiring portrait of the great American playwright Lorraine Hansberry lays bare both her greatness and her complications.

“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third,” T.S. Eliot said. James Joyce called Dante Alighieri “my spiritual food,” and Russian poet Anna Akhmatova learned Italian just to read him. The influence of Dante and his Divine Comedy permeates Western history and, clearly, the consciousness of even the most modern writers. And yet the 700th anniversary of his death in September 2021 went largely unmarked, at least in the United States. Just a few months tardy, Alessandro Barbero’s Dante: A Life arrives on these shores, translated from the Italian by Allan Cameron. Surprisingly, this is the first book by Barbero, a highly regarded historian and novelist in his native country, to be published in America.

Seven hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, a new biography parses the elusive life of one of civilization’s greatest poets.

Many of the details of Dante’s life, even the date of his birth, are lost to time, but Barbero is an indefatigable detective when it comes to piecing together a narrative from the historical record. His mission is not merely to sketch the possibilities of Dante’s private life but, perhaps even more so, to place Dante within the context of his times. The turn of the 14th century was a turbulent age on the Italian peninsula, and Dante was a native son of Florence, that most powerful city-state. Though likely of humble origins, the Alighieri clan had high aspirations, and Dante ambitiously immersed himself in the politics of the day. He aligned himself with the Guelphs, who supported the Pope, against the emperor-supporting Ghibellines. This divisiveness further fractured as the Guelphs themselves split into warring factions, which eventually led to Dante being banished from his beloved city. He lost his land, social status and wife and spent the last 20 years of his life in exile.

Dante’s literary legend has long been tied to his muse, Beatrice—a young woman whom he only encountered on two occasions, nine years apart. Again, Barbero plumbs the historical record to flesh out Beatrice’s story and discern how her veritable non-relationship with Dante nonetheless inspired some of the world’s great love poetry. In what might be viewed as an early form of metafiction, Dante made himself a character in the Divine Comedy, and so Barbero seeks clues to his familial and political relationships from within the pages of the epic poem, as well.

Still, given the gaps in the record, Barbero’s Dante is less biography or literary study than medieval history as seen through the foggy lens of one seminal man’s life. It raises the inevitable question that always surrounds genius: From where did this ordinary man spring, only to go on to create one of humanity’s masterpieces? Despite his erudition, Barbero is no better equipped to answer that question than his predecessors, but his well-timed work reminds us of Dante’s greatness and, perhaps, will send us back to the original source material to puzzle out the answer for ourselves.

Seven hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, a new biography parses the elusive life of one of civilization’s greatest poets.

Johnny Cash is remembered for his familiar greeting (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), his booming bass-baritone voice and his signature chugging guitar lines. Many of his songs delve into his experiences with addiction, such as “I Walk the Line,” and his tempestuous love affairs, such as “Jackson”—but many of his most famous songs also demonstrate Cash’s close attention to poverty and marginalization, like “Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Michael Stewart Foley’s Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash offers a broader glimpse of this aspect of Cash’s music.

Drawing on untapped archives, Foley explores Cash’s life and music, illustrating how Cash’s impoverished childhood in rural Arkansas, where he witnessed brutal acts of racism and injustice, led to what Foley calls a “politics of empathy.” Foley writes that Cash “came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to issues.” Foley traces the development of Cash’s politics over the course of his musical career, from Cash’s Sun Records days to his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin in the early 2000s. Foley also closely focuses on “The Johnny Cash Show,” and especially the closing segment of the show called “Ride This Train,” to illustrate the ways that Cash invited guest musicians such as Odetta and Stevie Wonder onto the show to break down racial barriers and confront American society’s tendency to divide rather than unite. Foley points out that Cash’s “empathy was not so much rooted in solidarity as it was based on witnessing: documenting sorrows and struggles, making it possible for . . . the subjugated, the exploited, the marginalized to be seen.”

Citizen Cash usefully combines biographical detail and cultural analysis with music history to provide an in-depth portrait of the ways Cash acquired his political and social ideas and wove them into the fabric of his music.

With unique depth, Citizen Cash combines biography, cultural analysis and music history to examine Johnny Cash’s political and social ideas.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

In the town of Palermo Heights, the cheerleading squad is the high school’s most successful team. Cheer captain Hermione Winters is determined to fill her senior year with more victories. She’s hard at work at preseason training camp when the unthinkable happens: She wakes up in a hospital to learn that she was drugged and raped, and soon finds out she was also impregnated. With her memory blank and the evidence compromised, there is little hope of finding Hermione’s attacker.

Things aren’t at all simple in Wolf Hollow, and that’s the great strength of Lauren Wolk’s first novel for middle school readers. Wolk has created a fascinating world in the mountains of Pennsylvania in 1943, where heroine Annabelle announces in the opening line, “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

Author Interviews

Recent Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!