Every year Books that Matter dedicates its April box to celebrating Black Women’s History Month and 2021 is no exception. If you were to look at mainstream history books written and studied over the last hundred years or so, you may be forgiven for thinking that black women played little to no role in changing the course of history. The reality is that black women are often at the root of change across all spheres whether they be political, social or scientific. Sadly, their contribution has not always been properly acknowledged but the tide is increasingly turning to correct this oversight. Here are 10 non-fiction reading suggestions to help you understand more about how black women have helped weave the fabric of our society.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
You may never have heard of HeLa cells but they have been responsible for a number of medical and scientific breakthroughs including creating the polio vaccine and studying the effect of the atomic bomb on the human body. These miraculous cells which continually reproduce making them “immortal” were taken from Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer, and used for medical research without her consent or without her family ever being compensated. Years later, Rebecca Skloot uncovers the story of these extraordinary cells, the woman they came from and the sad fate of the family whose DNA medicine has profited from for years.
Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann
Miranda Kaufmann reveals the absorbing stories of some of the Africans who lived free in Tudor England. From long-forgotten records, remarkable characters emerge. They were baptised, married and buried by the Church of England. They were paid wages like any other Tudors. Their stories, brought to life by Kaufmann, provide unprecedented insights into how Africans came to be in Tudor England, what they did there and how they were treated. Black Tudors challenges the accepted narrative that racial slavery was all but inevitable and forces us to re-examine the seventeenth century to determine what caused perceptions to change so radically.
Assata by Assata Shakur
A memoir unlike any other, Assata sets the record straight after she was involved in the killing of a white state trooper during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike and convicted of being an accomplice to murder in 1977. The truth according to Assata sets out a very different story and speaks to a fear the American establishment had at the time of powerful, black women determined to disrupt the status quo. Assata escaped from prison two years after her conviction and now lives in Cuba where she has been granted political asylum; she remains a symbol of black power and resilience.
Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
Proving that the history of black people in Britain did not start with the arrival of the Windrush passenger ship on its shores in 1948, Olusoga puts forward evidence that Black Britons were present in Britain as early Roman times. This was demonstrated by the discovery in York of the ancient remains of the unnamed ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ who is believed to have been a wealthy woman from North Africa. He goes on to show that Britain’s global slave-trading empire and much of the great industrial boom of the nineteenth century was built on American slavery. In this ground-breaking book which was accompanied by a BBC documentary series we see that Black British history is British history.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley
Hidden Figures inspired the hugely successful film of the same name starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe and details the lives of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program. In the book, we focus on five exceptional women who, segregated from their white male colleagues at a time of wider civil unrest in the United States, helped launch rockets and astronauts into space and whose courage and intelligence forever changed the world.
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland
As the only African American soloist dancing with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has made history. But when she first placed her hands on the barre at an after-school community center, no one expected the undersized, anxious thirteen-year-old to become a ground-breaking ballerina. In this beautifully written memoir, Copeland reveals the desire and drive that made her dreams reality.
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African-Americans. The product of years of research into medical journals and experimental reports, Medical Apartheid reveals the hidden underbelly of scientific research and makes possible, for the first time, an understanding of the roots of the African-American health deficit. It provides the fullest possible context for comprehending the behavioral fallout that has caused black Americans to view researchers—and indeed the whole medical establishment—with such deep distrust.
The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative by Mary Prince
Born in Bermuda to a house slave in 1788, Mary Prince suffered the first of many soul-shattering experiences in her life when she was separated from her parents and siblings at the age of twelve. Subjected to bodily and sexual abuse by subsequent masters, she was bought and sold several times before she was ultimately freed.The first black woman to break the bonds of slavery in the British colonies and publish a record of her experiences, Prince vividly recalls her life in the West Indies, her rebellion against physical and psychological degradation, and her eventual escape in 1828 in England.
At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle L. McGuire
In this important book, Danielle McGuire writes about the rape in 1944 of a 24-year-old mother and sharecropper, Recy Taylor, who was attacked and left for dead by seven white men, armed with knives and shotguns. The president of the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) branch office sent his best investigator and organizer—Rosa Parks—to take on the case. In doing so, Parks launched a movement that exposed a ritualized history of sexual assault against black women and added fire to the growing call for change.
Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton
The story of Christine Jorgensen, America’s first prominent transsexual, famously narrated trans embodiment in the postwar era. Her celebrity, however, has obscured other mid-century trans narratives—ones lived by African Americans such as Lucy Hicks Anderson and James McHarris. Their erasure from trans history masks the profound ways race has figured prominently in the construction and representation of transgender subjects. In Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton identifies multiple intersections between blackness and transness from the mid-nineteenth century to present-day anti-black and anti-trans legislation and violence.
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