We humans

62 great books by Black authors, recommended by TED speakers

Jun 8, 2020

Compiled from past TED book lists, here’s a curated selection of fiction and non-fiction titles to check out now.

Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Change by Stacey Abrams (TED talk: 3 questions to ask yourself about everything you do)
I work in government affairs, and the last thing I enjoy reading for pleasure are books by politicians. However, this book is different on so many levels and is a must-read — whether you’re a political junkie or just someone seeking inspiration to chart your own course. I instantly related to and was inspired by Abrams’s candid struggles to overcome self-doubt and embrace the full range of her abilities as a talented woman of color. Her writing is candid, eloquent, familiar, funny and highly digestible. I found myself nodding, smiling, dog-earing pages, and taking deep inhalations to digest her inspiring wisdom. (Read an excerpt here.)
— Nikki Clifton (TED talk: 3 ways business can fight sex trafficking)

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
If you’re a fantasy fan, I can’t recommend this book enough! I read it in one day at the beach last summer, and I couldn’t put it down. The first in the series, Children is a West African-inspired tale filled with magic and adventure.
— Liz Kleinrock (TED Talk: How to teach kids about taboo topics)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (TED talk: The danger of a single story)
This was the first book I read as an adult that made me feel understood. Navigating the multiple cultures that you’re a part of — as an immigrant or first-generation person in the West — is quite an endeavor. Doing this while carrying your Blackness and Africanness, in addition to maintaining your humanity, is a journey. Adichie does this with sagacious humor in her novel.
— Michael Rain (TED talk: What it’s like to be the child of immigrants)

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (TED Talk: The danger of a single story)
At one point, I started calling myself a humanist instead of a feminist. I convinced myself by saying I cared about all humans, so why bother with those negative associations with the word “feminist”? I read this short book while I was on a plane, and who would have thought that after all these years, a book would make me call myself a feminist again with pride, genuineness and fearlessness? Adichie says she started calling herself “a happy African feminist who does not hate men and who likes to wear lip gloss and high heels for herself and not for men” to defend against the stereotypes associated with the f-word. Although I may not be African, do not wear lipstick often, and quickly get tired from high heels, I felt she was speaking about me. I felt she was in my (flat) shoes! To women and men, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, I encourage you all to embrace being a feminist.
— Lana Mazareh (TED Talk: 3 thoughtful ways to conserve water)

Adichie’s approach to the politics of gender is sharp and funny and really accessible. Without ever seeming idealistic or naive, she uses her superhuman compassion to imagine a future in which women and men have more possibilities for how to be at home in the world.
— Mandy Len Catron (TED Talk: A better way to talk about love)

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
After finding myself embarking on a historical journey through the “in-justice” system, I read this book and questioned whether the people who commit crimes are actual criminals. Or is America creating environments where the enforcement of law is greater in certain communities? I reached the last page of the book knowing it was up to people like me to bring justice to the US legal system.
— Jarrell Daniels (TED Talk: What prosecutors and incarcerated people can learn from each other)

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Alexander, Obama’s inaugural poet, wrote an absolutely heart-wrenching memoir after the death of her husband. By reading the book you come to care about her, you come to care about him, and you come to care about their whole family — her loss becomes your loss. You mourn alongside her.
— Caitlin Doughty (TED Talk: A burial practice that nourishes the planet)

Another Country by James Baldwin
At WITNESS.org, we collaborate closely with communities who are using video to tell the story of systemic racism. Baldwin’s novel is set in the fifties, but it compellingly describes what the videos we see today are showing us.
— Yvette Alberdingk Thijm (TED Talk: The power of citizen video to create undeniable truths)

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell
Bell is a self-described sociopolitical comedian. In a series of essays that are part memoir and part sharp and humorous take on the world, he tackles everything from race relations to comedians and superheroes. I found myself both snorting with laughter and reflecting soberly on the challenges of our time. I dare say both are essential for processing the complicated and sometimes absurd events of now.
— Liz Ogbu (TED Talk: What if gentrification was about healing communities instead of replacing them?)

