Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
How do you measure the worth of scholarly research and analysis versus the worth of telling one’s life story? The musicality of language versus tone and voice? These are some of the questions that one is faced with when making a list of the standout books of nonfiction published by African-American authors in 2014. Quite simply, the best nonfiction books transcend the individual classifications of the genre. They transform the reader. They resonate in the mind for days afterward, haunting in their beauty of ideas and prose. Here, culled from more than 100 titles, is The Root’s list of the most impressive nonfiction titles by black authors this year.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine
Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is a brilliant exploration of the effects of macro- and microaggressions upon the black body within the United States. Using the second-person perspective, Rankine weaves seamlessly between the close intensity of prose poems and more extended essays to create a powerful, breathtaking book. The language stuns in its poetic descriptions; the ideas resonate in their depth of analysis. A beautiful gift from one of the greatest writers and thinkers working today.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir of growing up in the segregated 1960s and 1970s, told in verse. Lyrical and moving, this book is a vital addition to a genre that is severely lacking in writers of color. One is reminded of the brilliant, award-winning work of Mildred D. Taylor when reading Woodson. A high mark in an already distinguished career of giving black children people who look like them on the page.
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
There has never been a book quite like Bad Feminist: Essays—a sometimes funny, sometimes serious pop-culture-literary-nonfiction-social-commentary hybrid written by a black woman in America. A New York Times best-seller, Gay’s book fills a much-needed gap in the national conversation of race, feminism, class, privilege and media representation in society. Grounded in personal experience and social events as evidence and reaching into flights of cogent analysis, Bad Feminist establishes Gay as one of our foremost cultural critics and feminist thinkers.
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume VII, by Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Tenisha Hart Armstrong
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume VII: To Save the Soul of America, a new edition of writing by King from the University of California Press, is the seventh installment of a 14-volume King series. This book focuses on the years 1961-1962 as King, disillusioned with President John F. Kennedy’s lack of progress in furthering civil rights for African Americans, helped the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organize protests in Albany, Ga. Although this work led to King’s arrest, it also set the stage for his later desegregation efforts in Birmingham, Ala. An essential read for students of King.
A Chosen Exile, by Allyson Hobbs
Hobbs, a Stanford University professor and Harvard alum, crafts a rich work of scholarship in A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, her debut. She uses personal histories to deconstruct the meaning of blacks “passing” as white throughout American history, and why this is relevant today. Touching upon aspects as diverse as survival, standards of beauty and economic mobility, A Chosen Exile is a necessary read that counters the myth that we are now living in a post-racial society.
Black Prophetic Fire, by Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf
In this new look at the pantheon of black leadership, the legendary West delivers once again. Delving deep into the nature of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells and others, Black Prophetic Fire offers an analysis of what made them able to put the public need before their own self-interest. West also asks how we become a “we conscious” society instead of an “I conscious” one. These are important thoughts on where we are heading as a society that transcend racial lines to articulate the universal need for social justice.
Redefining Realness, by Janet Mock
A current Marie Claire editor, former People magazine editor and 2014 The Root 100 honoree, Mock published her debut book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, earlier this year to widespread acclaim. This groundbreaking memoir by the well-known transgender activist is a work of great courage and honesty that has become a worldwide movement coalescing around the Twitter hashtag #girlslikeus.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Charles M. Blow
At 24 Blow became the youngest person ever to head the New York Times graphics department. In his second incarnation at the prestigious paper, he is an op-ed columnist. His analysis of how the justice system failed Trayvon Martin is legendary; his essays as a whole are reminiscent of the powerful work of the great James Baldwin. In Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blow’s gifts for vivid imagery and language combine in a deeply personal memoir of overcoming: from the hardships of racial segregation and sexual abuse to a man standing firmly in his own agency, truth and power.
Death of a King, by Tavis Smiley
The talk show host’s latest work is a detailed examination of the last year in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. A well-respected writer, cultural critic and media commentator, Smiley has a great ability to get deep into the mystery of a person and uncover what lies beneath. With Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year, Smiley looks beyond the myth of King to craft a portrayal both honest and respectful. A unique addition to the King pantheon.
A Life in Motion, by Misty Copeland
At 13, an age when most ballerinas have already been dancing for a decade, Copeland attended her first ballet class. She is now the third African-American ballerina to dance with the American Ballet Theatre, one of America’s three premier classical-ballet companies, and the first one in the past 20 years. A Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina is her story of how she got here: honing her craft; recovering from serious injury; and surviving a traumatic family life, poverty and the racial politics of ballet, a profession that still keeps out black dancers because they have “the wrong body.” Copeland, however, is never bitter; she is only thankful for what she has learned from ballet and where it has taken her. A lovely story of a victorious and gracious young artist.
Emilie Davis’s Civil War, by Emilie Davis, edited by Judith Giesberg
Anne Frank, author of The Diary of Anne Frank, was just a young girl when she was killed shortly before the end of World War II. Davis, a decade older than Frank, writes with the same haunting authority in this diary as historical document. There are few primary texts written by freed blacks during the Civil War era, let alone by freed black women. Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865 is both an important educational tool and a vivid depiction of everyday life in a country at war to end the greatest injustice it has ever committed.
Vintage Black Glamour, by Nichelle Gainer
It is no secret that Hollywood is—and has been—a traditionally white space, invested in upholding whiteness as a universal standard of beauty. Enter Gainer’s Vintage Black Glamour, a groundbreaking piece of photojournalism devoted to highlighting the decades of black beauty in Hollywood. With rare photographs of iconic and lesser-known black Hollywood, Vintage Black Glamour is a great find for both the media scholar and the lover of black film.
Blackballed, by Darryl Pinckney
This past year has seen a resurgence of voter-registration laws spurred by the Republican Party and designed to, once again, disenfranchise black voters. Is it any wonder that this shameful practice has reared its head after the re-election of our first black president? Pinckney’s Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy—an analysis of the systematic exclusion of black voters throughout American history—is a timely and important work.
Things I Should Have Told My Daughter, by Pearl Cleage
In Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs, the peerless Cleage shows us a raw, no-holds-barred portrait of her formative years during the 1970s and ’80s. We see the rise of Cleage as an author and feminist—all while her marriage slowly deteriorates and she picks up the pieces to move on. A triumphant portrait of one of our most inspiring writers, crafted in her usual vivacious prose.
The Noble Hustle, by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead is a master wordsmith. His language is a joy to read. Consider the opening of The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death, one of the best opening lines of the year: “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.” Here, Whitehead’s deadpan wit is our tour guide through the world of high-stakes poker, culminating in a seat at the World Series of Poker championship via a quest for the most perfect piece of beef jerky. An entertaining addition to his oeuvre.