15 Incredible Biographies of African Americans


Due to recent events, a growing number of people are looking to educate themselves on the subject of racism, particularly that of modern-day America. I have personally always found biographies to be extremely educational in all aspects of human history as they narrate the real feelings and life experiences that their subjects undergo. As you read through their stories of injustice, violence, brutality, and segregation, intertwined to the chronicles of everyday lives, perhaps you will come close to a better understanding of what the past and present have so far offered people of darker complexions. This list includes the stories of political and social figures, former slaves, and ordinary human beings who just happened to be born of darker color in a world, where this - unfortunately - means something.

1.The Autobiography of Malcolm X

by Malcolm XAlex Haley

I would cry out and make a fuss until I got what I wanted. I remember well how my mother asked me why I couldn’t be a nice boy like Wilfred; but I would think to myself that Wilfred, for being so nice and quiet, often stayed hungry. So early in life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise. ― Malcolm X

    Malcolm X was a black nationalist leader and a Muslim minister. What makes him fascinating to read about are his beginnings in this world: As a child, the Ku Klux Klan torches his house, his mother is sent to a mental institute, he hops from one foster home to another, and as a young adult he is engaged in an array of illegal activities and drugs, only to end up convicted to prison for ten years. There, he completely changes himself through education by reading books and discovering the Nation of Islam. This marks the beginning of his ascent to leadership as a civil rights movement activist - although his protesting methods were condemned to be violent and some even accused him of terrorism. This book is not just important because of the racial issues it covers. Its significance stems from its tale of human nature: a gripping story of brutal injustice and rebirth set amidst severe racial violence. It is guaranteed to shock, transform, and challenge. 

Read chp1 excerpt: ‘‘When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.’’…

Average rating: 4.32 | Book length: 466 pages | Audiobook length: N/A | Originally published in: October 29, 1965 | Category: Political Figure.

2. Real American: a memoir

By Julie Lythcott-Haims

I come from people who survived what America did to them - Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims was raised as the only child of an African-American father and white British mother in predominantly white communities from her school to elite university years. Her memoir is an account of her life as a biracial socio-economically privileged woman, recounting personal and public experiences of racism, which continuously inflict thousands of small but incredibly sharp cuts in her life. Growing up, she battles through beliefs that her skin color renders her unattractive, her assumptions that there must be something wrong with being black, and low self-esteem and depression. Her autobiography focuses on the painful process of unlearning and deprogramming her mind from viewing blackness as inferior.

Read chp1 excerpt: “Where are you from?” “Here.” “No, I mean, where are you from from?”

Average rating: 4.43 | Book length: 288 pages | Audiobook length: 6 hrs and 35 mins| Originally published in: October 3, 2017| Category: Everyday life

3. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Ann Jacobs

I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate. -Harriet A. Jacobs

    Harriet Jacobs was an African-American woman born into slavery in the 1800s of North Carolina. Servitude, degradation, and oppression are recurring themes of her life. As one of the rare biographies written by a woman slave, her book intensely portrays the hardships of the female experience of slavery. It headlines the danger of sexual abuse and the bodily and mental control masters executed over mother slaves by threatening their children to get what they wanted. This autobiography accounts for Jacobs' resolute spirit and unwavering faith that gave her the power to suffer years on end of slavery and perversion, and her immense strength of mind which led her to finally escape to the North and free both her children and herself. The events described here are never graphic, but nonetheless shocking - you will often find yourself staring at a sentence with an open-mouth, wondering how human cruelty runs so low. The author candidly invites readers into her mind. Through her, one will perhaps come closer to understanding the psychological, social, and economic afflictions that have plagued generations of slave black women. 

Read chp1 excerpt: I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away.

