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Celebrating art, allyship, and authors for Black History Month

February 3, 2022 - 20 min read

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There’s something special about reading a book. Books don't care about your gender, economic background, or race, and there's no better way to try out walking in another person’s shoes for a while. 

Reading stimulates our emotions — but it also helps to challenge our perspectives. I believe that’s why they’re so much fun to discuss. When we read books from other cultures, we can’t help but grow. It’s true whether those books are fiction, memoir, analysis, or anything in between.

Celebrating Black authors is a fitting way to kick off both Black History Month and BetterUp’s first annual Inner Work® Day. After all, if we’ve learned anything from the social justice movements of the last couple of years, it’s that doing the work to be more informed is critical. Each of us has a platform, and a responsibility to those who are listening. Reading work by Black authors helps us to amplify their voices — but it also helps us strengthen our own.

These works of literary art celebrate and explore the lived experience of people from the Black community today — with hopeful and helpful insights for all of us. Laugh at your awkward stage with Issa Rae, take your activism farther with Ibram X Kendhi, embrace your authentic self with Elaine Welteroth, and grow your perspective between all of these pages.

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1. Inner Work of Racial Justice by Rhonda Magee

Talking about race isn’t easy. In this book, Magee shares how people can move past their triggers to begin unpacking their feelings about race. It combines research, mindfulness, and a compelling voice to help us each move through our own inner journeys.

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2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In an intimate conversation between father and son, this book explores an awakening of truth through various experiences — from Howard University to Civil War battlefields to the South Side of Chicago. As a Black man, Coates brings a conversation about the reckoning of America’s history to light — and exposes an illuminating past on Black history in America. 

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3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Thurston

Ask the legendary Black authors of the 21st century what the most compelling book they’ve ever read is, and odds are good that this one will make the list. Out of print and nearly forgotten for almost 30 years, Their Eyes Were Watching God made history in the 1930s with its Black female protagonist. It — and its author — have a permanent place in classic American literature.

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4. Professional Troublemaker by Luvvie Ajai Jones

A New York Times bestselling author, Jones writes a witty, funny, and transformation book about confronting fear. Professional Troublemaker challenges us to be different, be too much, leave behind the known for the unknown, and meaningfully change our lives. Of course, it comes with healthy doses of humor, wit, and boldness along the way.

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5. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah 

Hilarious and heartwrenching, Noah tells the story of growing up under apartheid in South Africa in his memoir, Born a Crime. With characteristic intelligence and wit, the book is one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever read. The narrative is done so well that you’ll have a hard time believing it’s a work of non-fiction. 

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6. So you want to talk about race? by Ijeoma Oluo

An exploration of today’s complex racial landscape, So You Want to Talk About Race? tackles the conversation around some of America’s most injust and challenging issues head-on. Oluo talks about privilege, police brutality, intersectionality, micro-aggressions, and the Black Lives Matter movement — all in the hopes of dismantling the racial divide. 

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7. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson 

A memoir with the narrative strength of a novel, Just Mercy is the story of one of Stevenson’s first cases, walking us through the defense of a Black man accused of murder in the South. Stevenson is often called the real-life, modern-day Atticus Finch for his work to right the missteps in the American justice system.  

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8. Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman 

Oh, Amanda Gorman. How you’ve captivated us. You might recognize Gorman from her stunning and unforgettable reading at the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden. In this debut collection of poems, Gorman’s lyrical artistry takes us through healing, identity, grief, and hope.

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9. The Awkward Black Man by Walter Mosley

A collection of short stories featuring odd people, Mosley’s book is a breath of fresh air shaking up the tired stereotypes of Black men. His characters are eccentric, vulnerable, awkward — and unforgettable. He paints their struggles with exceptional skill, wrapping realistic people in narrative tension and satisfying conclusions.

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10. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This emotional and breathtaking novel takes us back three hundred years to 18th-century Ghana. A story of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, Homegoing follows ancestral descendants through warfare, heartbreak, and slavery — all the way to 20th-century Harlem.

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11. The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir by André Leon Talley

The Devil Wears Prada exposed the vicious underbelly of the fashion industry — but, as they say, real life is often more incredible than fiction. Talley’s memoir shows his rise to become “the most influential man in fashion,” despite “racism, illicit rumors, and all the other challenges of this notoriously cutthroat industry.”

