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A Reading List for Black History Month

February is Black History Month. Black history has been recognized annually in America since 1926, when historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson designated the second week in February at “Negro History Week.” (U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Kristen Sauls)

February is Black History Month. Black history has been recognized annually in America since 1926, when historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson designated the second week in February at “Negro History Week.” (U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Kristen Sauls)

Courtesy graphic

Courtesy graphic

Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, NY -- As described in History.com, "Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history. The event grew out of "Negro History Week," the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history."

I'd like to recommend a short list of nonfiction books and one movie, "Red Tails," that will carry you far beyond the month of February. Click this link for the New York Times review of Red Tails. Of course it is impossible to capture the entire story of African Americans in the Army Air Corps, the famed Tuskegee Airmen, in one feature length film. Red Tails comes close to capturing the toxic atmosphere these brave American pilots had to operate in and I highly recommend it. These works of art are the embodiment of the spirit of Black History Month. All of the people portrayed in the movie and the books played monumental roles, individually and collectively in shaping the United States we know today. For the Tuskegee Airmen, the achievement was proving that all Americans had the right and ability to defend their country. In The Color of Water, it was the story of a mother who loved her family and insisted that her children reach their full potential by getting an education.

I started reading these books last fall and I thoroughly enjoyed each one. While none of these books has a military theme, they do represent profiles in individual courage and determination to overcome incredibly difficult circumstances. The authors paint a portrait of America starting from the late 1800's and the stories end in this decade. In roughly chronological order may I present..........

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. This is the most difficult book to read and speaking of toxic atmospheres, life for African Americans in post civil war America was precisely that and far worse. The difficulty with this book is the unimaginable cruelty of American society to its minority population. This is a cruelty that Nazi Germany could not compete with; it lasted from the end of Reconstruction to the 1970's. As a result of the hardships of life in the south, African Americans began moving north and west in droves to find economic and personal security. This one is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand America in the 21st century. Author: Isabel Wilkerson Publisher: Random House

Wink, The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield. In the late 1800's and through the early 20th century, horse racing was the dominant sport in America and Europe. And James Winkfield, the son of a free African American couple in Kentucky, and other African American jockeys were the dominant athletes of this era. Jimmy Winkfield's life could very easily have been plausibly transposed to the latter half of the 20th century. He was a free agent who, negotiated his own deals, married multiple times, and enjoyed unprecedented celebrity and adventure in the United States, Germany, Russia, and France. At 105 pounds, James Winkfield lived "the most fascinating untold sports story in America history." Author: Ed Hotaling Publisher: McGraw Hill

Black Aviator: The Story of William J. Powell. Among the many African American pioneers in our history committed to improving the lives of his people stands William J. Powell. Think of Mr. Powell as a precursor of the Tuskegee Airman chronicled in the movie, Red Tails. What is remarkable about his story is that it occurred in the 1930's, when most African Americans were living under the oppression of Jim Crow laws. Even more remarkable is that he chose aviation as the path to improve the lot of African Americans. Powell was a visionary who saw the growth of aviation as a means for African Americans to prove their intellect and industry to America. Powell urged blacks to become pilots, mechanics and aviation business leaders so that they could attain economic power in the air age and break down the barriers of racism." Author: William J. Powell Publisher: Smithsonian Institute Press

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This is the story of a poor tobacco farmer whose gift changed medicine in a great way. Henrietta Lacks was the daughter of poor tobacco farmers, who migrated the relatively short distance from southeast Virginia to Baltimore (see Warmth of Other Suns). She died of cervical cancer after a very harsh life and poor medical care. Her death, two years before I was born, was the beginning of a revolutionary change in medical science that has saved countless lives. Henrietta's life was especially appealing to me because I grew up in Baltimore and all places and people mentioned in the book are familiar to me. Her life story is as much about medical ethics, advances in modern medicine as it is a case study about family dynamics and sociology. Author: Rebecca Skloot Publisher: Broadway Paperback Books

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. At some point in the course of reading this book a tear or two will come to your eye, so get ready. You could very easily save The Color of Water for Women's History Month, but you must read this book. This is a triumph of the human spirit, and love and faith. This is a very moving true story and one that both genders will enjoy. Author: James McBride Publisher: The Penguin Group