10 Biographies and Memoirs of Black Women Everyone Must Read

Black women have led incredible lives. Despite the odds, many have risen to remarkable heights. Th...

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Black women have led incredible lives. Despite the odds, many have risen to remarkable heights. There's much to be learned from their struggles and triumphs. Pick up one of these biographies, and get inspired.

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker - A'Lelia Bundles
On Her Own Ground is not only the first comprehensive biography of one of recent history's most amazing entrepreneurs and philanthropists, it is about a woman who is truly an African American icon. Drawn from more than two decades of exhaustive research, the book is enriched by the author's exclusive access to personal letters, records and never-before-seen photographs from the family collection. Bundles also showcases Walker's complex relationship with her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, a celebrated hostess of the Harlem Renaissance and renowned friend to both Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. In chapters such as "Freedom Baby," "Motherless Child," "Bold Moves" and "Black Metropolis," Bundles traces her ancestor's improbable rise to the top of an international hair care empire that would be run by four generations of Walker women until its sale in 1985. Along the way, On Her Own Ground reveals surprising insights, tells fascinating stories and dispels many misconceptions.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching - Paula Giddings
Heralded as a landmark achievement upon publication, Ida: A Sword Among Lions is a sweeping narrative about a country and a crusader embroiled in the struggle against lynching—a practice that imperiled not only the lives of black men and women, but also a nation based on law and riven by race.

At the center of the national drama is Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Born to slaves in Mississippi, Wells began her activist career by refusing to leave a first-class ladies' car on a Memphis railway and rose to lead the nation's first campaign against lynching. For Wells, the key to the rise in violence was embedded in attitudes not only about black men, but also about women and sexuality. Her independent perspective and percussive personality gained her encomiums as a hero—as well as aspersions on her character and threats of death. Exiled from the South by 1892, Wells subsequently took her campaign across the country and throughout the British Isles before she married and settled in Chicago. There she continued her activism as a journalist, suffragist, and independent candidate in the rough-and-tumble world of the Windy City's politics.

With meticulous research and vivid rendering of her subject, Giddings also provides compelling portraits of twentieth-century progressive luminaries, blacks and whites who worked with Wells during some of the most tumultuous periods in American history. In this groundbreaking work, Paula J. Giddings brings to life the irrepressible personality of Ida B. Wells and gives the visionary reformer her due. (Source)

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy - Annette Gordon-Reed
When Annette Gordon-Reed's groundbreaking study was first published, rumors of Thomas Jefferson's sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings had circulated for two centuries. Among all aspects of Jefferson's renowned life, it was perhaps the most hotly contested topic. The publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings intensified this debate by identifying glaring inconsistencies in many noted scholars' evaluations of the existing evidence. In this study, Gordon-Reed assembles a fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged thirty-eight-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.

Friends of Jefferson sought to debunk the Hemings story as early as 1800, and most subsequent historians and biographers followed suit, finding the affair unthinkable based upon their view of Jefferson's life, character, and beliefs. Gordon-Reed responds to these critics by pointing out numerous errors and prejudices in their writings, ranging from inaccurate citations, to impossible time lines, to virtual exclusions of evidence—especially evidence concerning the Hemings family. She demonstrates how these scholars may have been misguided by their own biases and may even have tailored evidence to serve and preserve their opinions of Jefferson. This updated edition of the book also includes an afterword in which the author comments on the DNA study that provided further evidence of a Jefferson and Hemings liaison.

Possessing both a layperson's unfettered curiosity and a lawyer's logical mind, Annette Gordon-Reed writes with a style and compassion that are irresistible. Each chapter revolves around a key figure in the Hemings drama, and the resulting portraits are engrossing and very personal. Gordon-Reed also brings a keen intuitive sense of the psychological complexities of human relationships—relationships that, in the real world, often develop regardless of status or race. The most compelling element of all, however, is her extensive and careful research, which often allows the evidence to speak for itself. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy is the definitive look at a centuries-old question that should fascinate general readers and historians alike. (Source)

Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero - Kate Clifford Larson
Harriet Tubman is one of the giants of American history—a fearless visionary who led scores of her fellow slaves to freedom and battled courageously behind enemy lines during the Civil War. And yet in the nine decades since her death, next to nothing has been written about this extraordinary woman aside from juvenile biographies. The truth about Harriet Tubman has become lost inside a legend woven of racial and gender stereotypes. Now at last, in this long-overdue biography, historian Kate Clifford Larson gives Harriet Tubman the powerful, intimate, meticulously detailed life she deserves.