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12. More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) by Elaine Welteroth 

Both a memoir and a manifesto, Welteroth shares her experiences working in fashion and media — often, as the only Black woman in the room. Her book is hailed as Becoming for millennials (even though, as a millennial, I think Becoming is Becoming for millennials). Nevertheless, the comparison to Michelle Obama is an apt one. Welteroth shows wit and grace as she highlights what has — and hasn’t — changed in a changing world, and that we are more than enough no matter what anyone says. 

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13. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is an iconic title from master of prose and Pulitzer Prize winner, Toni Morrison. Morrison’s books are truly unforgettable, in the sense that the characters — and her words — stay with you. Beloved is at once a ghost story, a poem, and “an unflinchingly look into the abyss of slavery.” 

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14. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah Jones

Slavery in the United States of America predates the birth of the nation. In 1619, a cargo ship brought slaves to the British colony of Virginia. Although slavery as a formal institution was abolished, the practice impacted the soul of American life — and its effects are still there. This book is a combination of fiction, poetry, and eighteen insightful essays that examine the “inheritance of 1619.”

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15. How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi 

What is an “antiracist?” In Kendi’s book, he takes us through the concept of antiracism, switching alternately and seamlessly between the lenses of history, science, ethics, and law. As people awaken to the realities of social injustice and explore what it means to be an ally, How to be an Antiracist has emerged as a thoughtful, practical, and “electrifying” guide.

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16. The Vanishing Half  by Brit Bennett

A riveting intergenerational tale, The Vanishing Half tells the story of twin sisters living separate lives in the racially-charged South. This narrative boldly takes on the controversial history of colorism and “passing” in the United States, and has as much to say about family and identity as it does about race.

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17. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Awkward, charming, and unapologetic, the creator of the hit show Insecure shares stories, observations, and anecdotes about growing up as a Black introvert. Her introverted nature is her superpower as she shares insights with “fly on the wall” accuracy and candor. 

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18. Feeding the Soul: Finding Our Way to Joy, Love, and Freedom by Tabitha Brown 

This book is chicken soup for the soul — minus the chicken. Brown guides the reader through her journey to recover and thrive through an autoimmune disorder that caused her immense pain. Feeding the Soul is a masterclass on how to live a healthy life by listening to the only one who can tell you what you need — you.

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19. Unprotected: A Memoir by Billy Porter

Billy Porter is a legend, helping to shape a world that welcomes and inspires individuality. But in 1970s Pittsburgh, there was no Billy Porter to look up to. In this memoir, Porter shares what it was like to grow up Black and gay in a conservative town. His story is captivating, heartbreaking, and inspiring — every ounce as engaging as the man who wrote it.

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20. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

Much has been said about the importance of understanding implicit bias — but how do you address something that’s invisible by nature? In this book, Dr. Eberhardt explores how implicit bias pervades our thoughts, schools, society, and culture. Both personal and scientific, Biased is a primer on how to understand and break the grip of unconscious bias.

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21. Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

The United States has never had a formal caste system — but it exists nevertheless. The interplay of power, race, bloodline, and money control every aspect of life from behind the scenes. Wilkerson examines American life under a shrewd lens, linking it to the caste systems of Nazi Germany and India. It’s as much an eye-opener as it is a call to action for American citizens.

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22. You Are Your Best Thing by Tarana Burke

Born out of Burke’s experience and the research of best-selling author Brene Brown, You Are Your Best Thing shines a new light on shame and vulnerability. The work acknowledges that vulnerability is a privilege that not everyone can afford. Tarana Burke, founder of the #metoo movement, shines even as she turns the spotlight to numerous brilliant and brutally honest voices.

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23. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

At once a conversation about color, violence, and belonging, Who Fears Death is a fantasy novel set in post-apocalyptic Africa. Known for an unforgettable main character and soon to be a series by George R.R. Martin, this book combines magical realism with a story that is powerfully human.

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24. The Yellow House - A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom

Living on the outskirts of one of the most famous cities in the world, this memoir is a mural spanning over a hundred years of the author’s family history. Meant to be a sign of optimism and shelter from poverty, the yellow house becomes both battleground and antagonist for Broom’s mother. It’s a “brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows.”

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Published February 3, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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