Average rating: 4.12| Book length: 176 pages | Audiobook length: 8 hrs and 5 mins| Originally published in: February 24th 1861| Category: Slavery


by Jesmyn Ward 

Men’s bodies litter my family history. The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts. - Jesmyn Ward

In the year 2000, a drunken driver killed a 19-year-old boy: Joshua - Jesmyn Ward’s brother. The driver, a 44-year-old male with a history of driving under the influence, ended up serving two years of a 5-year sentence. In the years that followed her brother’s death, Ward lost a series of 5 men close to her, one after the other, to drugs, suicide, murder, and more car accidents. Each death became a depiction of racial inequality, painting the devaluation of black lives: a man’s car slams into a train because the railway crossing warning system is not maintained in a black neighborhood. Another succumbs to suicide as he can no longer deal with the degradation the color of his skin subjects him to. In Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward tackles the everyday tragedies black people face for their race and showcases the struggles of being black men in the contemporary American South. This book will stir many emotions as you read along, mainly due to the unending and deeply-rooted grief looming in African-American communities all over the US, due to poverty, murder, and violence. Ward humanizes the crisis by putting the names and lives of these five victims at the center of her book instead of listing them as mere numbers. She is as brutally honest as the lives she commits to paper.

Read chp1 excerpt: Whenever my mother drove us from coastal Mississippi to New Orleans to visit my father on the weekend, she would say, ‘‘Lock the doors,’’

Average rating: 4.21| Book length:  256 pages | Audiobook length:  8 hrs and 42 mins| Originally published in: September 17th 2013| Category: Everyday life.

4. The Autobiography Of Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Martin Luther King Jr.Clayborne Carson

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy― Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King was an African-American minister and probably the most famous activist of the fight against segregation and white supremacy. This autobiography is a must-read if you want to educate yourself on the Black Lives Matter movement; King was a pioneer for equality in the days where segregation was the standard in the United States. Starting with his childhood, the author describes King's journey to becoming a minister, his emergence as a leader during the Montgomery bus boycott, his fundamental role in the civil rights march in Washington, D.C., and his multifaceted relationship with several leading figures of the day. MLK had an unwavering moral courage and was an inspiration to thousands of civil rights activists. He inspired the movement itself, which aimed to end racial discrimination set against black Americans. King won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and his "I have a dream" speech is still as impactful today as it was back when he first uttered its words in 1963.

Read chp1 excerpt: This was a rather difficult year for me. I have had to confront the brutality of police officers, an unwarranted arrest, and a near fatal stab wound by a mentally deranged woman. These things were poured upon me like staggering torrents on a cold, wintry day.

Average rating: 4.35| Book length:   400 pages | Audiobook length: 9 hrs and 35 mins| Originally published in: August 1986| Category: Political Figure

5.Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered― Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coats’ ‘‘Between the World and Me,’’ is an unruffled piece from start to finish. The author effortlessly navigates between the historical roots of racism and their contemporary repercussions on the framework of American and global civilizations. He defines racism early on in his book. He backs up this definition with examples that he lived through: one gets immersed into his world as one experiences his early life, his pursuit of academia as a student at Howard University, his work in the Civil War battlefields, and his journey from the South Side of Chicago to the streets of Paris. His book is a letter addressed to his adolescent son through which he shares with him - and the readers - his personal narrative by exposing the past, challenging the present, and warning about the future.

Read chp1 excerpt: Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.

Average rating: 4.38 | Book length:  152 pages | Audiobook length:  3 hrs and 35 mins| Originally published in: July 14th 2015| Category: Everyday life

6.No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America

by Darnell L. Moore

If white people were deemed poor, the problem was not inherent or a consequence of their personhood. They were considered outliers, the city’s “poor white trash,” because they ostensibly failed to make good on their whiteness, the promissory note ensuring their social and economic ascent in America ― Darnell L. Moore