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
Rarely is a debut collection lauded as an instant classic and justifiably so. With heart and humanity, Man explores the emotional lives of black men and boys. Brinkley’s prose is poetic and lush, and each story is a rich world unto itself. Just as the Caribbean celebration J’ouvert heralds the breaking of a new dawn, this book signals the arrival of a unique and necessary voice in fiction.
— Felice Belle (TED Talk with Jennifer Murphy: How we became sisters)

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Brown tells her story of growing up as an African American in white middle America. This is a story about white middle-class Christianity and its power to perpetuate privilege and racial hostility.
— Jonathan Williams (TED Talk with Paula Stone Williams: The story of a parent’s transition and a son’s redemption)

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
This is a lyrical, explorative, non-linear journey of the concept of emergent strategy. Brown explains at the outset that the book is meant to be perused, returned to and jumped around in. There are essays, poems, exercises, dialogues, assessments, facilitations, even a playlist. It’s a book for people interested in radical social change, who are willing to think expansively about what the future could look like, or are in need of help doing that kind of thinking.
— Miriam Zoila Pérez (TED Talk: How racism harms pregnant women — and what can help)

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown
I’ve been rereading this book since its publication in March. How could I not? It’s the only one that has ever encouraged orgasming before, during and after reading it. Also, brown brings us into intimate conversation with all the pleasure activists who have supported and uplifted her while bringing their own healing- and pleasure-focused magic into the world.
— Gabby Rivera (TED Talk: The story of Marvel’s first queer Latina superhero)

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
If the desert island you’re on happens to be more Lord of the Flies than Lord Howe Island, Parable is one of the best books possible to both acclimate yourself to your new struggle for survival and provide a narrative for how, even in a dystopia, one can rebuild civilization and lead a path to the stars. In the mid-2020s, when society has effectively collapsed due to climate change and ineffective social governance, a young woman from Southern California is forced to go on a dangerous journey to the Pacific Northwest to try to find safety. Through her many shocking and harrowing trials, she remains driven and inspired by a future where humanity can still find a way to leave the Earth and build a new home in the stars despite its flaws and failures. Together with its sequel, Parable of the Talents, it is arguably the greatest story ever told about the power of spaceflight that features no spaceships.
— Alex MacDonald (TED Talk: How centuries of sci-fi sparked spaceflight)

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
This short novel tells an epic story that takes place over thousands of years. It explores questions of identity, gender, race and power, while at the same time asking questions about relationships in a very personal and sometimes disturbing way. Not light reading, but well worth it.
— Shohini Ghose (TED Talk: Quantum computing explained in 10 minutes)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Sometimes, I think hope is not possible unless we take an honest look at how oppression works in our daily lives. Coates seems to understand that we can’t be hopeful if we can’t see what might need to change. I love this book — written as a letter from the author to his son — because his love for his child ultimately shapes and focuses his honest depiction of what it means to be a black man in America.
— Mandy Len Catron (TED Talk: A better way to talk about love)

This is a powerful read that evokes action in us all and provides a well-researched historical account of race relations in the US. Coates’s writing is excellent, and he describes how understanding starts with communication — not assumption. This book will open your eyes and increase your empathy.
— Shivani Siroya (TED Talk: A smart loan for people with no credit history (yet))

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittany Cooper (TED Talk: The racial politics of time)
There is so much beauty and strength in being unapologetically angry about navigating the world in a Black body while in a society that systematically lessens its value. I’m grateful for Cooper for being angry out loud and for empowering all of us — in whatever causes we’re fighting for — to validate the role that rage has in making change. In my work, I encourage teens not to censor themselves, and Cooper is a brilliant example of how to stand in your truth while honoring those who bear witness.
— Malika Whitley (TED Talk: How arts help homeless youth heal and build)

My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass
“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” To me, this quote perfectly illustrates the effect that slavery had on those who were raised to uphold its tenets. That a system can be a detriment even to those that may benefit from it I find incredibly poignant even in today’s society. It’s so important that we recognize the implications of our beliefs both in how they affect ourselves as well as others. My Bondage and My Freedom not only taught me about the cruel reality of slavery but also showed that in the most depraved systems humanity will seek to reach its potential no matter what obstacles are placed in its path.
— Zak Ebrahim (TED Talk: I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace)

Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu
This manifesto/memoir is a reminder of how women are expected to succeed at two full-time jobs — the paid one outside the home and the unpaid one at home — and how we need to be realistic about our expectations in order to be successful at both.
— Grace Kim (TED Talk: How cohousing can make us happier and live longer)

Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History by Camille T. Dungy
Dungy’s micro and macro attention is captivating, as she writes hilariously in one paragraph about breast pump flanges and poignantly in another about the pathways of Africans forced into slavery. Each essay, while distinctly different in topic, either focuses on or eventually comes around to issues of race and motherhood and history, making the book thoughtfully cohesive. And because many of the essays take you places — such as Alaska, Maine, Ghana — the book reads as a travel collection as well, so I love it for summer reading.
— Heather Lanier (TED Talk: “Good” and “bad” are incomplete stories we tell ourselves)

Take This Stallion by Anaïs Duplan
An hour with this book will change even the pitch of your internal thoughts, as poet Duplan reshapes it with her vivid and hypnotizing words. Each poem promises a new and reviving experience, whether it’s the hypothetical secret philosophical life of Kardashian-West or a peanut salesperson knocking on a door. Duplan’s writing is bold and dangerous, rough and intelligent, angelic and humble. It has the power to look into readers’ souls and know them.
— Siyanda Mohutsiwa (TED Talk: How young Africans found a voice on Twitter)

Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt
Stanford University professor Eberhardt draws on years of her own rigorous academic research and the work of others to effectively break down how bias insidiously operates in each of our lives — as perpetrators, victims, bystanders and helpers — every day. The deeply moving personal and professional experiences that she shares help facilitate a tangible connection to this important subject matter. A must read for scholars and laypeople alike, this book reaches beyond the merely descriptive to prescribe courses of action that have been found to be effective in combating our unconscious bias.
— Dana Kanze (TED Talk: The real reason female entrepreneurs get less funding)

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.
Locking Up is a careful and convincing analysis of the historical role that black political elites have played in the rise of mass incarceration. This book challenges us to think more rigorously about the mass incarceration of America’s black men and focuses our attention on the complexities of race, class and crime in the inner cities.
— Zachary Wood (TED Talk: Why it’s worth listening to the people you disagree with)

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
This big-hearted little book of poems embraces joy even as it’s willing to weigh joy’s opposite — loss and grief. It’s a stunning book, filled with long poems that make you delight in being alive. I especially recommend steeping yourself in Gay’s revelry in anticipation for his upcoming essay collection, which will be published in winter 2019. I’m using this poetry collection to tide me over until then.
— Heather Lanier (TED Talk: “Good” and “bad” are incomplete stories we tell ourselves)

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay (TED Talk: Confessions of a bad feminist)
These essays critique the culture and media we consume, including literary representations of women, from a very personal perspective. The images we are inundated with and the stories we are told shape who we become, and Gay’s witty and sophisticated analysis allows us to be more cognizant of this process.
— Sofia Jawed-Wessel (TED Talk: The lies we tell pregnant women)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (TED Talk: Confessions of a bad feminist)
An utterly readable, intimate examination by the author about living as a fat black woman. It’s impossible to put down and impossible to read without being moved and vicariously enraged.
— Cathy O’Neil (TED Talk: The era of blind faith in big data must end)

A Human Being Died That Night: Confronting Apartheid’s Chief Killer by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Following the fall of apartheid, psychologist Gobodo-Madikizela, who was working for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is given a nightmare assignment: to spend hours and hours interviewing and trying to understand the jailed Eugene de Kok, who oversaw the torture and death squads of the regime and who arguably had the most apartheid-era blood on his hands. But rather than being a monstrous archetype, de Kok turned out to be a human, for better or worse. While hugs don’t ensue by the end amid stirring violins, the author is repeatedly blindsided by finding little slivers of human connection with the man. An “if it can happen with them, it can happen anywhere” kind of story.
— Robert Sapolsky (TED Talk: The biology of our best and worst selves)

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (TED Talk: The unheard story of David and Goliath)
I love this book, because it confirms through specific data that outstanding people owe much more to context than individual talent.
— Sebastián Bortnik (TED Talk: The conversation we’re not having about digital child abuse)

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This novel is a magical, three-century epic story about colonialism, the slave trade, ancestry and the traumas that are passed down from one generation to the next. The beautifully told story invites us to reconsider the root causes of our present-day social justice issues — racism, mass incarceration, poverty, gentrification and more.
— Vanessa Garrison (TED Talk: When Black women walk, things change)

This is an impressive novel to get lost in. It gives a historical perspective on slavery and the slave trade and explores how our identities are shaped by personal and political circumstances. Although this book must have required painstaking research, Gyasi seamlessly transitions from history to the present, managing to capture the natural authenticity of each character.
— Sayu Bhojwani (TED Talk: How immigrant voices make democracy stronger)

