A trailblazer in narrative non-fiction, author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson has dedicated her career to exploring the intersection of race, caste, and social structures in America. In 1994, while serving as the Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times, she made history by becoming the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1961, Wilkerson is a daughter of the Great Migration, the mass exodus of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South between World War I and the 1970s. She would spend 15 years researching the movement to write her first book, 2010’s critically acclaimed The Warmth of Other Suns. A decade later, she released her second, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, a social history of racial stratification in the U.S. that made Obama’s book list and was adapted into a film by Ava DuVernay.
Back in 2021, in honor of Black History Month, Wilkerson offered a reading list for America’s racial reckoning in Amazon Book Review:
“The early weeks of 2021 have shown us that our country is facing an overdue reckoning with unaddressed history and a fight for democracy itself. It calls upon us to learn the full history that led to this moment, particularly the history and origins of our centuries-old racial divisions. Here are six books that address the history and lived experiences of African-Americans, a group at the fulcrum of the country’s social, political and economic structure for 400 years.”
From Zora Neale Hurston to W.E.B. Du Bois, explore her recommendations below.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Reading List
“This revealing and comprehensive work by W.E.B. Du Bois, a towering figure of the 20th Century, examines a turning point in American history, the short-lived experiment and unmet hopes for a multi-racial democracy after the Civil War. As we look to better understand the historic forces beneath the insurrection of January 6, we would do well to consider how the country handled the missed opportunity of Reconstruction and the tragic consequences of those decisions, under which we labor to this day.” -IW
“Zora Neale Hurston’s account of the last cargo of enslaved Africans to the United States had been buried for 70 years. Now we get to witness the country’s most celebrated folklorist interview the only person then alive to tell of his capture, of the conditions of the Middle Passage, how he, Cudjo Lewis, was secreted into Alabama, and his ever-present longing for home. I loved seeing Hurston in action, loved how she brought him Georgia peaches and sat down to plates of blue crab with him and how he, in his wisdom, redirected her initial wish to hear about rather than his father. ‘Where is de house where de mouse is de leader?’ he asked her, saying he couldn’t tell of the son before telling of the father. In her Introduction, Hurston wrote of her motivations: ‘All these words from the sellers, but not one word from the sold.’ The belated publication of Barracoon was a major step toward correcting that omission.” -IW
The Black Book edited by Middleton A. Harris, Ernest Smith, Morris Levitt, and Roger Furman
“An encyclopedic scrapbook of Black American history. A museum exhibit that you can hold in your hands. A turn-the-page tour of Africans in America. The Black Book is the lovingly compiled collection of archive and artifact, a time capsule of runaway slave notices and sheet music for freedom songs, ads from the Jim Crow era, among many other things, and the 1856 article, ‘A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child,’ the story that inspired Toni Morrison’s masterwork of harrowing beauty, Beloved.” -IW
“The coronavirus has especially ravaged Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, in keeping with centuries-old disparities that recall a history of dehumanization and even brutal experimentation. The medical ethicist Harriet Washington’s ground breaking work is, to me, the leading and definitive analysis of the long history of medical abuse of African-Americans in the United States. One must be mentally prepared to read of the price paid, the suffering endured, of what was inflicted upon African-Americans in the name of medical progress.” -IW
A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross
“From Fanny Lou Hamer and Ella Baker of the civil rights era to Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors of our own, from voting rights leader Stacey Abrams to Vice President Kamala Harris, Black women have been at the forefront of the fight for inclusive democracy against the odds. The story of the legacy of Black women in America is brilliantly told, in the voices of the women themselves where possible, in this survey of 400 years of history by two of the country’s most accomplished historians.” -IW
All Aunt Hagar’s Children: Stories by Edward P. Jones
“With the crises unfolding in Washington, we all could benefit from the interior lens of the novelist and short story writer Edward P. Jones. He devotes himself to the unseen people beyond the capital monuments and federal buildings, those who labored and loved and tried to make lives for themselves in the shadow of power. This is an intimate and authentic short story collection that shares the everyday hopes and worries of Black southerners who arrived in Washington during the Great Migration only to find their and their descendants’ dreams harder to realize than imagined.” -IW
(via Amazon Book Review)