  Darnell Moore was born to poor teenage parents in Camden, New Jersey, and although his upbringing was not ideal, he describes himself as a happy child. His life trajectory changed when, at 14 years of age, three boys from his neighborhood doused him with gasoline and tried to light him on fire because they believed he was gay, he luckily survived, but that would not be the last time he escaped death. Thirty years later, Moore becomes an activist, fighting against racial violence and for equality and freedom. He writes his memoir “No Ashes in the Fire,” where he takes us on his journey from a bullied young boy to a man who finds his purpose in life: to keep fighting for freedom and liberation as he wholeheartedly believes it will one day materialize. Darnell is sincere and candid in explaining the complex reality of what it means to be a black gay man in modern-day America. It is a fantastic book with a subject not much explored in everyday media

Read chp1 excerpt: The first home I recall living in as a child was at 1863 Broadway. The year was 1980. I bounced around the modest two-story brick row house in South Camden like a typical four-year-old not yet blessed with the company of a horde of cousins

Average rating: 4.18 | Book length:  243 pages | Audiobook length:  6 hrs | Originally published on: May 29th 2018| Category: Everyday life

7.Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

by Barack Obama

That’s just how white folks will do you. It wasn’t merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn’t know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserved of their scorn - Barack Obama

Barack Obama is probably one of the most famous figures in American politics because he was the first-ever African-American president of the United States. His autobiography entitled "Dreams from my father" is his origin story. It was first published in 1995, long before he established his fame, and was re-published in 2004 when it became a #1 New York Times bestseller. In his revealing and gripping memoir, Obama, born to a white mother and an African-American father of Kenyan descent, takes us on his journey searching for the meaning and purpose of his life. This emotional journey is triggered by the sudden death of his father in Kenya. The event makes him start retracing his mother's migration from Kansas to Hawaii and then to Kenya, where he meets his father's side of the family, only to be faced with the sad reality of his father's life. He finally talks about the reconciliation of the two sides of his family. Ultimately, this book is about the journey he went through to become the man he is today, a former president who defied all odds set against him. It is not a book written by a politician, but rather by a man trying to understand himself and his origins.

Read chp1 excerpt: A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news.

Average rating: 3.89| Book length: 453 pages | Audiobook length: 7 hrs and 8 mins| Originally published in: July 1995| Category: Political Figure

8.Heavy: An American Memoir

by Kiese Laymon

Ain’t nothing in the world worse than looking at your children drowning, knowing ain’t nothing you can do because you scared that if you get to trying to save them, they might see that you can’t swim either. - Kiese Laymon

Kiese Laymon writes a compelling novel exploring what it feels like to live and experience the world in a black body: A body that has to suffer from the repercussions associated to its color, but also from weight and a distorted image, physical and sexual abuse by close family members, and addictions to food and gambling. The author crafts the book as a conversation with his mother, always referring to the pronoun “You,” consequently making it somehow uncomfortable for you - the reader - to insert yourself in their story as it could feel like you are intruding on their personal life. Kiese Laymon lays himself bare in this memoir, exposing his vulnerability, anger, pain, and shame to his mother, despite all the struggles and resentment they share towards one another. Despite its flawless and smooth language, this biography was not an easy read but is worthy of anyone’s time.

Read chp1 excerpt: You stood in a West Jackson classroom teaching black children how correct usage of the word “be” could save them from white folk while I knelt in North Jackson, preparing to steal the ID card of a fifteen-year-old black girl named Layla Weathersby.

Average rating: 4.47| Book length: 256 pages| Audiobook length: 6 hrs and 17 mins| Originally published in: October 16th 2018| Category: Everyday Life

9.I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams, his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream, his wings are clipped and his feet are tied, so he opens his throat to sing.― Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is a renowned poet and Nobel Prize laureate. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is one of seven autobiographies Angelou has written throughout her life. This one recounts her early life from around age 6 to 17: Raised in rural Stamps, Arkansas, during the great depression, Angelou was the victim of a tumultuous childhood which she recalls with poignant details. Sexually abused at the age of 8 and enduring constant shocking racial prejudice, she overcame physical and mental assaults and somehow managed to graduate school two years ahead of schedule and continued to amass honors, academically and artistically. Angelou writes with such beauty, strength, and honesty, making her story relatable and a pleasure to read despite some alarming incidents. Her book is a poignant and poetic interpretation of life. It reveals how cruel, unjust, and humiliating it was to be a woman of color in the Jim Crow South's '30s and '40s and showcases humor, courage, and resilience.   

