10 Memoirs and Essay Collections for Black History Month

I’m a novel kinda gal, but I have slowly come to realize that non-fiction can be just as fascinating as fiction, especially if written in a narrative, conversational tone. This kind of engaged writing usually goes hand in hand with memoirs and essay collections. I recently mapped out my annual reading list and noticed that the amount of memoirs and essay collections on it had grown tremendously, compared to three years ago, when the non-fiction books previously amounted to zero.

This list of 10 titles, pulled from my 2014 Must Read Shelf on Goodreads.com,  is a small testament to the variety of Black life in America. I thought it would be great to share these during Black History Month.How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon (2013)

“Author and essayist Kiese Laymon is one of the most unique, stirring, and powerful new voices in American writing. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is a collection of his essays, touching on subjects ranging from family, race, violence, and celebrity to music, writing, and coming of age in Mississippi. This collection introduces Laymon as a writer who balances volatile concepts on a razor’s edge and chops up much-discussed and often-misunderstood topics with his scathing humor and fresh, unexpected takes on the ongoing absurdities, frivolities, and calamities of American life.”


I finished Kiese Laymon’s novel, Long Division, late last year and enjoyed it, but I’m mostly interested in Laymon’s essays. I was initially introduced to his writing online, and he does an excellent job of turning America on its head when writing of the damaging effects of racism.


Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, and Love Affairs by Pearl Cleage (April 8, 2014)

“In this inspiring memoir, the award-winning playwright and bestselling author of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day reminisces on the art of juggling marriage, motherhood, and politics while working to become a successful writer. This fascinating memoir follows her journey from a columnist for a local weekly (bought by Larry Flynt) to a playwright and Hollywood script writer, an artist at the crossroads of culture and politics whose circle came to include luminaries like Richard Pryor, Avery Brooks, Phylicia Rashad, Shirley Franklin, and Jesse Jackson.”


Pearl Cleage is like that aunt who keeps it real and tells you the truth with a whole lot of love. Her books, Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (1993), What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (1997; Oprah Book Club Pick), and I Wish I Had a Red Dress (2001), all had tremendous impact on my growth as a woman during my early 20s. I’m sure this memoir, set to be released in April, will not disappoint. CAN NOT WAIT!


Ready for Revolution: The Life and Times of Stokely Carmichael by Stokely Carmichael (2003)

“Ready for Revolution recounts the extraordinary course of Carmichael’s life, from his Trinidadian youth to his consciousness-raising years in Harlem to his rise as the patriarch of the Black Power movement.  In his own words, Carmichael tells the story of his fight for social justice with candor, wit, and passion — and a cast of luminaries that includes James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Ho Chi Minh, and Fidel Castro, among others.”

ReadyFor Revolution

I am fascinated by the the Black Power movement, so why not read about the life of the man who originally coined the phrase, “Black Power.” Carmichael (1941-1998), who later changed his name to Kwame Toure, is credited with being the father of the movement, but his achievements are often overlooked. I read a little about him in a recent article on TheRoot.com, but I’m ready for more.


Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955)

“Since its original publication in 1955, this first nonfiction collection of essays by James Baldwin remains an American classic. His impassioned essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written.”


I’ve read a couple of James Baldwin’s (1924-1987) novels, but none of his essays, which I am told are his best work. Yes, I know I’m missing out and should be ashamed, but I recently picked this up at a library sale and instantly added it to my reading list


Mozart and Leadbelly by Ernest Gaines (2005)

“In this collection of stories and essays, the beloved author of the classic, best-selling novel A Lesson Before Dying shares the inspirations behind his books and his reasons for becoming a writer. From his depiction of his childhood move to California — a move that propelled him to find books that conjured the sights, smells, and locution of his native Louisiana home — to his description of the real-life murder case that gave him the idea for his masterpiece, this wonderful collection is a revelation of both man and writer.”


Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and A Gathering of Old Men, is one of my favorite writers, so why in the world would I pass up a collection of essays about his life and writing process? I get excited just thinking about reading this one.


Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

ZAMI is a fast-moving chronicle. From the author’s vivid childhood memories in Harlem to her coming of age in the late 1950s, the nature of Audre Lorde’s work is cyclical. It especially relates the linkage of women who have shaped her . . . Lorde brings into play her craft of lush description and characterization. It keeps unfolding page after page.”


Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a very talented and well-known Black lesbian poet, essayist, activist, feminist who I knew very little about until my social media circle of writers and feminists began tweeting about her influence a few years back. I’m ready to learn more about here now, and this looks like a good start.


Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton (1973)

“Eloquently tracing the birth of a revolutionary, Huey P. Newton’s famous and oft-quoted autobiography is as much a manifesto as a portrait of the inner circle of America’s Black Panther Party. From Newton’s impoverished childhood on the streets of Oakland to his adolescence and struggles with the system, from his role in the Black Panthers to his solitary confinement in the Alameda County Jail,Revolutionary Suicide is smart, unrepentant, and thought-provoking in its portrayal of inspired radicalism.”


As I stated before, I’m fascinated by the Black Power Movement, but particularly the progress made by the Black Panther Party (BPP). Though Newton’s work in the BPP (1942-1989) has always been an inspiration to me, my personal studies of the Party have only included memoirs by Elaine Brown (A Taste of Power), Assata Shakur (Assata), and Eldridge Cleaver, along with a few documentaries. Now I’m ready to broaden my knowledge and start from the very top.


Meaty: Essays by Samantha Irby (2013)

“Samantha Irby explodes onto the page in her debut collection of brand-new essays about being a complete dummy trying to laugh her way through her ridiculous life of failed relationships, taco feasts, bouts with Crohn’s Disease, and more, all told with the same scathing wit & poignant candor long-time readers have come to expect from her notoriously hilarious blog, www.bitchesgottaeat.com.”


I wrote about this essay collection when it was released because I was so excited that Samantha Irby was able to branch outside of her hilariously entertaining blog. Soon thereafter, I won a copy of the book from Goodreads.com. So why haven’t I read it yet? I’m lazy and bogged down with a million, books but I’m reading it this year. I promise! And you should too!

The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker by Alice Walker (2010)

“The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker includes compelling conversations between acclaimed writer Walker and other significant literary and cultural figures. Each conversation represents a different stage in Walker’s artistic and spiritual development; taken together, they offer an unprecedented angle of vision on her career as well as on her personal and political development.”


Thanks to the recent PBS American Masters documentary about her life, my interest in Alice Walker outside of The Color Purple is growing. With this being her 70th year on earth, I thought it might be good to delve into more of her writing. This collection of conversations, spanning from 1973 to 2009, looks like a great start.


Mo Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (2013)

“He is one of our most ubiquitous cultural tastemakers, and in this, his first book, he reveals his own formative experiences–from growing up in 1970s West Philly as the son of a 1950s doo-wop singer, to finding his own way through the music world and ultimately co-founding and rising up with the Roots.  Mo’ Meta Blues also has some (many) random (or not) musings about the state of hip hop, the state of music criticism, the state of statements, as well as a plethora of run-ins with celebrities, idols, and fellow artists, from Stevie Wond”er to KISS to D’Angelo to Jay-Z to Dave Chappelle to…you ever seen Prince roller-skate?!?


How could I do a list of memoirs and not include this musical gem? Last year, I saw a lot of people talking about how much they enjoyed this memoir, which convinced me to add it to this list. I’m very interested in what this well-known drummer has to say!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 msdailey February 14, 2014 at 10:20 AM

This is a great list and I will be sure to include some of these titles in my reading.

As always, thank you for sharing.



2 Darkowaa February 4, 2015 at 10:46 AM

great list!!


3 ZoraToniMaya February 27, 2015 at 4:44 PM



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