21 books Barack Obama says you should read if you want to become an authority on race relations in the US

Thibault Camus/AP ImagesFormer President Barack Obama recommended many books during his two-term presidency.
  • The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd set off a wave of protests across the country and sparked a public conversation on race in the US.
  • Some 58% of Americans say race relations in the US are “bad,” and few see them improving, according to 2019 Pew Centre research.
  • President Barack Obama, who achieved notable progress concerning criminal justice reform, spoke about about ushering in real change.
  • Obama has recommended dozens of books on the complex, and violent, history of race relations in the US.
  • Here are several Obama-recommended books, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” to works by Toni Morrison, that will help you better understand race in America.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Barack Obama recently spoke out about racism and inequality following a wave of protests across the US in the wake of George Floyd’s death. In a Medium post, and then in a video, he shared lessons about ushering in change.

“Every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals have been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable,” Obama said.

While these lessons come from his own experience as a Black man and as the first Black president of the US, they also are likely informed by reading books on racial justice. Obama, who achieved notable progress concerning criminal justice reform, has recommended dozens of books on race relations throughout, and since, his presidency.

These titles, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and works by Toni Morrison, can help you better understand the complex history of race relations in the US, which 58% of Americans say are “bad,” according to 2019 Pew Centre research.

Some 66% of Americans say they support the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country. Most groups of people say the protests have changed their view about race in America to some extent, Gallup research shows.

Though 150 years have passed since the abolition of slavery in the US, and about 55 years since Jim Crow Laws were enforced, the effects are far from gone. Black Americans are nearly three times as likely as white Americans to die from police use of force, 2019 data shows.

And years of redlining and unfair housing practices have left many US cities segregated. The wealth gap between middle class black and white families (a product, in part, of years of discriminatory education and employment practices) remains. In fact, as Business Insider previously reported, the wealth gap has increased by $US54,000 since 1992, a 2019 McKinsey report found.

How do we begin to unpack and understand the country’s history, in order to improve its future? Business Insider culled through Obama’s top picks and found several titles that deal directly with race relations.


“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Amazon

In it’s most basic form, this intimate, powerful book is a letter from Coates to his 15-year-old son, Samori, on how to live in a black body in the US and how to reckon with the country’s past.


Buy it here>>


“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight

Associated Press

In this historical biography, Blight examines the impact Fredrick Douglass had on the US. Douglass was a slave who escaped from his slave owners in Baltimore, Maryland, to become an influential orator and author after publishing the history-making “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.”


Buy it here>>


“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Amazon

Obama said:

“From one of the world’s great contemporary writers comes the story of two Nigerians making their way in the US and the UK, raising universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for identity, and a home.”


Buy it here »


“The World As It Is” by Ben Rhodes

Amazon

Obama said:

“It’s true, Ben does not have African blood running through his veins. But few others so closely see the world through my eyes like he can. Ben’s one of the few who’ve been with me since that first presidential campaign. His memoir is one of the smartest reflections I’ve seen as to how we approached foreign policy, and one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen about what it’s actually like to serve the American people for eight years in the White House.”


Buy it here>>


“Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli

Amazon

Luiselli’s best-selling novel follows a family on a road trip from New York to Arizona that grows increasingly tense as issues between the parents and children emerge. Meanwhile, the immigration crisis on the US-Mexico border unfolds, putting the family’s crisis in context of a larger national one.


Buy it here>>


“The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present” by David Treuer

Amazon

Academic and author Treuer combines in-depth reporting with storytelling in this best-selling piece on the history of the Native American people. The book covers everything from the rise of different tribal cultures to the seizure of their people’s land, forced assimilation, and resistance.


Buy it here>>


“The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston

Amazon

In “The Woman Warrior,” Chinese-American author Kingston weaves together her family’s stories, her experience growing up, and ancient Chinese myths in a book that makes powerful statements on American identity.


Buy it here »


“Lot: Stories” by Bryan Washington

Amazon

Set in the bustling city of Houston, “Lot: Stories,” follows an eclectic group characters on their individual journeys to find a place called home, including a young boy coming to terms with his gay identity, a family in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and a drug dealer who takes a Guatemalan teen under his wing.


Buy it here>>


“The Yellow House” by Sarah M. Broom

Amazon

“The Yellow House” isn’t just a story about the author’s home in a neglected area of New Orleans, but a commentary on race and inequality in the US.


Buy it here>>


“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Amazon

“Obviously my favourite!” Obama wrote in a 2018 Facebook post on his top books, which included his wife’s bestselling memoir.


Buy it here>>


“Solitary” by Albert Woodfox

Amazon

Albert Woodfox shares his story of surviving more than 40 years confined to a cramped cell in solitary confinement at Louisiana’s “Angola” prison – for a crime he says he didn’t commit. The story is a powerful commentary on the prison and judicial system.


Buy it here>>


“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

Amazon

Whitehead’s fiction piece follows a girl named Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia who faces brutal treatment. One day, she learns about the Underground Railroad from a friend, and the pair makes the life-changing decision to attempt an escape.


Buy it here »


“Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison

Amazon

Morrison, beloved African American novelist and essayist, won the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature for this work of fiction, which follows the story of the first African-American child to be born in the hospital.

“You can’t go wrong by reading or re-reading the collected works of Toni Morrison. Beloved, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, Sula, everything else – they’re transcendent, all of them. You’ll be glad you read them,” Obama writes in his August 2019 book list.


Buy it here »


“Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” by Sarah Smarsh

Goodreads.com

Like the popular books “Janesville” and “Hillbilly Elegy,” “Heartland” paints a beautiful, but troubling, picture of America’s postindustrial decline.


Buy it here>>


“The Nickel Boys: A Novel” by Colson Whitehead

Amazon

Set in the Jim Crow era, and based off of a real school for boys that closed in 2011, Whitehead’s novel follows a young black man sent to a school that claims it turns bad boys into good men. Obama calls the book “a necessary read.”


Buy it here>>


“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson

Amazon

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author details one of the most important, but little-known stories in US history, the 1915 to 1970 migration of black citizens to the North and West from the South.


Buy it here>>


“Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson

Amazon

In this young adult read comprised of seven poems, Woodson shares her story of what it was like growing up African American in an era where Jim Crow’s effects could still be felt and the Civil Rights movement was growing.


Buy here>>


“American Prison” by Shane Bauer

Amazon

In 2014, journalist Shane Bauer took a job as a prison guard at a private prison in Louisiana for an undercover article that would spark a national conversation on for-profit prisons. In “American Prison,” Bauer digs deeper, explaining private prisons and their role in a post-slavery US.


Buy it here>>


“Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois

Target

“The Souls of Black Folk” by Du Bois, a historian, a civil rights activist, and sociologist, is a crucial work of African American literary history and sociology.


Buy it here>>


“Finding My Voice” by Valerie Jarrett

Amazon

In this memoir, the former Obama senior adviser, documents her decades-long relationship with Michelle and Barack Obama, from interviewing a young Michelle for a job in Chicago to becoming the couple’s trusted political go-to and confidante.


Buy it here>>


“In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History” by Mitch Landrieu

Amazon

The former New Orleans mayor who removed multiple Confederate statues from the city talks about racism in the US and argues for white Americans to confront the country’s past.


Buy it here>>

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