The best biographies and memoirs to illuminate Black history

Historian Imani Perry (Looking for Lorraine) reaches new storytelling heights in the vibrant and compelling South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In this unique blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, the Birmingham, Alabama, native traverses the wilderness of Appalachia, the rolling hills of Virginia, the urban corridors of Atlanta and the swampy vistas of Louisiana to explore the idiosyncrasies of the South. The book’s three sections are organized geographically, beginning with “Origin Stories” about where the South and America began and then moving deeper into the country, from “The Solidified South” in the heart of the Southeast to the “Water People” of Florida, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

In striking prose, Perry testifies to the insidiousness of racism throughout the South and throughout history. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, she revisits the Wilmington race riot of 1898, in which an all-white group of Democrats overturned the town’s multiracial Republican government in a violent coup. Before the riot, “Wilmington was an integrated city in which Black people thrived,” Perry writes. “The deeds of the rioters in Wilmington were illegal. But they went unpunished because the de-facto law of the land had always been the respect of White grievance and the destruction of Black flourishing.” 

As she zooms in on the South to show its complexities in more vivid detail, Perry takes time to observe the South’s continued enactment of political and business policies that fortify segregation, poverty and racism. For example, Atlanta is often presented to the world as a shining example of racial equality and justice. It’s a city that is over 50% Black, “but the unbearable Whiteness of its being—by that I mean a very old social order grown up from plantation economies into global corporations—leaves most Black Americans vulnerable,” Perry writes.

Given that the South is still the region where the majority of Black Americans live, the question Perry asks herself is “not why did Black folks leave, but why did they stay?” The answer, she says, is that it’s home. “If everyone had departed, no one would have been left to tend the ancestors’ graves,” she writes. “Had these graves not been seen, daily, over generations, had we not been witnesses to them, I do not know how it would have been possible to sustain hope, or at least pretend to.”

South to America, in the words of the traditional spiritual, troubles the waters, calling readers to understand the complex history of race and racism in the South in order to better comprehend the true character of America.

In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Imani Perry zooms in on the South to show its iniquity and beauty in vivid detail.

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.

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.

Gayle Jessup White’s multilayered autobiography, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy, is divided into three parts. The first, most directly autobiographical part of Reclamation offers a fascinating look at Black life in a prosperous neighborhood in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and ’70s—a neighborhood that has since been washed away in a wave of gentrification. White describes growing up in this neighborhood as the baby of her family. Her reserved father and acquisitive mother did not get along, but they protected and pampered White so that she did not experience “what racism felt like” until she was 13.

Part two is the heart of the book, documenting White’s scrupulous search to prove her family’s claim that they are Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. White, who is now in her mid-60s, first heard that claim as a young teenager, from her much older sister. Her sister had heard it from Aunt Peachie, an elderly relative who died before White was born. Although she was fascinated almost to the point of obsession, White didn’t begin her genealogical search until much later.

The long process White went through to establish her lineage will be especially interesting to amateur genealogists. But it is also of great interest in general because of the subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles she faced as a Black person claiming to be a descendant of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In one chapter, White describes developing a relationship with a white Jefferson descendant, a poet and writer, only to end up feeling like her personal narrative had been appropriated and diminished by her would-be collaborator.

During her research, White developed a relationship with historians at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, which is the focus of the third part of the book. For a number of powerful reasons, White, who trained as a journalist and has worked as a TV reporter throughout the South, decided Monticello was where she wanted to work at the end of her career. Getting hired there required superhuman persistence, and after becoming Monticello’s first Community Engagement Officer, she was one of only a few Black employees and frequently faced criticism from her white co-workers. Overcoming the institution’s doubts about her, her work eventually transformed Monticello into a place committed to updating the ways it portrays the lives of people who were enslaved there.

As a Black person working to prove her family’s claim that they are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Gayle Jessup White faced plenty of obstacles.

When B.B. King died in May 2015, the world lost an artist whose distinctive style shaped several generations of musicians. King’s fluid guitar riffs and lead runs still define the blues for many fans. Eric Clapton called King “the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” but as journalist Daniel de Visé points out in his absorbing new biography, King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, King’s journey to such acclaim was never easy. Even King himself might have deferred to other blues artists, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, as more worthy of Clapton’s accolade.

Drawing on extensive interviews with almost every surviving member of King’s inner circle, including family, friends and band members, de Visé chronicles King’s life from his birth into a sharecropper family in Mississippi, to his parents’ split, to his early years being raised by his grandmother. King loved gospel music and sang in the choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church, but as much as he liked the Soul Stirrers and other gospel groups, he noticed they didn’t have a guitar, the instrument he most wanted to learn. One of his ministers taught King three chords on the guitar, and when he turned 16, King bought the fire-red Stella that would kick off his journey to becoming a master of the instrument. Recalling his exquisite joy at having a guitar in his hands, King said, “Never have been so excited. Couldn’t keep my hands off her. If I was feeling lonely, I’d pick up the guitar . . . happy, horny, mad, or sad, the guitar was right there, a righteous pacifier and comforting companion.”

Soon enough, King left Mississippi for Memphis and became an international star. As de Visé points out, though, King always looked over his shoulder at the poverty and scenes of racial injustice out of which he had grown, incorporating those deep feelings of loss into his music so that his listeners could feel his sorrow as he bent the blues through his guitar strings. King of the Blues is the first full and authoritative biography of King, and it accomplishes what all good music books should: It drives readers to revisit King’s music and savor it again.

King of the Blues is the first authoritative biography of B.B. King, and as all good music books should, it will drive readers to revisit King’s iconic music.

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