Read chp1 excerpt: When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed--"To Whom It May Concern"--

Average rating: 4.23| Book length: 289 pages| Audiobook length: 10 hrs and 11 mins| Originally published in: 1969| Category: Everyday Life

10.Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass, Robert G. O'Meally

I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs. - Frederick Douglass

    Frederick Douglass is considered as the most influential African-American of the 19th Century. Born into slavery in Maryland, he tried to free himself through education and hard work. However, he later came to realize - like many of his generations - that if he wished for freedom, he would have to run away and become a fugitive. Hard work would only bring him closer to death as his white owner always expected more of him. After two failed attempts, he met Anna Murray, who helped him successfully escape to the free states; she later became his love interest and first wife. Bravery is a recurrent theme in his narrative, as he often expresses the importance of being strong and standing up for oneself. His autobiography encompasses part of his whole life and is the first in a three-part series. ''Narrative of the Life'' recalls early events of his life: as a child, he never meets his father and is very quickly separated from his mother when he gets sold into labor. He then works on a plantation with an abusive owner who makes his life utterly miserable as he proceeds to almost compulsively beat him. Ultimately, his dream of pursuing his studies and becoming a free man lead him to take his first steps towards a freer land. He is one of many that attempt to flee and one of the few to survive, let alone tell the tale.

Read chp1 excerpt: I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.

Average rating: 4.03 | Book length: 158 pages| Audiobook length: 4 hrs and 12 mins| Originally published in: 1845| Category: Slavery

11.How We Fight For Our Lives

by Saeed Jones 

Tears don’t always just fall; sometimes they rip through you, like storm-painted gusts instead of mere raindrops ― Saeed Jones

    How We Fight for Our Lives is a memoir written by Saeed Jones, an award-winning poet, documenting his struggles in awakening and discovering his identity and sexuality. He draws the readers into his childhood and adolescence as a young black man born in Texas and raised by a single Buddhist mother. This memoir examines aspects of race and homosexuality, power and vulnerability, love and grief, all this through a personal lens into the author’s life: his relationships with his family, lovers, friends and strangers, the health of his mother, his physical assault and economic hardships, and the thundering threat of brutality that floats around his life and other men like him. In his book, he splendidly explains through prose and poetry how our self-discovery and actions reverberate and affect the people around us.

Read chp1 excerpt: I drifted out into waves the color of peacock feathers. They pulled me away from shore, and into a dream I’d had about my mother earlier that summer.

Average rating: 4.30 | Book length: 192 pages| Audiobook length: 5 hrs and 34 mins| Originally published on: October 8th 2019| Category: Everyday life

12.Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson

by George L. Jackson

I’ve been patient, but where I’m concerned patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it’s cowardice ― George L. Jackson

Soledad Brother is a collection of letters written by George Jackson addressed to his mother, father, and activists such as Angela Davis over five years. It is an honest denunciation of the racism in America and the harsh conditions black people faced in prison. When Jackson was 18, he was arrested for stealing 70 dollars from a gas station. He was later sentenced to one year to life in prison (indefinite imprisonment) and spent seven years in solitary confinement; the prison justified this by labeling him as a "dangerous freewheeling convict leader who must be isolated because of his impact on the prison population." His letters showcase the violence of American guards and prison workers against black prisoners in isolation; they would deliberately attack them with weapons or contaminate their food with cleaning powder, glass shards, and fecal material. Jackson's letters expose the intense feelings of anger and rebellion that overwhelmed black men in America's prisons in the 1960s. Even after the years that passed following the social and political whirlwind of the 1960s, Jackson's story is still inspiring as it portrays the brave unbreakable man that he was.

