Black History Month 2022 Reading List: Biographies

In celebration of Black History Month, we’ve chosen to publish a new reading list every week featuring only Black authors. The first reading list covered Black Resistance, the second covered the Black American experience and this week’s reading list centers biographies; telling the stories of a few vastly different lives lived under the Black identity umbrella. As mentioned in the previously, Black people are not a monolith. The books included in this list speak to that statement heavily referencing histories and memoirs ranging from Black creative expression and activism to sexuality and Black economics.

If you’re interested in purchasing any of these books, don’t forget to use code 01DAH40 at checkout to get 40% off; this discount code applies to any other UNC Press book as well.

This year we’re also celebrating our centennial; happy 100th year anniversary to us! Visit our centennial page to see the latest on all of our centennial content, events, blog posts and more.


TOWARD AN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF BLACK WOMEN

EDITED BY MIA E. BAY, FARAH J. GRIFFIN, MARTHA S. JONES, BARBARA D. SAVAGE

Despite recent advances in the study of black thought, black women intellectuals remain often neglected. This collection of essays by fifteen scholars of history and literature establishes black women’s places in intellectual history by engaging the work of writers, educators, activists, religious leaders, and social reformers in the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean. Dedicated to recovering the contributions of thinkers marginalized by both their race and their gender, these essays uncover the work of unconventional intellectuals, both formally educated and self-taught, and explore the broad community of ideas in which their work participated. The end result is a field-defining and innovative volume that addresses topics ranging from religion and slavery to the politicized and gendered reappraisal of the black female body in contemporary culture. 

Contributors are Mia E. Bay, Judith Byfield, Alexandra Cornelius, Thadious Davis, Corinne T. Field, Arlette Frund, Kaiama L. Glover, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, Natasha Lightfoot, Sherie Randolph, Barbara D. Savage, Jon Sensbach, Maboula Soumahoro, and Cheryl Wall.

FREE THE LAND: THE REPUBLIC OF NEW AFRIKA AND THE PURSUIT OF A BLACK NATION-STATE

BY EDWARD ONACI

On March 31, 1968, over 500 Black nationalists convened in Detroit to begin the process of securing independence from the United States. Many concluded that Black Americans’ best remaining hope for liberation was the creation of a sovereign nation-state, the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). New Afrikan citizens traced boundaries that encompassed a large portion of the South–including South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana–as part of their demand for reparation. As champions of these goals, they framed their struggle as one that would allow the descendants of enslaved people to choose freely whether they should be citizens of the United States. New Afrikans also argued for financial restitution for the enslavement and subsequent inhumane treatment of Black Americans. The struggle to “Free the Land” remains active to this day.

This book is the first to tell the full history of the RNA and the New Afrikan Independence Movement. Edward Onaci shows how New Afrikans remade their lifestyles and daily activities to create a self-consciously revolutionary culture, and argues that the RNA’s tactics and ideology were essential to the evolution of Black political struggles. Onaci expands the story of Black Power politics, shedding new light on the long-term legacies of mid-century Black Nationalism.

BLACK. QUEER. SOUTHERN. WOMEN.: AN ORAL HISTORY

BY E. PATRICK JOHNSON

Drawn from the life narratives of more than seventy African American queer women who were born, raised, and continue to reside in the American South, this book powerfully reveals the way these women experience and express racial, sexual, gender, and class identities–all linked by a place where such identities have generally placed them on the margins of society. Using methods of oral history and performance ethnography, E. Patrick Johnson’s work vividly enriches the historical record of racialized sexual minorities in the South and brings to light the realities of the region’s thriving black lesbian communities. 

At once transcendent and grounded in place and time, these narratives raise important questions about queer identity formation, community building, and power relations as they are negotiated within the context of southern history. Johnson uses individual stories to reveal the embedded political and cultural ideologies of the self but also of the listener and society as a whole. These breathtakingly rich life histories show afresh how black female sexuality is and always has been an integral part of the patchwork quilt that is southern culture.

