One of the best ways to celebrate Black History Month is to learn about the some of the community’s largest cultural figures and contributors, and their lives. Below is a short list of autobiographies that are not only captivating reads, but are also perfect for the occasion of honoring and celebrating some of the greatest American thinkers, artists, and political actors.
5. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)
“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
Written by former slave Frederick Douglass, this autobiography serves as both an unapologetic call for abolition and indictment of the institution of slavery, as well as a personal, poignant story that details his experience both in captivity and beyond it. It is generally considered the most popular slave narrative and not without reason — the autobiography was incredibly influential to the abolition movement within the United States. Douglass’ mastery of prose allows him to tell a beautiful, but heart wrenching, story about the brutality of slavery and one man’s fortitude on his journal to physical, emotional, and mental emancipation. Stories like Douglass’ are important to read because the struggles of those who endured slavery should not be forgotten.
4. Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston (1942)
“You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you”
Written by one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, author Zora Neale Hurston — the mind behind classics like Their Eyes Were Watching God and How it Feels to be Colored Me — this autobiography is an engaging chronicle of Hurston’s life and career. This is a fascinating look inside the mind of a controversial but brilliant artist!
3. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur (1988)
“The world, in spite of oppression, is a beautiful place. I would say “Om” softly to myself, letting my lips vibrate. I felt the birds, the sun, and the trees.”
This political autobiography, written by former member of the Black Panther Party Assata Shakur, details one woman’s struggles with racism and incarceration that encouraged and complicated her life of activism within the United States. The narrative is a revolutionary and timeless tale about resistance, strength, and the desire for freedom no matter the cost. I was familiar with Shakur’s story prior to reading her autobiography, but it was all the more powerful to understand her life through her own words.
2. Growing Up X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kim McLarin (2002)
“He is my hero and my mother is my heroine. I wouldn’t change that for anything. Because of them, I know true love. I am a product of love.”
Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of American minister and civil rights leader Malcolm X, writes about her childhood and growing up in the shadow of her father’s legacy. Shabazz details intimate memories of both her father and mother and explores her struggle to understand and appreciate the ways in which legacy, memory, and identity are interconnected. This memoir ultimately serves as a heart-warming love letter to both her parents, as well as a tribute to their lifelong commitment to dutiful parenting and activism. I love this book because it’s perspective shows X through the eyes of someone dearest to him.
1. Coretta: My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King and Barbara Reynold (2017)
“I want people to know that I was committed to leaving an eternal flame, built on love that would never be extinguished.”
This novel tells the story of civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, and vividly paints her as a strong leader and political force. Chronicling her early life and marriage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as her struggle to continue their fight after his assassination, King’s autobiography gives a long overdue voice that speaks to both the pain and power of her resilient fight for civil rights. It is important to read stories like Correta’s to remember that, though often overlooked, women are also active leaders and champions for human rights.
Cover Photo: Newsweek