15 Texts to Read in Honor of MLK, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dedicated his life to advocating for racial equality and battling discrimination and injustice. His talents as an orator and his dedication to nonviolent resistance were remarkable. Most of us are familiar with his rhetorical masterpiece, the “I Have a Dream” speech, but far too many are less familiar with the history of racial inequality in the United States.

Today, we’re sharing stories, poems, speeches, and essays that provide myriad voices on the African American experience in the United States. From 19th-century slave narratives to contemporary novels about racial inequality, each work provides an invaluable look at the social and racial inequalities that have shapedand continue to shapeAmerican society.

In honor of Dr. King’s work, let’s continue to share stories, read more diversely, and embrace the heartbreaking and hopeful narratives that push us to advocate for a more equitable, empathetic society.

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1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie’s award-winning novel centers on Ifemelu’s experience with the American dream as she becomes “Americanized,” recounting her experiences as a non-American black and the racism, classism, and economic disparity she faces.

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2. Becoming by Michelle Obama

Celebrated for its refreshing honesty, powerful storytelling, and compelling message, Michelle Obama’s memoir addresses not only the challenges she faced as a young black woman pursuing education and success but also the racial issues she faced as a First Lady.

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3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates penned this three-part, book-length letter to his fifteen-year-old son, Samori in an attempt to explain what it means to be black in the United States—particularly in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. 

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4. Fences by August Wilson

Wilson’s play is a powerful exploration of Troy Maxon’s life, family, aspirations, and failures amidst the limitations imposed through systemic discrimination in sports—all set against the backdrop of the rising racial tensions of the 1960s.

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5. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Civil rights’ lawyer Michelle Alexander challenges readers to acknowledge how inequality persists within our legal system by arguing how the United States’ criminal justice system remains unfairly biased against African Americans.

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6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

A vivid retelling of her trauma, love of family, and coming of age, Maya Angelou’s autobiography represents a potent example of perseverance in spite of racial prejudice.

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7. “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

This poem contains a fascinating mix of tones—defiant yet playful, angry yet comical—while conveying a strong political and personal message of resilience in the face of racial discrimination.

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8. Kindred by Octavia Butler

Though in the realm of science fiction, Butler’s early novel Kindred not only explores the privileges and power assigned to particular races and genders but also includes a thrilling tale of time travel.

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9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Ellison’s 1952 acerbic novel was immediately hailed as a literary masterpiece for delving into the harsh realities and truths about the effects of bigotry in American society on the eve of the civil rights movement.

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10. Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Written in the form of a screenplay by its main character, Monster contributes to the myriad stories of injustice perpetrated unfairly along racial lines in American law enforcement.

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11. Native Son by Richard Wright

With a new film adaptation arriving January 24, Richard Wright’s novel remains a powerful reflection on the effects of poverty and the feelings of hopelessness experienced by those in inner cities across the United States.

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12. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Hansberry’s 1957 play took its title from a poem by Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” and tells a story of generational tension and ideological conflict amid the racial injustices the Younger family must face together.

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13. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass

Although many are familiar with Douglass’s autobiography, his 1852 speech in Rochester, New York, endures not only as a testament to his oratory and rhetorical powers but also as an account of the hypocrisy and injustices that have and continue to endure in the United States.

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14. The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

Curtis’s historical novel not only follows, as you might guess, the Watsons on their trip to Birmingham in 1963 but also has much to say about family relationships and African American life in the 1960s.

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15. “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker

Perhaps Walker’s most popular short story, “Everyday Use” provides a poignant look at an individual’s relationship to her cultural roots, the influence of materialism on happiness, and the importance of community.