The Best Black History Books of 2023

We asked editors and bloggers of Black Perspectives to select the best books published in 2023 on Black History, and they delivered! Check out this extraordinary list of great books from 2023 that offer varied historical perspectives on the Black experience in the United States and across the globe. From books on the Black working class and the Haitian Revolution to works on Black women writers, socialites, and laborers, the diverse selections included in this list will enhance your reading list for the new year and deepen your understanding of Black people’s ideas and experiences in every part of the globe.


Kidada E. Williams, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War against Reconstruction (Bloomsbury Publishing)

The story of Reconstruction is often told from the perspective of the politicians, generals, and journalists whose accounts claim an outsized place in collective memory. But this pivotal era looked very different to African Americans in the South transitioning from bondage to freedom after 1865. They were besieged by a campaign of white supremacist violence that persisted through the 1880s and beyond. For too long, their lived experiences have been sidelined, impoverishing our understanding of the obstacles post-Civil War Black families faced, their inspiring determination to survive, and the physical and emotional scars they bore because of it. In I Saw Death Coming, Kidada E. Williams offers a breakthrough account of the much-debated Reconstruction period, transporting readers into the daily existence of formerly enslaved people building hope-filled new lives. Drawing on overlooked sources and bold new readings of the archives, Williams offers a revelatory and, in some cases, minute-by-minute record of nighttime raids and Ku Klux Klan strikes. And she deploys cutting-edge scholarship on trauma to consider how the effects of these attacks would linger for decades–indeed, generations–to come.


Courtney Thorsson, The Sisterhood: How a Network of Black Women Writers Changed American Culture (Columbia University Press)

The Sisterhood tells the story of how this remarkable community transformed American writing and cultural institutions. Drawing on original interviews with Sisterhood members as well as correspondence, meeting minutes, and readings of their works, Courtney Thorsson explores the group’s everyday collaboration and profound legacy. The Sisterhood advocated for Black women writers at trade publishers and magazines such as Random House, Ms., and Essence, and eventually in academic departments as well—often in the face of sexist, racist, and homophobic backlash. Thorsson traces the personal, professional, and political ties that brought the group together as well as the reasons for its dissolution. She considers the popular and critical success of Sisterhood members in the 1980s, the uneasy absorption of Black feminism into the academy, and how younger writers built on the foundations the group laid. Highlighting the organizing, networking, and community building that nurtured Black women’s writing, this book demonstrates that The Sisterhood offers an enduring model for Black feminist collaboration.


Blair LM Kelley, Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class (W.W. Norton)

In this brilliant corrective, Black Folk, acclaimed historian Blair LM Kelley restores the Black working class to the center of the American story. Spanning two hundred years—from one of Kelley’s earliest known ancestors, an enslaved blacksmith, to the essential workers of the Covid-19 pandemic—Black Folk highlights the lives of the laundresses, Pullman porters, domestic maids, and postal workers who established the Black working class as a force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Taking jobs white people didn’t want and confined to segregated neighborhoods, Black workers found community in intimate spaces, from stoops on city streets to the backyards of washerwomen, where multiple generations labored from dawn to dusk, talking and laughing in a space free of white supervision and largely beyond white knowledge. As millions of Black people left the violence of the American South for the promise of a better life in the North and West, these networks of resistance and joy sustained early arrivals and newcomers alike and laid the groundwork for organizing for better jobs, better pay, and equal rights.


Tanisha C. Ford, Our Secret Society: Mollie Moon and the Glamour, Money, and Power Behind the Civil Rights Movement (HarperCollins)

Our Secret Society brilliantly illuminates a little known yet highly significant aspect of the civil rights movement that has been long overlooked—the powerhouse fundraising effort that supported the movement—the luncheons, galas, cabarets, and traveling exhibitions attended by middle-class and working-class Black families, the Negro press, and titans of industry, including Winthrop Rockefeller. No one knew this world better or ruled over it with more authority than Mollie Moon. With her husband Henry Lee Moon, the longtime publicist for the NAACP, Mollie became half of one of the most influential couples of the period. Vivacious and intellectually curious, Mollie frequently hosted political salons attended by guests ranging from Langston Hughes to Lorraine Hansberry. As the president of the National Urban League Guild, the fundraising arm of the National Urban League; Mollie raised millions to fund grassroots activists battling for economic justice and racial equality. She was a force behind the mutual aid network that connected Black churches, domestic and blue-collar laborers, social clubs, and sororities and fraternities across the country. Historian and cultural critic Tanisha C. Ford brings Mollie into focus as never before, charting her rise from Jim Crow Mississippi to doyenne of Manhattan and Harlem, where she became one of the most influential philanthropists of her time—a woman feared, resented, yet widely respected.