I DON’T LIKE THE BLUES: RACE, PLACE, AND THE BACKBEAT OF BLACK LIFE

BY B. BRIAN FOSTER

How do you love and not like the same thing at the same time? This was the riddle that met Mississippi writer B. Brian Foster when he returned to his home state to learn about Black culture and found himself hearing about the blues. One moment, Black Mississippians would say they knew and appreciated the blues. The next, they would say they didn’t like it. For five years, Foster listened and asked: “How?” “Why not?” “Will it ever change?” This is the story of the answers to his questions.

In this illuminating work, Foster takes us where not many blues writers and scholars have gone: into the homes, memories, speculative visions, and lifeworlds of Black folks in contemporary Mississippi to hear what they have to say about the blues and all that has come about since their forebears first sang them. In so doing, Foster urges us to think differently about race, place, and community development and models a different way of hearing the sounds of Black life, a method that he calls listening for the backbeat.

NOT STRAIGHT, NOT WHITE: BLACK GAY MEN FROM THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON TO THE AIDS CRISIS

BY KEVIN MUMFORD

This compelling book recounts the history of black gay men from the 1950s to the 1990s, tracing how the major movements of the times—from civil rights to black power to gay liberation to AIDS activism—helped shape the cultural stigmas that surrounded race and homosexuality. In locating the rise of black gay identities in historical context, Kevin Mumford explores how activists, performers, and writers rebutted negative stereotypes and refused sexual objectification. Examining the lives of both famous and little-known black gay activists—from James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin to Joseph Beam and Brother Grant-Michael Fitzgerald—Mumford analyzes the ways in which movements for social change both inspired and marginalized black gay men. 

Drawing on an extensive archive of newspapers, pornography, and film, as well as government documents, organizational records, and personal papers, Mumford sheds new light on four volatile decades in the protracted battle of black gay men for affirmation and empowerment in the face of pervasive racism and homophobia.

JUST OVER THE HILL: BLACK APPALACHIANS IN JACKSON COUNTY, WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA

BY VICTORIA A. CASEY MCDONALD

Long before the term “Affrilachia” became popular, Victoria A. Casey McDonald spent decades gathering the stories of her family and neighbors in North Carolina’s Jackson County. Her book, Just Over the Hill: Black Appalachians in Jackson County, Western North Carolina, presents a collection of narratives that illuminate the lives of African Americans in the region. These stories include her grandmother’s, Amanda Thomas, who was born into bondage. The biographies and histories continue through the twentieth century and feature educators, soldiers, factory workers, ministers, athletes, and other community members. Originally published in 2012, this edition of Just Over the Hill with an afterword Marie T. Cochran continues to speak for these resilient individuals to generations to come.

AARON MCDUFFIE MOORE: AN AFRICAN AMERICAN PHYSICIAN, EDUCATOR, AND FOUNDER OF DURHAM’S BLACK WALL STREET

BY BLAKE HILL-SAYA

Aaron McDuffie Moore (1863–1923) was born in rural Columbus County in eastern North Carolina at the close of the Civil War. Defying the odds stacked against an African American of this era, he pursued an education, alternating between work on the family farm and attending school. Moore originally dreamed of becoming an educator and attended notable teacher training schools in the state. But later, while at Shaw University, he followed another passion and entered Leonard Medical School. Dr. Moore graduated with honors in 1888 and became the first practicing African American physician in the city of Durham, North Carolina. He went on to establish the Durham Drug Company and the Durham Colored Library; spearhead and run Lincoln Hospital, the city’s first secular, freestanding African American hospital; cofound North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company; help launch Rosenwald schools for African American children statewide; and foster the development of Durham’s Hayti community. 

Dr. Moore was one-third of the mighty “Triumvirate” alongside John Merrick and C. C. Spaulding, credited with establishing Durham as the capital of the African American middle class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and founding Durham’s famed Black Wall Street. His legacy can still be seen on the city streets and country backroads today, and an examination of his life provides key insights into the history of Durham, the state, and the nation during Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow Era.

