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Featured Books: Black History Month

Image of marian-anderson-poster-insta.png
A black-white photo of a young person.

In 1925, historian Carter G. Woodson, together with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, announced the creation of Negro History Week. First celebrated in February of 1926 to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, it was quickly endorsed by Black history clubs, teachers, and intellectuals. By the 1970s, the commemoration had expanded to encompass the entire month of February.

It wasn’t until 1986 that Congress passed Public Law 99-244 officially designating February as National Black History Month. In a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe the month “with appropriate activities to heighten awareness of black history,” President Ronald Regan noted, “The American experience and character can never be fully grasped until the knowledge of black history assumes its rightful place in our schools and our scholarship."

While we at the Penn Libraries believe that it’s important not to limit the exploration of this subject to the month of February, we celebrate this opportunity to dive deep into the history of African-American life, and the varied contributions of Black Americans to culture, art, politics, activism, scholarship, and more. Here are some resources recommended by our librarians.

Print and E-Books

  • The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price by Linda Rae Brown
    A composer, pianist, organist, and teacher, Florence B. Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra.
  • Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America by Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin.
    The life and legacy of Philadelphian Octavius Catto, a teacher and civil rights activist who fought for racial equality and rights for African Americans.
  • I Don't Want to Die Poor: Essays by Michael Arceneaux
    In his second collection of essays, Michael Arceneaux trains his wry, working-class gaze on the voracious leviathan of student loan debt.
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
    A captivating short story collection of various characters, their struggles and perspectives on the African-American experience.
  • The Annotated African American Folktales edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar
    A lushly illustrated compendium of African American lore, edited and with notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar. In retelling these tales, the editors reveal the historical contexts in which the stories were conceived, shared over generations and, often, appropriated.
  • Black Indian by Shonda Buchanan
    In this gritty but delicately wrought memoir, poet and educator Shonda Buchanan navigates the complexities of race, heritage, and identity through the prism of her own family’s experience.
  • AFRICOBRA : Experimental Art toward a School of Thought by Wadsworth Jarrell
    Written by a founding member, this book traces the AFRICOBRA collective’s history from its inception in Chicago during the Civil Rights and Black power movements in the 1960s. With reproductions of the group’s vibrant art, photographs and related items.
  • Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora by Joanna Dee Das
    In addition to being a renowned dancer and choreographer, Dunham was an anthropologist and social activist. This well-sourced biography, culled from rich archival sources, explores Dunham’s life, legacy, aesthetic and activism.


  • The Big Picture. When Marian Anderson Sang
    Prohibited by the DAR from performing in Constitution Hall solely because of her race, Marian Anderson sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in a recital arranged by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, for some 75,000 people on the National Mall.
  • Porgy and Bess
    San Francisco Opera’s production of George and Ira Gershwin’s only full-length opera, set in Catfish Row in Charleston, SC in the early 1920s.

Streaming Audio

  • Treemonisha
    Houston Grand Opera’s production of Scott Joplin’s only surviving opera, about the value of education, set on an Arkansas plantation in 1884.
  • Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Carmen McRae at Newport
    Ella scats, Billie moons, and Carmen dazzles... Three distinct artists deliver stellar performances in crisp recordings from the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.