Barbara D. Savage, Merze Tate: The Global Odyssey of a Black Woman Scholar (Yale University Press)

Born in rural Michigan during the Jim Crow era, the bold and irrepressible Merze Tate (1905–1996) refused to limit her intellectual ambitions, despite living in what she called a “sex and race discriminating world.” Against all odds, through her brilliance and hard work Tate earned degrees in international relations from Oxford University in 1935 and a doctorate in government from Harvard in 1941. She then joined the faculty of Howard University, where she taught for three decades of her long life spanning the tumultuous twentieth century. This book revives and critiques Tate’s prolific and prescient body of scholarship, with topics ranging from nuclear arms limitations to race and imperialism in Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. Her quest for adventure took her on extensive trips throughout Europe, as well as around the world twice, traveling solo with her cameras in hand. Tate credited her success to other women, Black and white, who help her realize her dream of becoming a scholar. Barbara Savage’s lucid and skilled rendering of Tate’s story is built on more than a decade of research. Tate’s life and work challenge provincial approaches to African American and American history, women’s history, the history of education, diplomatic history, and international thought.


Marlene L. Daut, Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution (University of North Carolina Press)

The Haitian Revolution was a powerful blow against colonialism and slavery, and as its thinkers and fighters blazed the path to universal freedom, they forced anticolonial, antislavery, and antiracist ideals into modern political grammar. The first state in the Americas to permanently abolish slavery, outlaw color prejudice, and forbid colonialism, Haitians established their nation in a hostile Atlantic World. Slavery was ubiquitous throughout the rest of the Americas and foreign nations and empires repeatedly attacked Haitian sovereignty. Yet Haitian writers and politicians successfully defended their independence while planting the ideological roots of egalitarian statehood. In Awakening the Ashes, Marlene L. Daut situates famous and lesser-known eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Haitian revolutionaries, pamphleteers, and political thinkers within the global history of ideas, showing how their systems of knowledge and interpretation took center stage in the Age of Revolutions. While modern understandings of freedom and equality are often linked to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man or the US Declaration of Independence, Daut argues that the more immediate reference should be to what she calls the 1804 Principle that no human being should ever again be colonized or enslaved, an idea promulgated by the Haitians who, against all odds, upended French empire.


Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey, Cross-Border Cosmopolitans: The Making of a Pan-African North America (University of North Carolina Press)

African American history from 1900 to 2000 cannot be told without accounting for the significant influence of Pan-African thought, just as the story of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy cannot be told without accounting for fears of an African World. In the early 1900s, Marcus Garvey and his followers perceived the North American mainland, particularly Canada following U.S. authorities’ deportation of Garvey to Jamaica, as a forward-operating base from which to liberate the Black masses from colonialism. After World War II, Vietnam War resisters, Black Panthers, and Caribbean students joined the throngs of cross-border migrants to denounce militarism, imperialism, and capitalism. In time, as urban uprisings proliferated in northern U.S. cities, the prospect of coalitions among the Black Power, Red Power, and Quebecois Power movements inspired U.S. and Canadian intelligence services to collaborate, infiltrate, and sabotage Black organizations across North America. Assassinations of “Black messiahs” further radicalized revolutionaries, rekindling the dream for an African World from Washington, D.C., to Toronto to San Francisco to Antigua to Grenada and back to Africa. Alarmed, Washington’s national security elites invoked the Cold War as the reason to counter the triangulation of Black Power in the Atlantic World, funneling arms clandestinely from the United States and Canada to the Caribbean and then to its proxies in southern Africa. By contending that twentieth-century global Black liberation movements began within the U.S.-Canadian borderlands as cross-border, continental struggles, Cross-Border Cosmopolitans reveals the revolutionary legacies of the Underground Railroad and America’s Great Migration and the hemispheric and transatlantic dimensions of this history.


J.T. Roane, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place (New York University Press)

In this book, author J.T. Roane shows how working-class Black communities cultivated two interdependent modes of insurgent assembly—dark agoras—in twentieth century Philadelphia. He investigates the ways they transposed rural imaginaries about and practices of place as part of their spatial resistances and efforts to contour industrial neighborhoods. In acts that ranged from the mundane acts of refashioning intimate spaces to expressly confrontational and liberatory efforts to transform the city’s social and ecological arrangement, these communities challenged the imposition of Progressive and post-Progressive visions for urban order seeking to enclose or displace them. Under the rubric of dark agoras Roane brings together two formulations of collectivity and belonging associated with working-class Black life. While on their surface diametrically opposed, the city’s underground—its illicit markets, taverns, pool halls, unlicensed bars, as well as spaces housing illicit sex and informal sites like corners associated with the economically and socially disreputable–constituted a spatial and experiential continuum with the city’s set apart—its house meetings, storefronts, temples, and masjid, as well as the extensive spiritually appropriated architectures of the interwar mass movements that included rural land experiments as well as urban housing, hotels, and recreational facilities. Together these sites incubated Black queer urbanism, or dissident visions for urban life challenging dominant urban reform efforts and their modes of producing race, gender, and ultimately the city itself. Roane shows how Black communities built a significant if underappreciated terrain of geographic struggle shaping Philadelphia between the Great Migration and Black Power.


