Celebrate Black History Month with These Recommendations from CUES Staff

black history month books
Theresa Witham Photo
VP/Publications & Publisher

6 minutes

This is what we are reading and watching this month.

It should not surprise you that I love reading. An editor who loves to read? Hardly a shock, right?

As I shared in the February issue of CU Management, I read a lot and each year I set a different reading goal. This goal isn’t about the numbers but the quality of my reading. I am constantly trying to improve the number of truly great books I read each year. To do that, I keep a detailed spreadsheet that tracks several attributes of each book I read, including author demographics. In 2022, I read 122 books, with about 30% by authors of color. My goal this year is to increase that percentage. And to help achieve this goal, I am planning to let the month guide my reading.

To celebrate Black History Month, I have a few books selected across genres (including a romance, a classic, a mystery/thriller and a book of poetry), all by Black authors.

But I’m always looking for more to add to my shelf. So we asked the CUES staff for their recommendations for books, movies and more to consume during Black History Month.

Books and Movies About Black History

Dawn Abely, SVP/chief sales and member relations officer, recommends Hidden Figures, which is a book and a movie about the true story of the Black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America's greatest achievements in space.

Tony Hill, SVP/chief marketing officer, recommends Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. From the book’s description: “First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of American literature. For not only does Ralph Ellison's nightmare journey across the racial divide tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.”

Hill also likes the writing of the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates (see more, below). In addition to his award-winning book of essays, Coates has also penned several Marvel comic books, including Black Panther and Captain America. And his first novel, The Water Dancer, is a beautifully told story of an enslaved man. From the book jacket: “Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage–and lost his mother and all memory of her when he was a child–but he is also gifted with a mysterious power. Hiram almost drowns when he crashes a carriage into a river, but is saved from the depths by a force he doesn’t understand, a blue light that lifts him up and lands him a mile away. This strange brush with death forces a new urgency on Hiram’s private rebellion.”

Lisa Hochgraf, senior editor, recommends two great films starring Denzel Washington:

Remember the Titans, about an African-American football coach and his newly integrated high school team, and The Great Debaters, based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a college professor in 1935 Texas who encourages students to form a debate team that goes on to challenge Harvard at the national level.

Hochgraf also recommends The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Silverstein. From the book’s description: “This is a book that speaks directly to our current moment, contextualizing the systems of race and caste within which we operate today. It reveals long-glossed-over truths around our nation’s founding and construction—and the way that the legacy of slavery did not end with emancipation, but continues to shape contemporary American life.” A documentary version is also available on Hulu.

Sara Dyer, director of executive education and meetings, recommends the Milton House Museum, an Underground Railroad station in Wisconsin.

Her children recently saw a stage production of A Raisin in the Sun and recommend it. Just before the play opened on Broadway in 1959, author James Baldwin wrote "Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, has so much of the truth of Black people's lives been seen on the stage." Watch the 2008 TV version on Amazon.

Last year, I read several historical fiction or classic novels by and about African-Americans:

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, the personal librarian to J.P. Morgan in the early 20th century. Her secret: She is Black passing as white. I love historical fiction and enjoyed learning the story of this remarkable woman.

On the subject of passing, the short classic Passing by Nella Larson is a tense page-turner. Clare and Irene are childhood friends who find each other again in adulthood but their friendship is complicated by the fact that Clare is passing as white. There is also a great adaptation on Netflix.

The CUES staff book club read What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris late last year. This coming-of-age story stars KB, a black girl whose life is upended one summer when she and her sister are sent to live with the grandfather they didn't know they had. At times sweet and sad, it's a book that I wanted to hug when I finished.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride takes place in late 1960s Brooklyn. It's part thriller, part mystery, and part love story, starring an old church deacon called Sportcoat, who shocks his friends and neighbors when he shoots the local drug dealer in front of a crowd. I adored Sportcoat and the other cast of characters in this heartwarming and compassionate book.

Books and Resources to Combat Racism

Kari Sweeney, VP/supplier solutions, suggests Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World by Layla F. Saad and her podcast Become a Good Ancestor. Kirkus Review describes the book as “a bracing, highly useful tool for any discussion of combating racism.”

Hill also recommends the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. From the book jacket:In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation's history and current crisis.”

In addition, Hochgraf suggests reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

I loved You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacy: Crazy Stories about Racism by sisters Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar.  This book made me laugh out loud, gasp out loud and shake my head the entire time. From the jacket: “Painfully relatable or shockingly eye-opening (depending on how often you have personally been followed by security at department stores), this book tackles modern-day racism with the perfect balance of levity and gravity.”

I hope we’ve helped you fill up your to-be-read or watch lists. What would you add to this list?

Theresa Witham is VP/publications and publisher at CUES.

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