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
The story in this recently discovered manuscript was new to me. In this book, author Hurston offered me a new perspective of freedom, emancipation and the belief in humanity.
— Deborah Willis (TED Talk with Hank Willis Thomas: A mother and son united by love and art)

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison
This is the first book in a Hugo award-winning trilogy that takes place on an earth-like planet with significant geologic activity (think earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.) that occur at random and create the title’s “fifth season” — a nuclear winter. The whole society is structured around surviving these fifth seasons. In this world, there are people who can sense and control the planet’s activity, and they are feared, shunned and used by society for their powers. This book describes an incredibly detailed world that makes a commentary on how our own society uses and abuses people who are different. It’s an easy, engrossing and super profound read; I could not put it down.
— Erika Hamden (TED Talk: What it takes to launch a telescope)

Some of Us Did NOT Die by June Jordan
This book of essays, poetry and original work from the late June Jordan spans a wide variety of topics, but all of them are thought-provoking and encouraging. The title, Some of Us Did NOT Die, along with many of the pieces, reminds us of the power of doing the work while we’re still on the planet. I come back to it often when I want to commune with brilliance.
— Jedidah Isler (TED Talk: The untapped genius that could change science for the better)

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Kendi’s book is an incredibly comprehensive look at the history of racism in America. While I wouldn’t categorize it as light reading, it’s a necessary and important read for everyone.
— Liz Kleinrock (TED Talk: How to teach kids about taboo topics)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle
I started this book on the day slotted for back-to-school clothes shopping for my kids, and we never made it to the store — thus, my kids wore too-small clothes to the first day of school in 2017. LaValle’s snappy prose, fabulous characters and penetrating observations made this one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 Books of the Year. Be warned: This book leans scary — not my usual fare but it was worth it — as LaValle leads the new genre of “literary horror.” It’s the kind of smart escapist fare that will make you forget you are on a desert island.
— Dolly Chugh (TED Talk: How to let go of being a “good” person and become a better person)

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
This book is so beautifully human and truthful and vulnerable and Black. It’s a perfect piece of writing — gut wrenching but necessary and also loving and bold in ways that we all need.
— Tarana Burke (TED Talk: Me Too is a movement, not a moment)

Lovesong: Becoming a Jew by Julius Lester
Lester so beautifully describes his experience growing up in a devout southern Christian family during the Civil Rights era before he decided to convert to Judaism. I instantly loved this book, and I was so inspired by the way he demystifies his conversion while honoring the complicated relationship among his racial, religious and cultural backgrounds as well as his journey into his chosen faith.
— Malika Whitley (TED Talk: How arts help homeless youth heal and build)

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
I find women’s autobiographies to be quite empowering, especially when I’m feeling down or in doubt about my life. This memoir by a Kenyan environmental and political activist is a story of resilience and determination. Born in rural Kenya, Maathai ended up being the first woman from her country to receive a PhD, as well as head a university department. Through a foundation she established, she helped restore indigenous forests while also assisting rural women by paying them to plant trees in their villages. Without a doubt, her courageous story shows how we can make the best out of our circumstances, despite the challenges.
— Laura Boushnak (TED Talk: For these women, reading is a daring act)

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
After reading this book, you’ll unavoidably feel joyful because Mandela surpassed many obstacles and brought his people to freedom.
— Wanda Diaz Merced (TED Talk: How a blind astronomer found a way to hear the stars)

Five Carat Soul by James McBride
I don’t generally gravitate toward fiction, but this collection of short stories, set in a variety of compelling places and time periods, is so creative and rich, it’s been really fun to read. I was quickly drawn in by the vivid settings and characters and loved the unpredictable storylines.
— Liz Hajek (TED Talk: What rivers can tell us about the Earth’s history)

Sortir de la Grande Nuit by Achille Mbembe
This book, which is written in French, is a poetic essay on the myths of Africa’s decolonization. It highlights modern Africa’s mutations and the realities of neocolonialism and puts it in today’s global context.
— Pierre Thiam (TED Talk: A forgotten ancient grain that could help Africa prosper)

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley
This mystery, which is part of the Easy Rawlins series, focuses on art, friendship and storytelling. I love the mysteries explored here and what the book says about life and relationships.
— Deborah Willis (TED Talk with Hank Willis Thomas: A mother and son united by love and art)

