Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped
This book, about five young men of Ward’s acquaintance who die from a tangle of poverty, racism, and individual modes of despair, will stay with you long after you finish it.
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns
A masterfully reported study of the Great Migration, as seen through the lens of particular people who went through it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and An Unlikely Road to Manhood
The Atlantic‘s celebrated political and cultural commentator published this beautiful memoir in 2008, detailing his childhood in Baltimore.
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
This biography of Malcolm X was published posthumously, after the author spent years on it. He died three days before it was published. It is a somewhat controversial but very thorough take on Malcom X’s life.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
Questlove’s enthusiasm for pop culture permeates this memoir, and it possesses much of its ostensible author’s charm. (Greenman is, after all, listed as a co-author.)
Baratunde Thurston, How to Be Black
A book of humor as much as anything else; after all, its author worked at The Onion. But woven through are moments of surprising poignancy about Thurston’s own background and interpretation of the titular issue.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
A groundbreaking study of the ways in which racism still pervades the American justice system, Alexander’s book is the kind of thing you’ll kick yourself for not having picked up.
Hilton Als, White Girls
This book of cultural criticism’s been all everyone’s been talking about in literary America since it emerged in December. Covering subjects from Truman Capote to Michael Jackson, it is a wonderful mixture of Als’ trademark blend of memoir, criticism, and biography.
Kiese Laymon, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
Laymon’s essays are searing, and the titular one, about George Zimmerman, went viral when Gawker ran it. Read it here and then run out and buy this collection, where the rest of the essays are just as good.
Gilbert King, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America
This book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, and details Thurgood Marshall’s involvement in a case of four black men falsely accused of rape in Florida.