1. Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
This posthumously published book by one of the great American writers is framed as a conversation with the man known as the last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. Barracoon is heartbreaking and fascinating in equal measure, a superb addition to Hurston’s remarkable bibliography.
2. Becoming by Michelle Obama
Sure, the very nature of this enormously successful memoir is history-making — it’s the first-ever written by a black First Lady — but Becoming is bigger than that, casting a wider gaze. The book’s first third is dedicated to Obama’s upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, a portrait of a working-class family driven to see her succeed.
3. Black Is the Body by Emily Bernard
Bernard’s lyrical book details traumas and pain from decades past to interrogate the nuances of her own life: growing up black in the South, marrying a white man from the North, and surviving a violent attack which unleashed the storyteller in her.
4. Frederick Douglass by David W. Blight
The first Douglass biography in several decades may also be the definitive one. Among 2018’s most celebrated books in any genre, Frederick Douglass tells a thorough, compelling story over nearly 800 pages, offering a complicated and rousing portrait of one of the 19th century’s most important American voices.
Simon & Schuster
5. The New Negro by Jeffrey C. Stewart
This massive, National Book Award-winning biography brings to life Alain Locke, the founder of the Harlem Renaissance in astonishing detail, paying great homage to his intellectual brilliance and his creative spirit. It’s the kind of epic nonfiction which introduces you not just to one person, but the entire world around him — and how he changed it.
Oxford University Press
6. One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson
All of the books on this list have present-day implications, but perhaps none moreso than this charged dive into voter suppression from the Chair of African American Studies at Emory University. One Person, No Vote looks at this history of this anti-democratic tactic, particularly its racist roots.