If I Stay Right Here: A Novel by Chwayita Ngamlana
This book is a dark and extremely personal account of one woman’s experience of intimate partner violence with her girlfriend. The author uses an experimental literary style that makes reading it a bit of a trip sometimes. Intimate partner violence is not a topic that’s often spoken about, but this semi-biographical book breaks the silence.
— Tiffany Mugo (TED Talk with Siphumeze Khundayi: How to have a healthier, positive relationship to sex)

Becoming by Michelle Obama
This book tells the story that we oftentimes do not hear — we see successful people but never hear how they got there. This memoir explores Obama’s highs and the lows, allowing every human being to know that hard work and perseverance do pay off and that on the road to success one should always be evolving and becoming one’s authentic self through life lessons that build character.
— Olympia della Flora (TED Talk: Creative ways to get kids to thrive in school)

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (TED Talk: Sci-fi stories that imagine a future Africa)
I love fantasy and science fiction, but people of color are sorely underrepresented across the speculative fiction universe. This young adult coming-of-age story’s main character struggles with her bi-cultural identity, which resonates with me. (She also struggles with understanding her magical powers, which I can also relate to.) I read this book to my daughter, and we both couldn’t wait to get to it every night. (Read an interview with Okorafor here.)
— Mia Birdsong (TED Talk: The story we tell about poverty isn’t true)

Version Control by Dexter Palmer
This novel treads a fine line between modern literature and science fiction, perfectly adapting the evocative prose and mystery of one and the excitement and uncertainty of the other. Primarily following the middle-age crisis of Rebecca — a woman who feels something is deeply wrong with her universe — the book explores whether her ennui is caused by the banality of modern life, a mysterious family tragedy or something that’s gone terribly wrong with her physicist husband’s “causality violation” experiment. While it’s set in a not-too-distant future of autonomous cars, pervasive social networking and online dating, the struggles of the characters to find meaning, purpose and love are timeless.
— Natasha Hurley-Walker (TED Talk: How radio telescopes show us unseen galaxies)

Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America by Gregory Pardlo
Air Traffic was written by one of my mentors, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Pardlo. It helped me deal with the complicated range of emotions that I struggled with after I lost my father last year. This memoir is about a difficult relationship between a father and son, and it shows us love in a form that we rarely see displayed openly. It’s work to try to understand and accept a complex person while still seeing them in all their humanity — including their anguish and their ugliness.
— Michael Rain (TED talk: What it’s like to be the child of immigrants)

The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race by Melanye Price
This book helped me to grapple with the meaning of the Obama era, in this moment where many of us miss the sanity of that era. It is critical and thoughtful but written in an engaging and accessible style.
— Brittney Cooper (TED Talk: The racial politics of time)

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
Not really a memoir but more a collection of essays, this book made me laugh out loud on one page and then question some of my assumptions and beliefs on another. I particularly connected with it, because Rae is around my age and some of the coming-of-age stories that she tells revolve around the new technologies (AOL chat rooms!) that we were all exploring — resulting in both our edification and corruption — in the mid-to-late ‘90s.
— Elizabeth Cawein (TED Talk: How to build a thriving music scene in your city)

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor (TED Talk: Why your worst deeds don’t define you)
After a few pages, I knew this book was going to alter my perception on incarceration in America, as we need to hear first-hand stories straight from people who were systematically put there rather than through Hollywood movies or researchers or journalists. Throughout the whole book, I was like, ‘This is happening right in my backyard?’ Shaka spent 19 years transferring from one prison to another and experiencing each one’s subculture and unwritten rules. His words are honest and very necessary, and I hope they will help humanize incarceration policies. Or, better, to use education and mentorship to find a way to prevent young kids from being incarcerated. Their bodies do not belong to any system or country but themselves, and it is our responsibility to listen.
— Christine Sun Kim (TED Talk: The enchanting music of sign language)

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
Assata reads so much like a novel that I can’t believe it’s actually a real story. I love her commitment to the cause, her struggle for the liberation of black folk, her painful descriptions of those working against it (and, sometimes, for it), and the path of resistance she chose. I’ve read this memoir many times and taught it to college students, and I still open it whenever I need to find some motivation and hope. I’m from New Jersey where she remains a touchy subject for many, and when my mother told me she was once stopped on the highway by police officers looking for Assata, it hit me just how close to home this story was. I feel connected to the story as a black woman, and it’s one I will never forget.
— Reniqua Allen (TED Talk: The story we tell about millennials and who we leave out)