Crystal Marie Moten, Continually Working: Black Women, Community Intellectualism, and Economic Justice in Postwar Milwaukee (Vanderbilt University Press)

Continually Working tells the stories of Black working women who resisted employment inequality in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from the 1940s to the 1970s. The book explores the job-related activism of Black Midwestern working women and uncovers the political and intellectual strategies they used to critique and resist employment discrimination, dismantle unjust structures, and transform their lives and the lives of those in their community. Moten emphasizes the ways in which Black women transformed the urban landscape by simultaneously occupying spaces from which they had been historically excluded and creating their own spaces. Black women refused to be marginalized within the historically white and middle‑class Milwaukee Young Women’s Christian Association (MYWCA), an association whose mission centered on supporting women in urban areas. Black women forged interracial relationships within this organization and made it, not without much conflict and struggle, one of the most socially progressive organizations in the city. When Black women could not integrate historically white institutions, they created their own. They established financial and educational institutions, such as Pressley School of Beauty Culture, which beautician Mattie Pressley DeWese opened in 1946 as a result of segregation in the beauty training industry. This school served economic, educational, and community development purposes as well as created economic opportunities for Black women. Historically and contemporarily, Milwaukee has been and is still known as one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Black women have always contested urban inequality, by making space for themselves and others on the margins. In so doing, they have transformed both the urban landscape and urban history.


Joan Flores-Villalobos, The Silver Women: How Black Women’s Labor Made the Panama Canal (University of Pennsylvania Press)

The construction of the Panama Canal is typically viewed as a marvel of American ingenuity. What is less visible, and less understood, is the project’s dependence on the labor of Black migrant women. The Silver Women shifts the focus of this monumental endeavor to the West Indian women who travelled to Panama, inviting readers to place women’s intimate lives, choices, grief, and ambition at the center of the economic and geopolitical transformation created by the construction of the Panama Canal and U.S. imperial expansion. Joan Flores-Villalobos argues that Black West Indian women made the canal construction possible by providing the indispensable everyday labor of social reproduction. West Indian women built a provisioning economy that fed, housed, and cared for the segregated Black West Indian labor force, in effect subsidizing the construction effort and the racial calculus that separated pay in silver for Black workers and gold for white Americans. But while also subject to racial discrimination and segregation, West Indian women mostly worked outside the umbrella of U.S. canal authorities. They did not hold contracts, had little access to official services and wages, and received pay in both silver and gold. From this position, they found ways to skirt, and at times subvert, the legal, moral, and economic parameters imperial authorities sought to impose on the migrant workforce. West Indian women developed important strategies of claims-making, kinship, community building, and market adaptation that helped them navigate the contradictions and violence of U.S. empire. In the meantime, these strategies of social reproduction nurtured further West Indian migrations, linking Panama to places like Harlem and Santiago de Cuba.


Chad L. Williams, The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War (Macmillan)

When W. E. B. Du Bois, believing in the possibility of full citizenship and democratic change, encouraged African Americans to “close ranks” and support the Allied cause in World War I, he made a decision that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Seeking both intellectual clarity and personal atonement, for more than two decades Du Bois attempted to write the definitive history of Black participation in World War I. His book, however, remained unfinished. In The Wounded World, Chad Williams offers the dramatic account of Du Bois’s failed efforts to complete what would have been one of his most significant works. The surprising story of this unpublished book offers new insight into Du Bois’s struggles to reckon with both the history and the troubling memory of the war, along with the broader meanings of race and democracy for Black people in the twentieth century. Drawing on a broad range of sources, most notably Du Bois’s unpublished manuscript and research materials, Williams tells a sweeping story of hope, betrayal, disillusionment, and transformation, setting into motion a fresh understanding of the life and mind of arguably the most significant scholar-activist in African American history. In uncovering what happened to Du Bois’s largely forgotten book, Williams offers a captivating reminder of the importance of World War I, why it mattered to Du Bois, and why it continues to matter today.

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