HALF IN SHADOW: THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF NELLIE Y. MCKAY

BY SHANNA GREENE BENJAMIN

Nellie Y. McKay (1930–2006) was a pivotal figure in contemporary American letters. The author of several books, McKay is best known for coediting the canon-making Norton Anthology of African American Literaturewith Henry Louis Gates Jr., which helped secure a place for the scholarly study of Black writing that had been ignored by white academia. However, there is more to McKay’s life and legacy than her literary scholarship. After her passing, new details about McKay’s life emerged, surprising everyone who knew her. Why did McKay choose to hide so many details of her past? Shanna Greene Benjamin examines McKay’s path through the professoriate to learn about the strategies, sacrifices, and successes of contemporary Black women in the American academy. Benjamin shows that McKay’s secrecy was a necessary tactic that a Black, working-class woman had to employ to succeed in the white-dominated space of the American English department. Using extensive archives and personal correspondence, Benjamin brings together McKay’s private life and public work to expand how we think about Black literary history and the place of Black women in American culture.

CHRONICLING STANKONIA: THE RISE OF THE HIP-HOP SOUTH

BY REGINA BRADLEY

This vibrant book pulses with the beats of a new American South, probing the ways music, literature, and film have remixed southern identities for a post–civil rights generation. For scholar and critic Regina N. Bradley, Outkast’s work is the touchstone, a blend of funk, gospel, and hip-hop developed in conjunction with the work of other culture creators—including T.I., Kiese Laymon, and Jesmyn Ward. This work, Bradley argues, helps define new cultural possibilities for black southerners who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s and have used hip-hop culture to buffer themselves from the historical narratives and expectations of the civil rights era. André 3000, Big Boi, and a wider community of creators emerge as founding theoreticians of the hip-hop South, framing a larger question of how the region fits into not only hip-hop culture but also contemporary American society as a whole.

Chronicling Stankonia reflects the ways that culture, race, and southernness intersect in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Although part of southern hip-hop culture remains attached to the past, Bradley demonstrates how younger southerners use the music to embrace the possibility of multiple Souths, multiple narratives, and multiple points of entry to contemporary southern black identity.

GONE HOME: RACE AND ROOTS THROUGH APPALACHIA

BY KARIDA L. BROWN

Since the 2016 presidential election, Americans have witnessed countless stories about Appalachia: its changing political leanings, its opioid crisis, its increasing joblessness, and its declining population. These stories, however, largely ignore black Appalachian lives. Karida L. Brown’s Gone Home offers a much-needed corrective to the current whitewashing of Appalachia. In telling the stories of African Americans living and working in Appalachian coal towns, Brown offers a sweeping look at race, identity, changes in politics and policy, and black migration in the region and beyond.

Drawn from over 150 original oral history interviews with former and current residents of Harlan County, Kentucky, Brown shows that as the nation experienced enormous transformation from the pre- to the post-civil rights era, so too did black Americans. In reconstructing the life histories of black coal miners, Brown shows the mutable and shifting nature of collective identity, the struggles of labor and representation, and that Appalachia is far more diverse than you think.

THE ESSENTIAL CLARENCE MAJOR: PROSE AND POETRY

BY CLARENCE MAJOR

Clarence Major is one of America’s literary masters. He has published numerous books, from novels to poetry and short story collections. Among his many accolades, he was a finalist for the National Book Award and a Fulbright scholar and received the PEN Oakland/Reginald Lockett Lifetime Achievement Award. His work has been featured in many literary journals, newspapers, and magazines, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Ploughshares.

Whether you’ve known Major’s work for decades or are new to his singular style, The Essential Clarence Major offers a thrilling overview of an exceptional career, from his early groundbreaking fiction to his most recent poems. Included here are excerpts from Major’s best novels, a selection of his finest short stories and poetry, more than a dozen thought-provoking essays, a taste of his autobiography. Award-winning playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Kia Corthron introduces the collection, artfully illuminating Major’s importance as one of the foremost and original voices in contemporary American literature.