Welcome to Advice in The Stacks, a bookish advice column from me, Traci Thomas, the host and creator of The Stacks podcast. My show is all about books and the people who read them, with new episodes out every Wednesday on your favorite podcast platform. Due to the nature of the show I am constantly asked for advice on all things books, so I’m making it formal and bringing my advice to all of you with my monthly column here at SheReads.com.
If you have questions about anything book related, CLICK HERE and submit your question, and then come back the last Thursday of the month to see my advice.
I’ve recently been on a bit of a biography kick, and I’ve had a hard time finding many biographies written by authors of color, even when the subject is a person of color. I’m mostly finding memoirs, which are great—just not my personal preference, since I find they often don’t include as broad of a historical context. I’m wondering if you have any biographies, especially written by authors/historians of color, that you recommend.
I love a good biography. I too have struggled to find biographies by authors of color, so I love this question. I compiled a list of Black-authored biographies, for two reasons: one is that reading about Black Americans is a passion of mine. It is a way for me to learn about my own history. The other reason is slightly less flattering, I couldn’t think of any biographies I’d read by people of color who weren’t Black. Since that felt icky, I did crowdsource (on social media) some biographies from Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian authors. I included those as a list here as well. The list is short, which lets me know that publishing could be doing a lot better in the biographies by authors of color department.
His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa
I was extremely impressed with this book. I went in thinking it was going to be a rushed attempt to capitalize on the murder of George Floyd, and I was very wrong. His Name is George Floyd is deeply researched (the authors conducted and pulled from over 400 interviews) and Samuels and Olorunnipa do their part to give Floyd the presidential biography treatment. They place his life in a broader cultural context, show his impact on his community while living, delve into the complexities of his life, and of course, show the impact he had after his murder. This is a fantastic biography that I’m glad I read.
I feel confident saying that Imani Perry is one of the best living writers. Her writing is beautiful and her research is rigorous and detailed. In Looking for Lorraine, we get to see inside the short life of Lorraine Hasberry, the author of A Raisin in the Sun. The book shows that Hansberry was more than a playwright, she was a social justice activist during the civil rights movement, and a shit-stirrer on behalf of Black people.
It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him by Justin Tinsley
If you’re looking for a biography that gives context to a life, then look no further than It Was All a Dream. This book is so good and so fun, and if you’re an elder millennial like me it is full of nostalgia and new information that made sense of the 1980s and ‘90s that I grew up, in but didn’t fully grasp at the time. Plus, this book basically has a built-in soundtrack aka Biggie’s discography. You can also hear Justin Tinsley talk about his book on The Stacks.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
Look, I’m not saying anything new by recommending this book. It won the Pulitzer Prize; it’s a great work of biography. A lot of people know Malcolm X through his autobiography, but this book by notable historian Manning Marable gives a depth of understanding not only of the man, but of the time. There are also some new revelations (that have been debated) uncovered in the book. If Malcolm X is of particular interest to you, I’d also throw in The Dead are Arising by Les Payne and Tamara Payne and The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph—both are great and by Black biographers.
Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America by Keisha N. Blain
So many of the stories from the Civil Rights Movement are about men who led the way, completely ignoring the Black women who organized, risked their lives for, and inspired the masses. In this short, but incredibly impactful biography, Dr. Blain lifts up the legendary Fannie Lou Hammer to her rightful place as a pillar of the fight for civil rights.
As promised, here is a short list of biographies by authors of color. Please add more if you think of them to the comments.
The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land by Graciela Mochkofsky
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo
John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy edited by Greg Robinson, Floyd Cheung, and Frank Abe
Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress by Judy Tzu-Chun Wu and Gwendolyn Mink
What are some solid strategies for reading more than one book at a time? Because of my work I have to be a poly reader and I struggle to juggle all the books! Help!
I am a known “one book pony” and I struggle with juggling multiple books. I really love sinking into one book and getting immersed in the text and my thoughts around it. However, sometimes I have to read a few books at once, and here is what has worked for me.
- Contrasting topics. It’s easiest for me to remember what I’m reading when I read books that are very different from one another. Trying to juggle multiple books with the same subject matter or even genre often leads me to confusion and burn out. So if I’m reading a light YA novel for work, I’ll be reading a deep dive of investigative journalism for pleasure. That way, I won’t run too much of a risk of confusing them.
- Audiobooks. I’ve found the most success with poly-reading when I have one book to read with my eyes and another to read with my ears. You’re reading either way, but for me it’s easier to differentiate the ones I use my eyes for from the ones I use my ears for.
- Location specific. I will have multiple books going for the different places in my life where I read. I have a car book (audio), a bed book (physical) and sometimes a wait around/on the go/in the bath book (e-reader). This way I know what I’m paying attention to based on where I am.
- Time of day. Some people read at different times throughout the day, so you might find success with a morning book, a daytime book, and a nighttime book. Similar to the last suggestion, this will give you a sense of where you are in your day and what you’re reading based on that.
- Take notes. Jot down a few notes as you stop reading each book for the day. This way when you go back to the book you’ll know where you left off and what was going on.
- Take the pressure off. I am extremely goal-oriented and I like to finish books. When I’m reading multiple books at once I will get down on myself because I haven’t finished anything in a while. Then when I get to the end of the month I’ll finish 3-4 books all at once. Give yourself permission to slow down and enjoy what you’re reading, which I know can feel hard.