30 Americans Reading List

From June 1 – August 25, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is hosting 30 Americans, an exhibit presenting American experiences as told from the distinct perspectives of 30 African American artists. Through more than 80 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs, and videos, the influential artists in 30 Americans are significant contributors to the complex dialogues surrounding race, history, identity, and beauty that have shaped contemporary American art and life for the past four decades.

We’ve compiled a list of books to be a reading companion to this exhibit. The list includes non-fiction, memoirs, fiction, poetry, and books for kids and teens. This list is only a small part of the many exceptional works created by African Americans in recent decades. To find these items and more, click the titles below or visit one of our library branches.


It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America by Reniqua Allen
Reniqua Allen tells the stories–too often overlooked–of black millennials struggling, innovating, and flourishing. Together, the lives and reflections in these pages offer a portrait of a generation on the brink, tracing their efforts to build their own futures and write their own history.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Despite the triumphant dismantling of the Jim Crow Laws, the system that once forced African Americans into a segregated second-class citizenship still haunts America, the US criminal justice system still unfairly targets black men and an entire segment of the population is deprived of their basic rights. 

I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé by Michael Arceneaux
A timely collection of alternately hysterical and soul‑searching essays about what it is like to grow up as a creative, sensitive black man in a world that constantly tries to deride and diminish your humanity.

Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard
An extraordinary, exquisitely written memoir (of sorts) that looks at race–in a fearless, penetrating, honest, true way–in twelve telltale, connected, deeply personal essays.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow
A gorgeous, moving memoir of how one of America’s most innovative and respected journalists found his voice by coming to terms with a painful past

The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own by Veronica Chambers
A rollicking, lively conversation about race, class, marriage, creativity, womanhood and what it means to be American today, that explores what Michelle Obama means to our culture, while offering a parting gift to a landmark moment in American history.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates presents an annotated collection of new and previously published essays on the Obama era, including an interview with the president himself.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
Brittney Cooper reminds us that anger is a powerful source of energy that can give us the strength to keep on fighting. This book argues that ultimately feminism, friendship, and faith in one’s own superpowers are all we really need to turn things right side up again.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jenkins
In her collection of linked essays, Jerkins takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”– to live as, to exist as– a black woman today?

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
In this powerful and provocative memoir, genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon explores what the weight of a lifetime of secrets, lies, and deception does to a black body, a black family, and a nation teetering on the brink of moral collapse. 

March (Books 1-3) by John Lewis
A vivid first-hand account of Senator John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change.

No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America by Darnell Moore
In this brave, beautifully wrought memoir, Moore shares the journey taken by a scared, bullied teenager who not only survived, but found his calling. 

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison
Arguably the most celebrated and revered writer of our time now gives us a new nonfiction collection–a rich gathering of her essays, speeches, and meditations on society, culture, and art, spanning four decades. 

Becoming by Michelle Obama
With unerring honesty and lively wit, Michelle Obama describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private. A deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
A current, constructive, and actionable exploration of today’s racial landscape, offering straightforward clarity that readers of all races need to contribute to the dismantling of the racial divide.

Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power and Pleasure of Reading and Writing edited by Stephanie Oliver
Spanning over 250 years of history, Black Ink traces black literature in America from Frederick Douglass to Ta-Nehisi Coates in this masterful collection of twenty-five illustrious and moving essays on the power of the written word.

Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter
How are women and artists seen and judged by their age, looks, and race? What does it mean when someone says, “You will never be an artist”?  Bringing to bear incisive insights from two careers, Painter weaves a frank, funny, and often surprising tale of her move from academia to art.

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
Parker uses political and pop-cultural references as a framework to explore 21st century black American womanhood and its complexities: performance, depression, isolation, exoticism, racism, femininity, and politics.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
A collection of humorous essays on what it’s like to be unabashedly awkward in a world that regards introverts as hapless misfits, and black as cool.

The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery edited by Rochelle Riley
A plea to America to understand what life post-slavery remains like for many African Americans, who are descended from people whose unpaid labor built this land, but have had to spend the last century and a half carrying the dual burden of fighting racial injustice and rising above the lowered expectations and hateful bigotry that attempt to keep them shackled to that past.

You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson
A hilarious and affecting essay collection about race, gender, and pop culture from celebrated stand-up comedian and WNYC podcaster Phoebe Robinson.

Race Matters by Cornel West
This classic treatise on race contains Dr. West’s most incisive essays on the issues relevant to black Americans, including the crisis in leadership in the Black community, Black conservatism, Black-Jewish relations, myths about Black sexuality, and the legacy of Malcolm X. 

Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance by Mark Whitaker
Provides a portrait of Pittsburgh’s black community and its vital additions to the story of black America.

How to Slay: Inspiration from the Kings and Queens of Black Style by Constance C.R. White
Through striking images of icons of black fashion and taste, this lush volume explores a diverse array of topics from hats, hair, the use of vibrant color, and the beauty of black skin to the roots of black style in Africa and the Caribbean


Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A young woman from Nigeria leaves behind her home and her first love to start a new life in America, only to find her dreams are not all she expected.

Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
A piercingly raw debut story collection from a young writer with an explosive voice; a treacherously surreal, and, at times, heartbreakingly satirical look at what it’s like to be young and black in America. 

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
A Black man’s search for success and the American dream leads him out of college to Harlem and a growing sense of personal rejection and social invisibility.

