An American Hero – Celebrating Martin Luther King

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King day and I thought it would be appropriate to talk about some of the best books I have read about the African-American experience. First, take a few minutes to listen, once again, to the historic “I Have A Dream” speech:

Here are the novels I recommend which revolve around African-American history:

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

Sweetsmoke is a rich atmospheric novel of the South during the Civil War. Entwined in the story are the frequent injustices and crimes against enslaved blacks including beatings, hobblings and the theft of children who are torn from their mothers’ breasts to be sold into slavery. Fuller writes gripping dialogue and offers the reader characters who are complex and memorable. The reader’s heart will ache for Marriah, grow cold toward Ellen, and pound with fear for Cassius as the pages to this novel seem to turn themselves.

(Read my full review)

Someone Knows My Name (aka The Book of Negroes) by Lawrence Hill

Hill gives a voice to the thousands of blacks who were enslaved in the latter part of the eighteenth century and in this way, the novel becomes more than just an historical document, but instead becomes a personal story of one woman’s courage and determination. Hill’s novel is really a family saga immersed in an historical time period.

(Read my full review)

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Lee doesn’t restrict herself to merely telling a story. She includes astounding insight into the roots of racism and the idea that one man’s courage to stand up against inequality may be all that’s needed to begin to shatter the beliefs that sustain hatred.

(Read my full review)

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

The Long Song is a brilliant novel narrated by an unforgettable character. July is, perhaps, one of the most memorable female voices I have read in a long, long time. Bittersweet, funny, often devastating…this is a novel which drew me in immediately and held me in its grip to the final page. Andrea Levy writes with an honesty and insight into the human condition that takes one’s breath away.

(Read my full review)

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The year is 1962. The place is Jackson, Mississippi. The issue is civil rights. Kathryn Stockett’s best selling debut novel, The Help, is narrated in the unforgettable voices of three women caught up in history and courageous enough to believe things can change simply by sharing their stories.

(Read my full review)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

When Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851, it outraged people in the American South and was criticized by slavery supporters. The novel was declared ‘utterly false’ by Southern novelist William Gilmore; others referred to it as criminal and slanderous. A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama was driven from town for selling the novel and Stowe received threatening letters, including a package containing a slave’s severed ear.

(Read my full review)

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.

So begins The Color Purple, a novel set in the deep south and told in the voice of a young black girl named Celie. Alice Walker brings Celie to life through her letters to God. Celie’s words tell of unspeakable horrors – her rape at the hands of her stepfather, her marriage to an older man who beats her, the loss of almost everyone dear to her. But, then her husband’s lover arrives and teaches Celie what it means to be courageous in the face of pain, and most importantly what it means to love and be loved.

The Color Purple is a splendid novel full of pain and joy, tears and laughter, love and hate. It is an American Classic that should be mandatory reading for all of us.

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman

Although a large part of the novel is dedicated to the Holocaust, the book also examines the Civil Rights movement and racism within the United States, and again looks at the individual stories which made up the larger historical picture.

(Read my full review)

Are there any books you would add to this list?


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  1. Yes, you could add Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I just read. I haven’t reviewed it yet, but I did post about it on Friday, here:

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:02

      Bonnie: Thank you for the recommendation!

    • Andi on January 16, 2012 at 11:58

    Excellent books. I have The Help on my Nook and ready to go. I looooved To Kill a Mockingbird (and was ridiculously late in life reading it), and I really want to try The Street Sweeper since your review.

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:03

      Andi: I just got the 50th Anniversary DVD of To Kill A Mockingbird – cannot wait to watch it!! Hope you’ll get a chance to read The Street Sweeper!

    • Brooke on January 16, 2012 at 13:23

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this list! I’ve been looking for something similar for a while now. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of my favorite books ever! The Help and To Kill A Mockingbird are also fabulous. Can’t wait to read the others. Happy MLK day!

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:04

      Brooke: You’re welcome!

    • Kailana on January 16, 2012 at 14:11

    Oh, what a great idea for a post. Thanks for sharing!

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:04

      Kailana: Thanks and you’re welcome!

  2. I agree with Andi’s choice Kindred, it’s a fantastic book. I loved it.

    To Kill A Mockingbird became an instant favorite of mine when I read it. Afterwards, I was upset that it had taken me so long to finally read it.

    The Help, The Color Purple, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are all on my TBR list. Hopefully, this year.

    I am now going to add the other four. That’s for the recommendations.

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:05

      Monique: I hope you’ll love them all! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Excellent post, Wendy. I’d add Mudbound to the list. I enjoyed that novel almost as much as The Help.

    Kindred has come to my attention several times this past month. Must be a sign for me to give it a read!

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:05

      Les: I wasn’t a huge Mudbound fan – but I know I was in the minority on that one!! This was the first I had heard of Kindred 🙂

    • Amused on January 16, 2012 at 19:42

    I just started The Color Purple on audio and I am LOVING it! Great selection here.

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:06

      Leah: Oh The Color Purple is SO great – glad you are enjoying it!

    • Trish on January 16, 2012 at 20:15

    Wonderful list of books, Wendy. Some I’ve read and some are on my list to read. I adored The Color Purple and would love to re-read it over and over.

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:06

      Trish: The Color Purple is short enough you could read it once a year! LOL!

    • serena on January 17, 2012 at 04:59

    What an intriguing list of books. I’ll have to check some of these out. I’ve only read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple from this list.

      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:06

      Serena: Hope you’ll enjoy them!

    • Ellie on January 17, 2012 at 18:23

    A true American hero. Thanks for posting THE speech and the listing of books on civil rights history. We all should expose ourselves to the great struggle of African Americans.


      • Wendy on January 19, 2012 at 15:07

      Ellie: You’re welcome – I agree that it is important for us to remember.

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