5 Songs and Books for Black History Month

5 Songs and Books for Black History Month

Jordan Smith

We’re officially in the midst of Black History Month 2019!

Race relations in America are just as hot a topic now as they were 50 years ago, and just as complex. Personally, the thing that opened my eyes to the complexity and importance of these issues was literature – there’s a reason every English teacher I had in college made me read W.E.B. DuBois. So, to kick things off, here are 5 excellent songs by black artists, matched with what book you should read with them.


Song: HELL YOU TALMBOUT – Janelle Monae f. Wondaland Records

This song, first released in 2015, is one that, sadly, has to be updated constantly. Ever powerful in its simplicity, this protest track demands we never forget the names of those killed by police brutality and racial violence. With the names of victims dating back to Emmett Till’s 1955 murder, the needed length and repetition that the song calls for is deeply saddening, no matter how many times you listen.

Book: Ida B. Wells – The Red Record

Ida B. Wells, founding member of the NAACP and badass investigative journalist traveled from Chicago to the south to investigate the causes of reported lynchings. More often than not, black men were lynched after being charged with rape. And more often than not (meaning every time), the charges were fabricated. Like the lyrics of HELL YOU TALMBOUT, the lynching statistics that Wells presents are shocking.


Song: The Blacker the Berry – Kendrick Lamar

If I could have picked all of To Pimp a Butterfly, I would have. Kendrick’s most notable album ponders self-worth, depression, institutional discrimination and optimism over jazz-infused hip-hop. Lauded as one of the most brilliant rap albums of all time, this is necessary listening. If I could pick any album to hear again for the first time, it would be this one.

Book: W.E.B. DuBois – The Souls of Back Folk

If you only read one book from this list, let it be this one. W.E.B. DuBois was the first black man to attend Harvard, he founded the NAACP, is called the father of the Harlem Renaissance and changed the way the country viewed black people, and it all started with The Souls of Black Folk. In the very first chapter he presents the reader with the game-changing concepts of double-consciousness, the veil and the color line. As an AFAM professor explained to me, “Imagine the only writers you have are like Eminem or whatever and then Kendrick comes along and releases some existential, philosophical TPAB shit. That’s what reading DuBois was like in 1903.” A big plus: Dubois is an excellent writer. He will have you swooning in seconds.


Song: New Slaves – Kanye West

Oh, Kanye. Just a year ago I was an unapologetic stan, but things have been complicated recently. After a series of questionable actions (like when he said slavery was a choice), you were up for official cancellation. I think a lot of people’s feelings about Ye are similar to what Dre said on Black-ish a couple weeks ago – “I really want to see him, but I will never ever give that man any more of my money!” It’s hard to support him right now, but it’s also difficult to ignore the impact he’s had on music.

Book: Booker T. Washington – Up from Slavery

Much like Kanye, Booker T. Washington is kind of a confusing figure. Founder of the Tuskegee Institute, he is known for his work in education and his famous speech known as the “Atlanta Compromise.” His contributions are many, and his journey from slavery to celebrity (as chronicled in this book) is truly incredible. He’s also known, however, for his acceptance of segregation and submission of civil rights (like voting). DuBois majorly calls him out for this in chapter 3 of Souls, igniting a pretty famous series of diss tracks between the two. Click HERE to read more about the effects of his famous speech from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Which brings us to . . .


Song: This is America – Childish Gambino

Does this one need an explanation? I think we all remember where we were when this music video dropped. The lyrics are pretty simple and repetitive, but the imagery of Donald Glover dancing shirtless in an empty warehouse in front of school children and murdering a church choir is pretty powerful.

Book: Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me

You’d be hard pressed to find a more impactful writer in 2019 than Ta-Nehisi Coates. His books and work at The Atlantic has put him with the likes of writers like James Baldwin and Malcolm X. Between the World and Me is a letter to his son, laying out his experiences as a kid in Baltimore, his time at Howard University and the realities of modern day race relations. It’s hard to not be moved as Coates writes to his son about police brutality, saying “. . . and you know now, if you did not know before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.”


Song: Formation – Beyonce

Did you really think you’d get through this list without Beyonce? I dare you to name an artist that’s more empowering or hard-working than Queen Bey! Formation embodies her confidence and artistic genius, as does the rest of Lemonade. This song is an ode to black culture and her personal heritage, and sparked a lot of debate after she performed it wearing Black Panther gear at the Super Bowl in 2016.

Book: Toni Morrison – Beloved

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story of an escaped slave that fled from Kentucky to Ohio in 1856. As family, guests and ghosts make their way in and out of 124, her family is forced to relive some of the horrors of her life in Kentucky. It explores the effect of slavery on identity and family, the importance of community and familial relationships, and has some seriously gripping prose. Like Queen Bey, Toni Morrison is an empowered black woman that we can all learn from.