The African American Experience: Memoirs by Women

The African American Experience blog photo

Explore the personal stories of political activists, literary giants, and other women who challenged perspectives and overcame biases surrounding race, sex, and class to become inspiring leaders.

Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High by Melba Beals

The author describes the threats and emotional abuse she endured from white students and adults along with her fears of endangering her family as she committed to being one of the first African American students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors

A memoir by the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement explains the movement’s position of love, humanity, and justice, challenging perspectives that have negatively labeled the movement’s activists while calling for essential political changes.

Redefining Realness : My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock

A journalist and activist offers her perspective on the realities of being young, multi-racial, economically challenged, and transgender, recounting her disadvantaged youth and decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery at the age of eighteen.

The World According to Fannie Davis : My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridget M. Davis

An homage to the author’s mother relates how she cleverly played Detroit’s illegal lottery in the 1970s to support the family while creating a loving, joyful home and mothering her children to the highest standards.

Minority Leader : How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change by Stacy Abrams

A guide to harnessing the strengths of being an outsider by the political activist slated to become America’s first black woman governor shares the story of her own humble origins and rise through educational and political arenas, counseling women of color on how to overcome self-sabotaging beliefs while highlighting the strengths of their differences to gain a competitive edge in the real world.

Dust Tracks on a Road : an Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston

A moving presentation in her own words of the life of an African-American woman who rose from poverty to become an author whose work is read the world over is accompanied by an inspiring foreword by acclaimed poet Maya Angelou.

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Describes the author’s upbringing in a New Orleans East shotgun house as the unruly 13th child of a widowed mother, tracing a century of family history and the impact of class, race and Hurricane Katrina on her sense of identity.

The Black Girl Next Door : a Memoir by Jennifer Baszile

Traces the author’s coming-of-age in an exclusive white California suburb in the 1970s and 1980s, describing the prejudices that minimized her family’s achievements and her struggles to define herself as “the black girl next door” in light of her parents’ dreams.

Rabbit : the Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams

The popular comedian traces her youth in Atlanta’s most troubled neighborhood at the height of the crack epidemic. Rabbit is an unflinching memoir of cinematic scope and unexpected humor. With wisdom and humor, Pat gives us a rare glimpse of what it’s really like to be a black mom in America. 

Becoming by Michelle Obama

An intimate and uplifting memoir by the former First Lady chronicles the experiences that have shaped her remarkable life, from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago through her setbacks and achievements in the White House.

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

This intensely personal and political autobiography belies the fearsome image of JoAnne Chesimard long projected by the media and the state. With wit and candor, Assata Shakur recounts the experiences that led her to a life of activism and portrays the strengths, weaknesses, and eventual demise of Black and White revolutionary groups at the hand of 1960s government officials.

Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson

A highly personal meditation on race, sex, and American culture traces the author’s upbringing and education in upper-class African-American circles against a backdrop of the Civil Rights era and its contradictory aftermath.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.

Extraordinary, Ordinary People : a Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice

The personal story of the former Secretary of State traces her childhood in segregated Alabama, describes the influence of people who shaped her life, and pays tribute to her parents’ characters and sacrifices.

Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies Lessons & Love Affairs by Pearl Cleage

The award-winning author of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day reminisces on the art of balancing family, politics and a writing career during her pre-fame years in the 1970s and 1980s, tracing her rise from a small-time columnist and her friendships with such notables as Richard Pryor, Avery Brooks and Jesse Jackson.

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks

An intelligent, emotional glimpse into the author’s transition into womanhood describes leaving Kentucky to pursue her dreams at Stanford and becoming a successful writer, and details her involvement with feminism, the publication of her first book, and other personal events.

The Healing : One Woman’s Journey from Poverty to Inner Riches by Saeeda Hafiz

In this memoir of upward mobility through an unexpected route, a young black American woman signs up for lessons in yoga and clean eating as signifiers of her new middle class status, little realizing that her new lifestyle will bring her face to face with the inner demons fed by the domestic violence, addiction, and poverty she witnessed as a child.

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

The comedian and actress presents autobiographical essays that reflect on her disadvantaged youth as a foster child in South Central Los Angeles; her discovery of her talent for comedy; and her struggles with gender, race, and class boundaries in the entertainment industry.

My Soul Looks Back : a Memoir by Jessica Harris

The author describes her life in 1970s New York as part of the Black intelligentsia, including listening to James Baldwin’s early drafts of his work, cooking with Maya Angelou, and a chance encounter with Nina Simone.

From the Mississippi Delta : a Memoir by Endesha Holland

Recounts the author’s childhood in the 1940s,  and how she became active in the civil rights movement, earned a doctorate, and started writing.

Old in Art School : a Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Irvin Painter

A Princeton University historian describes her post-retirement decision to study art, a venture that compelled her to find relevance in the undervalued masters she loves, the obstacles faced by women artists, and the challenges of balancing art and life.

Something to Prove : a Daughter’s Journey to Fulfill a Father’s Legacy : a Memoir by Yvonne Thornton

The author reveals how, despite bias and setbacks, she rose to the top of her medical field to become the first African-American woman to be board certified in the obstetrical sub-specialty of maternal-fetal medicine, a feat that she credits in part to her father’s teachings about overcoming adversity.

Ordinary Light : a Memoir by Tracy K. Smith

An acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning poet explores coming-of-age and the meaning of home against a complex backdrop of race, faith and the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter.

Open Wide the Freedom Gates : a Memoir by Dorothy Height

The president of the National Council of Negro Women recounts her life and work in civil and human rights.

Pressure Makes Diamonds : Becoming the Woman I Pretended to Be by Valerie Graves

The powerful memoir of a female African American advertising executive’s unprecedented, unlikely success, which began in the Mad Men era.

More Than Enough : Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) by Elaine Welteroth

The award-winning journalist and Project Runway judge chronicles her efforts as editor-in-chief of Teen Magazine to infuse social consciousness into the magazine, sharing recommendations for women about living life on one’s own terms.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

A National Book Award winner recounts the loss of five young men in her life to drugs, accidents, suicide and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men, sharing her experiences of living through the dying as she searches through answers in her community.

Unafraid of the Dark : a Memoir by Rosemary Bray

A former editor of “The New York Times Book Review” describes growing up poor in Chicago in the 1960s and becoming one of the first Black women at Yale, and explains why recent changes in the welfare system will keep her story from being repeated

Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin

A literary diversity activist draws on her personal experiences as an African-American adoptive mother to reveal the virtual absence of Black representation in today’s parenting culture and the challenges that diverse families encounter from the adoption community.

If you are interested in more titles on this and other related topics, JMRL encourages you to use What Do I Read Next? to receive personal recommendations from JMRL librarians.

About JMRL Central Reference

Librarians in the reference department at the Central Library of JMRL.

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