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow was Enuf: a choreopoem by Ntozake Shange
This is one of my all-time favorite books, and every read in the last 30 years gives me new insights. Time on a deserted island would allow me to dig in and likely see a whole new layer I didn’t recognize before.
— Tarana Burke (TED Talk: Me Too is a movement, not a moment)

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith
This millennial coming-of-age memoir offers a progressive look at Black masculinity. Smith, a writer for The Nation, has written an uplifting, hopeful, and, at times, funny tale about what it means to be a young Black man in the 21st century.
— Brittney Cooper (TED Talk: The racial politics of time)

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
Feel Free is a collection of intriguing essays that speak about modern-day, socio-political, newsworthy topics, including the movie Get Out and pop icon Justin Bieber. Smith is an inventive free thinker — she’s viscerally, audibly and visually refreshing. Through her writing, she offers readers the opportunity to learn to trust their own voices.
— tobacco brown (TED talk: What gardening taught me about life)

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (TED Talk: We need to talk about an injustice)
This is one of those books that will hang onto you, long after you finish reading. It is an exceptionally well-written memoir that provides a startling depiction of the depths of institutionalized racism that pervade the US criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to death-row inmates. Before reading this book, I had an intellectual sense of how institutionalized racism manifests itself in criminal justice, but reading this book really opened my eyes not only to the pervasiveness of the problem but also to concrete and tragic examples of the real lives that have been destroyed by injustice.
— Wendy Troxel (TED Talk: Why school should start later for teens)

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The voice of the narrator is clear as a bell and persuasive to the hilt. The events in this young-adult novel could have been stolen right from the headlines, but it’s told from a perspective that I’m unaccustomed to find in a novel: a young African-American high schooler. This book is just as good as all the reviewers have said — believe the hype.
— Eve Abrams (TED Talk: The human stories behind mass incarceration)

salt. by Nayyirah Waheed
This is, hands down, one of my favorite books of poetry and one that I return to regularly for inspiration, solace and wisdom. Waheed’s unique style breaks many of the traditional rules of poetry, but she leverages her creative approach for maximum effect. Whether consisting of a single sentence or multiple pages, her poems tackle topics from love to race to feminism in ways that feel like they always touch me at my core.
— Liz Ogbu (TED Talk: What if gentrification was about healing communities instead of replacing them?)

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward
In this compelling collection, award-winning author Ward looks to James Baldwin’s seminal book The Fire Next Time for comfort and counsel. In response, she has compiled an anthology of work from thinkers of her generation that speaks about race in ways that are compelling, thought-provoking and extremely salient for our times. From essays to poems, these pieces will leave you thinking about them long after you’ve finished reading them.
— Liz Ogbu (TED Talk: What if gentrification was about healing communities instead of replacing them?)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (TED Talk: The Great Migration and the power of a single decision)
This is one of the most exquisite nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It is written like a novel, filled with human-centered stories about what it takes to make huge transformational change in our personal lives and our nation as a whole.
— Courtney Martin (TED Talk: The new American Dream)

What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey
This delightful, insightful collection of Winfrey’s essays (from her magazine) cover a wide range of topics, including joy, resilience, gratitude, awe, clarity and power. By sharing intimate moments from her life, lessons learned and advice on living, Oprah challenges readers to be the best version of themselves.
— Lisa Dyson (TED Talk: A forgotten space age technology could change how we grow food)

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor Wooten
Bass player Wooten is one of the greatest musicians in the world. It’s not a music lesson. It’s a life lesson. I’ve read it three times. It just keeps getting better.
— Daniel Levitin (TED Talk: how to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
I read this when I was in eighth grade, and it truly changed my outlook on the world. Malcolm’s transformation, religious journey, and views on identity and race made me who I am today. It’s beautifully written, engaging and dramatic. Each time I read this, I find some beautiful nugget about growing up and finding your purpose in life. I know there are some issues with the accuracy of the manuscript, and as a scholar that interests me greatly. However, as a reader, an American, and a black American, Malcolm X’s story of redemption, loneliness and salvation, reminds me of the highs and lows that I’ve felt many times when I was searching for answers, looking to people who were questioning society in the same way I was, and looking for my place in America.
— Reniqua Allen (TED Talk: The story we tell about millennials and who we leave out)