Ayiti by Roxane Gay
Clever and haunting by turns, Ayiti explores the Haitian diaspora experience. It is the book that put Roxane Gay on the map and now, with two previously uncollected stories, confirms her singular vision.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana through two half sisters – one sold into slavery and the other married to a wealthy Englishman.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Janie Crawford, a Southern Black woman in the 1930’s, journeys from being a free-spirited girl to a woman of independence and substance.

How Long ’Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin
Three-time Hugo Award winner and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin sharply examines modern society in her first collection of short fiction. 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy, the living embodiment of the New South, are settling into the routine of their life together when Roy is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Slave Henry Shackleford pretends to be a girl in order to escape pre-Civil War turmoil, only to find himself riding with John Brown’s rabble-rousers from Bloody Kansas to Harpers Ferry. 

New People: A Novel by Danzy Senna
Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Calling to mind the best works of Paul Beatty and Junot Diaz, this collection of moving, timely, and darkly funny stories examines the concept of black identity in this so-called post-racial era.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power–and limitations–of family bonds.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South, The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

American Histories by John Edgar Wideman
In this singular collection, Wideman blends the personal, historical, and political to invent complex, charged stories about love, death, struggle, and what we owe each other.

Black Boy by Richard Wright
Wright tells of his mental and emotional struggle to educate himself, which gave him a glimpse of life’s possibilities and which led him to his triumphant decision to leave the South behind while still a teenager to live in Chicago and fulfill himself by becoming a writer.


How to be Drawn by Terrance Hayes
In his daring fifth poetry collection, Hayes explores how we see and are seen.

Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey|
Part antiphonal rant, part rhythmic whisper, Nathaniel Mackey’s new collection of poems takes the reader to uncharted poetic spaces. 

Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Smith’s unflinching poetry addresses race, class, sexuality, faith, social justice, mortality, and the challenges of living HIV positive at the intersection of black and queer identity.

Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey
This is a poet’s remarkable labor to source evidence, persistence, and strength from the past in order to change the very foundation of the vocabulary we use to speak about race, gender, and our collective future.

Brown: Poems by Kevin Young
Brown speaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal, recalling a black Kansas boyhood to comment on our times. 


Rebound by Kwame Alexander (text), Dawud Anyabwile (illus)
In the summer of 1988, twelve-year-old Chuck Bell is sent to stay with his grandparents, where he discovers jazz and basketball and learns more about his family’s past.

What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton (text), Ekua Holmes (illus.)
Congresswoman Barbara Jordan had a big, bold, confident voice–and she knew how to use it! Learn all about her amazing career in this illuminating and inspiring picture book biography of the lawyer, educator, politician, and civil rights leader. 

March Forward Girl: From Young Warrior to the Little Rock Nine by Melba Pattillo Beals (text), Frank Morrison (illus.)
A member of the Little Rock Nine shares her memories of growing up in the South under Jim Crow.

No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas by Tonya Bolden (text), Don Tate (illus.)
The life of Junius G. Groves, a sharecropper in Kansas who grew a modest potato farm into a potato kingdom.

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant (text), Melissa Sweet (illus.)
Presents an illustrated introduction to the life and work of artist Horace Pippin, describing his childhood love for drawing and the World War I injury that challenged his career.

Imagine! by Raúl Colón
When a boy visits an art museum and one of the paintings comes to life, he has an afternoon of adventure and discovery [that] changes how he sees the world ever after

Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York by Amy Hill Hearth
One hundred years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Elizabeth Jennings’s refusal to leave a segregated streetcar in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan set into motion a major court case in New York City.

Attucks! Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team that Awakened a City by Phillip Hoose
By winning the state high school basketball championship in 1955, ten teens from an Indianapolis school meant to be the centerpiece of racially segregated education in the state shattered the myth of their inferiority.

Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney (text), Brian Pinkney (illus.)
In a rich embroidery of visions, musical cadence, and deep emotion, Andrea and Brian Pinkney convey the final months of Martin Luther King’s life — and of his assassination — through metaphor, spirituality, and multilayers of meaning.

Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransome (text), James Ransome (illus.)
Shares the story of the sisters and tennis stars, including their special relationship as sisters and best friends, their constant training as children, and their incredible success in professional tennis.

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk to Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt (text), Daniel Minter (illus)
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery but possessed a mind and a vision that knew no bounds. So Tall Within traces her life from her painful childhood through her remarkable emancipation to her incredible leadership in the movement for rights for both women and African Americans.

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (text), Laura Freeman (illus.)
Explores the previously uncelebrated but pivotal contributions of NASA’s African American women mathematicians to America’s space program, describing how Jim Crow laws segregated them despite their groundbreaking successes. Version for older children also available.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
Jean-Michael Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City.

Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery by Sandra Neil Wallace (text), Bryan Collier (illus.)
Discover the true story of NFL star Ernie Barnes a boy who followed his dreams and became one of the most influential artists of his generation with this beautifully illustrated nonfiction picture book.

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
Tired of being singled out at her mostly-white private school as someone who needs support, high school junior Jade would rather participate in the school’s amazing Study Abroad program than join Women to Women, a mentorship program for at-risk girls.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford (text), Jamey Christoph (illus.)
Gordon Parks is most famous for being the first black director in Hollywood. But before he made movies and wrote books, he was a poor African American looking for work. When he bought a camera, his life changed forever. 

American Street by Ibi Zoboi
When Fabiola’s mother is detained upon their arrival to the United States, Fabiola must navigate her loud American cousins, the grittiness of Detroit’s west side, a new school, and a surprising romance all on her own.