Ever wanted to learn more about some of the most fascinating individuals in history on up to the present?
Before you fix your fingers to Google their bios, it must be noted how good the chances are that the person you were going to Google has written their own memoir. And if that’s the case, where better to go than directly to the source themselves?
Keep reading to find a list of must-read memoirs written by Black authors.
‘Finding Me’ by Viola Davis
You probably know Viola Davis from any number of her blockbuster movies, but you may not have known that she is also an author in her own right with last year’s publication of her memoir, “Finding Me.”
If Finding Me is largely a chronicle of the hard work required to overcome adversity, it’s also a wealth of meat-and-potatoes advice for all aspiring actors. Davis points out that “95% of actors do not work and less than 1% make $50,000 or more a year.” (This is where luck comes in.) She also suggests that while all serious actors pride themselves on learning their craft, the true underpinning of that craft is just being a mindful human being. “An actor’s work is to be an observer of life. My job is not to study other actors, because that is not studying life. As much as I can, I study people.”
‘Straight Shooter: A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes’ by Stephen A. Smith
Sometimes, two things can be true. For instance, Stephen A. Smith is a loudmouth sports analyst. But Stephen A. Smith is also a brilliant journalist whose storytelling prowess is showcased and then some in his recently released memoir, “Straight Shooter: A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes.”
“I never wanted to get into sports journalism just for the purpose of writing sports,” Smith insists in Straight Shooter. His early life suggests why. The son of Caribbean immigrants, Smith was a poor kid from Hollis, Queens, who suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia. He might easily have gotten lost in New York City’s vast public school system. His mother came to his rescue, building up his confidence and helping him navigate an indifferent education system as well as a neglectful father.
‘The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss and Survival’ by Bozoma Saint John
Bozoma Saint John, an iconic marketing executive whose track record includes successful stints at Netflix and Pepsi, among other brands, released her memoir earlier this month to rave reviews.
The book includes a passage about the time she was being considered for a coveted position at Apple Music, formerly known as Beats.
“Over the next couple of weeks there was a flurry of phone calls, culminating with a chat with Dre and Jimmy. The conversations went well, and I felt confident that they were going to make me an offer. Then, Judy, the company’s human resources person, called to ask if I could send my résumé,” Saint John writes as she details what happened next. “You’d think I could just get on Microsoft Word, find a template, and type up all the professional things I’d done. But I was frozen. In the midst of my trauma over Peter’s death, a hiccup that I once could have easily resolved became an obstacle that seemed impossible to overcome. I didn’t know what to do. I was too embarrassed to tell my friends that I didn’t know how to put together a basic CV. But I was worried that failing to deliver a résumé could be a deal breaker. I’d been mad at God, not speaking to him, but I needed him now. I sat in front of Peter’s laptop, closed my eyes, and prayed. I need this change, I said. I want this job. Please make this whole résumé mess go away.”
‘No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America’ by Darnell L Moore
The debut novel from activist Darnell Moore is his memoir recalling riveting moments from his formative years growing up in Camden, New Jersey.
From NY Journal of Books‘ review:
The residents of Camden were considered “the source of the violence and poverty plaguing the city.” As Moore explains, “We were never the problem.” He attributes entrenched racism, economic abandonment, exploitation and policing through violence as the root causes that inevitably led to community organizing, demonstrations and a fiery uprising in 1971.
‘In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court’ by Brittney Griner
Before she became an international hostage, Brittney Griner was dominating the basketball court and sharing the most personal moments from her life in the form of her 2015 memoir, “In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court.”
“Many people have asked me why I went to Baylor, a private Baptist university, if I knew I was gay,” Griner writes. “The most direct answer I can offer is this: I had zero knowledge of the policy.”
‘The Chiffon Trenches’ by André Leon Talley
Released months before André Leon Talley’s unexpected death, “The Chiffon Trenches” tells the truths of the fashion icon and former creative director and editor at large of the famed Vogue magazine. It is largely seen as a rebuke of longtime Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour for alleged mistreatment.
Talley’s “memoir, one gathers, is his trembling revenge for the “huge emotional and psychological scars” she inflicted on him,” the Guardian wrote in its book review.
‘Volunteer Slavery’ by Jill Nelson
This memoir by pioneering veteran journalist Jill Nelson recounts her time working at the Washington Post in the 1980s and showcases the perspective of a Black woman in one of the world’s leading newsrooms.
In this autobiographical essay, Jill Nelson offers the most pointed critique yet on racism at The Washington Post. Nelson, an African-American reporter who worked at the paper for four years, delights the reader with a memoir that’s raw, acerbic and hilarious; she happily picks at the scabs of race and sex and class that most writers prefer to leave untouched. For Nelson, payback is a bitch, and she pays back – and bitches back – with a vengeance, settling some nasty scores with the establishment organ that seduced her from freelance writing in New York and then abandoned her in the back-stabbing nation’s capital.
‘Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement‘ by John Lewis
The late Georgia congressman’s memoir, published in 1998, stands the test of time with vivid recollections of the civil rights movement in which John Lewis played a prominent role.
In ”Walking With the Wind,” John Lewis evokes, with simplicity and passion, how the 1960’s transformed the United States. In the first half of that decade, the civil rights movement toppled the legal structure of racial segregation, held forth the hope of building a society based on reconciliation and justice and helped create the foundation for other social movements. Yet by the end of the 60’s, assassinations, disillusionment with the political system and a tragic war 9,000 miles away had eroded optimism and a sense of possibility. In this powerful memoir (written with Michael D’Orso, the author of ”Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood”), Lewis provides a compelling account of that topsy-turvy journey — an account rooted in his own history.
‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama
The former first lady’s second book, released in 2018, went on to become a #1 international bestseller and the basis of a documentary of the same name two years later.
From the New York Times:
The former first lady’s long-awaited new memoir recounts with insight, candor and wit her family’s trajectory from the Jim Crow South to Chicago’s South Side and her own improbable journey from there to the White House.
No list of memoirs could truly ever be complete without an entry devoted to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published decades ago but still resonating.
In 2020, to mark the book’s 55th anniversary, NBC News reminded readers that the memoir “served as a guidebook into the life and philosophy of a civil rights leader who was as contentious as he was revered. Released eight months after his assassination and based on more than 50 interviews with the writer Alex Haley, the book was integral to shaping Malcolm X’s legacy.”
‘The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Hailed as an inspiring father-son story, Coates’ memoir is also a coming-of-age story in his native Baltimore.
The memoir is no cautionary tale pretending to document the loud, salacious bits of inner-city life, all the while glorifying or indicting them. There’s something quiet and elegant about Coates’s tribute to his complicated father, and to his boyhood city.
This debut book from journalist Jemele Hill goes deep into her native Detroit roots and the influence her hometown has had on her life and career.
Hill traces her tenacity back to her difficult Detroit upbringing, with a teenage mother and a heroin-addicted father. When Hill is in eighth grade, her mother beats and threatens to abandon her after reading her diary. “As harsh as my words were, I needed to release them,” Hill confesses with precision. “I needed her to know that her actions were hurting me.”
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