Drawing from a trove of new documents and sources as well extensive genealogical research, Larson reveals Tubman as a complex woman— brilliant, shrewd, deeply religious, and passionate in her pursuit of freedom. The descendant of the vibrant, matrilineal Asanti people of the West African Gold Coast, Tubman was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but refused to spend her life in bondage. While still a young woman she embarked on a perilous journey of self-liberation—and then, having won her own freedom, she returned again and again to liberate family and friends, tapping into the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman, her life and her work, remain an inspiration to all who value freedom. Now, thanks to Larson’s breathtaking biography, we can finally appreciate Tubman as a complete human being—an American hero, yes, but also a woman who loved, suffered, and sacrificed. Bound for the Promised Land is a magnificent work of biography, history, and truth telling. (Source)

For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer - Chana Kai Lee
The youngest of twenty children of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer witnessed throughout her childhood the white cruelty, political exclusion, and relentless economic exploitation that defined black existence in the Delta. In this intimate biography, Chana Kai Lee documents Hamer's lifelong crusade to empower the poor through collective action, her rise to national prominence as a civil rights activist, and the personal costs of her ongoing struggle to win a political voice and economic self-sufficiency for blacks in the segregated South. Lee traces Hamer's early work as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in rural Mississippi, documenting the partial blindness she suffered after being arrested and beaten by local officials for leading a group of blacks to register for the vote. Hamer's dramatic appearance at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where she led a group from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in a bid to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation, brought both Hamer and the virtual powerlessness of black Mississippians to the nation's attention; but the convention also marked her first debilitating encounter with the middle class of the national civil rights movement. Despite her national visibility, Hamer remained a militant grassroots leader who never stopped working for the betterment of her own community in Sunflower County, Mississippi. (Source)

This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer - Kay Mills
Mills draws on interviews with Hamer, her relatives, friends and colleagues to recount her emergence as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. (Source)

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision - Barbara Ransby
One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives.

A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white.

In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century. (Source)

Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson - Barbara Ransby
Eslanda "Essie" Cardozo Goode Robeson lived a colorful and amazing life. Her career and commitments took her many places: colonial Africa in 1936, the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, the founding meeting of the United Nations, Nazi-occupied Berlin, Stalin's Russia, and China two months after Mao's revolution. She was a woman of unusual accomplishment—an anthropologist, a prolific journalist, a tireless advocate of women's rights, an outspoken anti-colonial and antiracist activist, and an internationally sought-after speaker. Yet historians for the most part have confined Essie to the role of Mrs. Paul Robeson, a wife hidden in the large shadow cast by her famous husband. In this masterful book, biographer Barbara Ransby refocuses attention on Essie, one of the most important and fascinating black women of the twentieth century.

Chronicling Essie's eventful life, the book explores her influence on her husband's early career and how she later achieved her own unique political voice. Essie's friendships with a host of literary icons and world leaders, her renown as a fierce defender of justice, her defiant testimony before Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous anti-communist committee, and her unconventional open marriage that endured for over 40 years—all are brought to light in the pages of this inspiring biography. Essie's indomitable personality shines through, as do her contributions to United States and twentieth-century world history. (Source)

Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family - Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice has excelled as a diplomat, political scientist, and concert pianist. Her achievements run the gamut from helping to oversee the collapse of communism in Europe and the decline of the Soviet Union, to working to protect the country in the aftermath of 9-11, to becoming only the second woman - and the first black woman ever -- to serve as Secretary of State.

But until she was 25 she never learned to swim.

Not because she wouldn't have loved to, but because when she was a little girl in Birmingham, Alabama, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor decided he'd rather shut down the city's pools than give black citizens access.

As comfortable describing lighthearted family moments as she is recalling the poignancy of her mother’s cancer battle and the heady challenge of going toe-to-toe with Soviet leaders, Rice holds nothing back in this remarkably candid telling. This is the story of Condoleezza Rice that has never been told, not that of an ultra-accomplished world leader, but of a little girl – and a young woman -- trying to find her place in a sometimes hostile world and of two exceptional parents, and an extended family and community, that made all the difference. (Source)

Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson - Jo Ann Gibson Robinson
The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ignited the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, has always been vitally important in southern and black history. With the publication of this book, the boycott becomes a milestone in the history of American women as well.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.(Source)

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks - Jeane Theoharis
The definitive political biography of Rosa Parks examines her six decades of activism, challenging perceptions of her as an accidental actor in the civil rights movement

Presenting a corrective to the popular notion of Rosa Parks as the quiet seamstress who, with a single act, birthed the modern civil rights movement, Theoharis provides a revealing window into Parks’s politics and years of activism. She shows readers how this civil rights movement radical sought—for more than a half a century—to expose and eradicate the American racial-caste system in jobs, schools, public services, and criminal justice. (Source)

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