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An Essential Reading List for Black Liberation, Brought to You by the Schomburg Center

To mark its 95th anniversary, the center’s staff and curators chose 95 books by Black authors, including titles by James Baldwin, Saidiya Hartman, Jesmyn Ward, Deborah Willis, and Colson Whitehead.

Jericho Brown’s The Tradition; James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time; and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys are among the 95 titles on the Schomburg Center’s Black Liberation Reading List (all images courtesy of The New York Public Library)

In response to historic, global demonstrations against anti-Black police violence and racism, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York has provided a list of books that should have always been required reading — and will remain so far beyond the present moment. Marking the Schomburg’s 95th anniversary this year, the “Black Liberation Reading List” highlights 95 titles to help readers cultivate a deeper understanding of decades of literature, theory, and art.

Selected by the staff and curators of the Harlem institution, a research division of the New York Public Library, the books run the gamut from nonfiction and memoirs to novels and poetry collections by Black authors who plumb the depths of the ongoing struggle for Black liberation, from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

Notably among them are a number of books that celebrate Black art and images, such as Black Is Beautiful (2019), the first monograph of photojournalist Kwame Brathwaite, who coined the eponymous phrase during the second Harlem Renaissance. In Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (2009), Deborah Willis intersperses photographs by renowned artists, such as Carrie Mae Weems, with newspaper and vintage journal clippings in an effort to foreground the beauty of Black men and women sorely absent from the cultural mainstream. And a more recent title, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019) by Saidiya Hartman, is an impressive archival exploration of the young Black women that shaped the 20th century, gathering “photographs exemplary of the beauty and possibility cultivated in the lives of ordinary black girls,” as the author writes.

The Bluest Eye (1970), the first novel by Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison, is also on the list.

The list also includes publications that can educate the public on some of the urgent issues affecting Black communities, central to understanding the most recent wave of protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, first published in 2010, is a fundamental text that exposes how the US prison system profits from keeping African Americans behind bars. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (1974) by the activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis delineates a history of liberation movements, from South African anti-Apartheid to prison abolitionism. And Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), focuses on persistent experiences of systemic racism, small and large.

The Fire This Time (2016) is a collection of poems and essays about race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Black women are strongly represented: they account for more than half of the books on the list. Zadie Smith’s Feel Free (2018), Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (2014), and Sister Outsider (1984by Audre Lorde are on it, as well as the recently-published A Black Women’s History of the United States (2020) by Daina Ramey Berry & Kali Nicole Gross.

“While no list can be complete, we wanted to include not just antiracist books, but those that describe Black Liberation in terms of history, poetry, and even joy,” said ​Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center, in a statement​. “In difficult times, and times of transformation, joy is an act of resistance.”

Zadie Smith’s Feel Free (2018), a collection of essays, graces the Schomburg’s reading list.

Many of the authors on the reading list are also represented in the Schomburg’s own archives. The papers of Dr. Maya Angelou, comprising more than 400 boxes of original manuscripts, correspondence, and published and unpublished work by the eminent writer and poet, reside in the research center. Her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is among the titles, as is The Street (1946) by Ann Petry, another African-American literary titan whose papers are housed at the Schomburg.

The papers of Ann Petry, an author featured in the list, are housed in the Schomburg Center’s archives.

“The Schomburg Center is the world’s premier cultural institution dedicated to the Black experience, and we have a responsibility, in a world divided by pervasive injustice to connect people with books, resources, and knowledge that can help them foster a better understanding of Black history and culture, and celebrate that culture,” said Young.

“We hope it is a good starting point to explore these Black authors and to understand the history of, and ongoing struggle for, Black Liberation.”

The Black Liberation Reading List is reproduced in full below and also available on NYPL’s website.

NYPL’s physical locations, including the Schomburg, remain temporarily closed to the public to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but New York residents can borrow most of the books on the list digitally and free of charge via the library’s SimplyE app, available on the App Store or Google Play. Those who don’t have a library card can apply for and receive one through the SimplyE app.

The “Black Liberation Reading List” by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture:

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