Read chp1 excerpt: Dear Greg, I probably didn't work hard enough on this but I'm pressed for time — all the time. I could play the criminal aspects of my life down some but then it wouldn't be me

Average rating: 4.25 | Book length: 368 pages| Audiobook length: N/A| Originally published on: September 1st 1994| Category: Prison life/Social Figure

13. W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919

by David Levering Lewis

I believe in Liberty for all men: the space to stretch their arms and their souls, the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, enjoy the sunshine, and ride on the railroads, uncursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love. —W. E. B. Du Bois

 William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was one of the most influential African-American scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a sociologist, economist, historian, feminist, and propagandist, and an essential voice in the fight for racial equality during a time where black people were considered inferior. His accomplishments are impressive, especially when taking into account the difficulty and hardship of the times during which they took place. Du Bois was the first African-American to receive a Harvard doctorate. He is also the author of sixteen books on sociology, history, politics and race relations, two memoirs, two autobiographies, and five novels. He was a pioneering professional in black history and sociology and one of the first scholars to identify the connection between race, class, and gender oppression. Du Bois changed Americans’ perception of race; this biography covers his birth in 1868 through the year 1919 and serves as a life story as well as a story of history.

Read chp1 excerpt: The announcement of W.E.B. Du Bois’s death came just after Odetta finished singing, a mighty trumpet of a voice that had accompanied the nonviolent civil rights movement from early days. (Open the Kindle Preview)

Average rating: 4.38 | Book length: 735 pages| Audiobook length: N/A| Originally published in 1993| Category: Social Figure

14.I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

by Austin Channing Brown

Most white people are more worried about being called racist than about whether or not their actions are in fact racist or harmful ― Austin Channing Brown

Austin Channing Brown, an African-American Christian woman, narrates what it is like living in middle-class white America. This book is about living and persisting in a world not fit for a woman of color. “It’s about standing before roomfuls of Christians and challenging them to see Blackness without the baggage of racist bias.” It is a revealing perspective: how white, middle-class Christians have somehow ended up contributing to the rise of racial hostility and prejudice. Through stories of her being touched, called names, and yelled at, the author gives us a rare perspective on racism through a religious lens.

Read chp1 excerpt: White people can be exhausting. Particularly exhausting are white people who don’t know they are white, and those who need to be white. But of all the white people I’ve met—and I’ve met a lot of them in more than three decades of living, studying, and working in places where I’m often the only Black woman in sight—the first I found exhausting were those who expected me to be white.

Average rating: 4.35 | Book length: 185 pages| Audiobook length: N/A| Originally published on: May 15th 2018 | Category: Everyday Life

15.When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

by Patrisse Khan-CullorsAsha BandeleAngela Y. Davis

He loves as is, which is a gift I wish for all of us to receive, the gift of being loved simply because of who you are, not in spite of it, not with condition, not loved in parts ― Patrisse Khan-Cullors

What better way to learn about the Black Lives Matter movement than to read a memoir about one of its founders? Patrisse Khan-Cullors personally experienced the injustice and persecution African-Americans face at the hands of the police. She believes that Black people are the most helpless in society due to racial profiling, which leads to police brutality over petty matters. The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013; it was founded by Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi along with Khan-Cullors when 17-year old Trayvon Martin’s killer went free. This memoir explains the motive behind the movement; love, peace, equality, and justice while striving for political change. Patrisse and the two other co-founders of the movement were all considered terrorists and threats to the United States of America. This was due to their demand for accountability to a system that has perpetually ignored the discrimination set against people who are not of white complexion. This book is perhaps not suited for younger people, as Patrisse’s childhood story is challenging to grasp and imagine. 

Read chp1 excerpt: We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be … black, but by getting the public to associate the … blacks with heroin … and then criminalizing [them] heavily, we could disrupt [their] communities … Did we know we were lying? Of course we did.

Average rating: 4.52 | Book length: 257 pages| Audiobook length: 6 hrs and 29 mins| Originally published on: January 16th 2018| Category: Everyday life