Literature for Black History Month

February is Black History Month. In honor of Black History Month, I like to incorporate literature written by African Americans into my ELA classroom. The type and length of literature depends upon various factors including what grade I’m teaching, if my class is an annual class or a half year course (in NY we start a new semester the last week in January), and if I’m in the middle of a longer unit. In an ideal world I’d have time for a full-length novel, memoir or play.

My favorite book to teach during Black History Month is the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Although the play was published in 1959 the topics and themes of the play are still relevant today. When I teach 9th grade I love to use the young adult novel Monster by Walter Dean Myers. The protagonist of the book is a 16-year-old boy that’s on trial for felony murder. Students always enjoy this novel. I find that my students enjoy any book by Walter Dean Myers.

If I don’t have time for a longer work of literature, I like to teach a few poems by African American authors. Two of my personal favorites are Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou but there are many poets you can incorporate into your curriculum. If you’re in the middle of a unit, you can tie in a poem or two thematically.

Below is a list of some of my favorite works of literature written by African American authors. This is not meant to be a definitive list. This list is simply a list of books, authors and poets that I think work well in a secondary classroom. Some of these books work well as full class books while others would make a great addition to a classroom library.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

This play was published in 1959 and deals with an African American family struggling with poverty and racism in Chicago. I’ve taught this play with both 9th and 10th grade but I know other teachers use it in 11th grade as well.

Kindred by Octavia Butler
This is a science fiction novel about a woman who travels back in time from present day to the time-period of slavery. She goes back and forth several times between the two time-periods. This is a great book to put in your classroom library or to use with literature circles.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This book deals with a lot of controversial topics including racism, misogyny and abuse. I taught this book in AP Literature and Composition. The topics are very mature so I wouldn’t use this book with younger students.

Fences by August Wilson
This play deals with family relationships and racial inequality. If you teach the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller you can draw a lot of comparisons between the two plays. I’ve taught this play to 11th graders.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The book deals with one woman’s search for love amid a racist, misogynistic society full of gossip hounds. This book works well with 11th and 12th graders

Beloved by Toni Morrison
The protagonist of the novel Sethe was born into slavery. When the book starts she is no longer a slave but her background story is pieced together through memories. The book portrays the horrors that the slaves faced daily. The book is very graphic so it would probably should be used with upper grades.

Night John by Gary Paulsen
The novel is set in the 1850’s on a Plantation. The main character of the novel is a young girl named Sarny. A slave named Night John teaches Sarny to read despite the fact that the penalty for teaching a slave to read was dismemberment. This is a great book to use for middle school students or lower level high school students.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This is a recent young adult novel that deals with racism and poverty. Starr Carter is a 16-year-old girl that lives in a poor neighborhood but travels to go to a fancy school in a better neighborhood. When one of her childhood friends get killed in front of her, her world turned upside down. This is a great book to add to your classroom library.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This memoir discusses the author’s childhood in the 1960’s. The book is written in free verse. The book shows racism and segregation in the south. This book (or any of Jacqueline Woodson’s books) is a great addition to a classroom library.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers
This book is about a 16-year-old boy who is on trial for felony murder. The book is written as a screenplay and it shows the entire court case. The book deals with poverty, racism, gangs and peer pressure. I’ve taught this book several times with 9th graders but it will work well with middle school students as well. Walter Dean Myers has a lot of YA books that students love. They’re a great addition to a classroom library.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
This book is Maya Angelou’s memoir about her childhood. She dealt with being abandoned by her mother, racism, poverty and sexual assault.The topics are very mature so I would use it with 11th or 12th grade. I’ve only taught this memoir once and I used it with 12th graders.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
This non-fiction book is about Frederick Douglass’ life as a slave in the south. Although the book deals with the harsh reality of America’s dark past, it shows how one man outsmarted his masters and learned to read. He eventually escapes to the North but he doesn’t reveal how. I taught this book once with 9th graders. The book would also work well with middle school students.

Below is a list of African American poets that I think work well in secondary classrooms. In my experience most of my students are familiar with Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou but they don’t really know the other poets listed below.

Maya Angelou
Langston Hughes
Countee Cullen
Claude McKay
Lucille Clifton
June Jordan
Nikki Grime
Nikki Giovanni
Audre Lord
Robert Hayden

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