14 influential essays from Black writers on America's problems with race

martin luther king jr
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an opportunity for allies to educate themselves on the history of race in America.Santi Visalli/Getty images
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  • Business leaders are calling for people to reflect on civil rights this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

  • Black literary experts shared their top nonfiction essay and article picks on race.

  • The list includes "A Report from Occupied Territory" by James Baldwin.

For many, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time of reflection on the life of one of the nation's most prominent civil rights leaders. It's also an important time for people who support racial justice to educate themselves on the experiences of Black people in America.

Business leaders like TIAA CEO Thasunda Duckett Brown and others are encouraging people to reflect on King's life's work, and one way to do that is to read his essays and the work of others dedicated to the same mission he had: racial equity.

Insider asked Black literary and historical experts to share their favorite works of journalism on race by Black authors. Here are the top pieces they recommended everyone read to better understand the quest for Black liberation in America:

An earlier version of this article was published on June 14, 2020.

"Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases" and "The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States" by Ida B. Wells

Ida B Wells
Ida B. Wells, pictured here in 1920.Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

In 1892, investigative journalist, activist, and NAACP founding member Ida B. Wells began to publish her research on lynching in a pamphlet titled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases." Three years later, she followed up with more research and detail in "The Red Record."

Shirley Moody-Turner, associate Professor of English and African American Studies at Penn State University recommended everyone read these two texts, saying they hold "many parallels to our own moment."

"In these two pamphlets, Wells exposes the pervasive use of lynching and white mob violence against African American men and women. She discredits the myths used by white mobs to justify the killing of African Americans and exposes Northern and international audiences to the growing racial violence and terror perpetrated against Black people in the South in the years following the Civil War," Moody-Turner told Business Insider.

Read  "Southern Horrors" here and "The Red Record" here>>

"On Juneteenth" by Annette Gordon-Reed

Annette Gordon-Reed
Annette Gordon-Reed won a Pulitzer Prize in history for her book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.”Jimi Celeste/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

In this collection of essays, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annette Gordon-Reed combines memoir and history to help readers understand the complexities out of which Juneteenth was born. She also argues how racial and ethnic hierarchies remain in society today, said Moody-Turner.

"Gordon-Reed invites readers to see Juneteenth as a time to grapple with the complexities of race and enslavement in the US, to re-think our origin stories about race and slavery's central role in the formation of both Texas and the US, and to consider how, as Gordon-Reed so eloquently puts it, 'echoes of the past remain, leaving their traces in the people and events of the present and future.'"

Purchase "On Juneteenth" here>>

"The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, testified about reparations for the descendants of slaves during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee in June 2019.Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ta-Nehisi Coates, best-selling author and national correspondent for The Atlantic, made waves when he published his 2014 article "The Case for Reparations," in which he called for "collective introspection" on reparations for Black Americans subjected to centuries of racism and violence.

"In his now famed essay for The Atlantic, journalist, author, and essayist, Ta-Nehisi Coates traces how slavery, segregation, and discriminatory racial policies underpin ongoing and systemic economic and racial disparities," Moody-Turner said.

"Coates provides deep historical context punctuated by individual and collective stories that compel us to reconsider the case for reparations," she added.

Read it here>>

"The Idea of America" by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the "1619 Project" by The New York Times

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones attends The 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony in 2016.Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards

In "The Idea of America," Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones traces America's history from 1619 onward, the year slavery began in the US. She explores how the history of slavery is inseparable from the rise of America's democracy in her essay that's part of The New York Times' larger "1619 Project," which is the outlet's ongoing project created in 2019 to re-examine the impact of slavery in the US.

"In her unflinching look at the legacy of slavery and the underside of American democracy and capitalism, Hannah-Jones asks, 'what if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we [Black Americans] have never been the problem but the solution,'" said Moody-Turner, who recommended readers read the whole "1619 Project" as well.

Read "The Idea of America" here and the rest of the "1619 Project here>>

"Many Thousands Gone" by James Baldwin

james baldwin
James Baldwin is best known for his works "Notes of a Native Son," "The Fire Next Time" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain."Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

In "Many Thousands Gone," James Arthur Baldwin, American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist lays out how white America is not ready to fully recognize Black people as people. It's a must read, according to Jimmy Worthy II, assistant professor of English at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

"Baldwin's essay reminds us that in America, the very idea of Black persons conjures an amalgamation of specters, fears, threats, anxieties, guilts, and memories that must be extinguished as part of the labor to forget histories deemed too uncomfortable to remember," Worthy said.

Read it here>>

"Letter from a Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr. was the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.Getty

On April 13 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists were arrested after peaceful protest in Birmingham, Alabama. In jail, King penned an open letter about how people have a moral obligation to break unjust laws rather than waiting patiently for legal change. In his essay, he expresses criticism and disappointment in white moderates and white churches, something that's not often focused on in history textbooks, Worthy said.

"King revises the perception of white racists devoted to a vehement status quo to include white moderates whose theories of inevitable racial equality and silence pertaining to racial injustice prolong discriminatory practices," Worthy said.

Read it here>>

"The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" by Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde
African-American writer, feminist, poet and civil-rights activist Audre Lorde poses for a photograph during her 1983 residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Audre Lorde, African American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist asks readers to not be silent on important issues. This short, rousing read is crucial for everyone according to Thomonique Moore, a 2016 graduate of Howard University, founder of Books&Shit book club, and an incoming Masters' candidate at Columbia University's Teacher's College.

"In this essay, Lorde explains to readers the importance of overcoming our fears and speaking out about the injustices that are plaguing us and the people around us. She challenges us to not live our lives in silence, or we risk never changing the things around us," Moore said. 

Read it here>>

"The First White President" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 19, 2019, file photo, author Ta-Nehisi Coates attends a hearing at the Capitol in Washington. Coates' first novel, "The Water Dancer," is among the nominees for an Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Winners will be announced Jan. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
Coates is the author of several books including "Between the World and Me" and "The Water Dancer."Associated Press

This essay from the award-winning journalist's book "We Were Eight Years in Power," details how Trump, during his presidency, employed the notion of whiteness and white supremacy to pick apart the legacy of the nation's first Black president, Barack Obama.

Moore said it was crucial reading to understand the current political environment we're in.

Read it here>>

"Just Walk on By" by Brent Staples

Brent Staples
Director Roger Ross Williams and New York Times writer Brent Staples speak in 2019 in Park City, Utah.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for The New York Times

In this essay, Brent Staples, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The New York Times, hones in on the experience of racism against Black people in public spaces, especially on the role of white women in contributing to the view that Black men are threatening figures.

For Crystal M. Fleming, associate professor of sociology and Africana Studies at SUNY Stony Brook, his essay is especially relevant right now.

"We see the relevance of his critique in the recent incident in New York City, wherein a white woman named Amy Cooper infamously called the police and lied, claiming that a Black man — Christian Cooper — threatened her life in Central Park. Although the experience that Staples describes took place decades ago, the social dynamics have largely remained the same," Fleming told Insider.

Read it here>>

"I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman" by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Tressie McMillan Cottom
Tressie McMillan Cottom at the 70th National Book Awards Ceremony & Benefit Dinner in November 2019.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an author, associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty affiliate at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. In this essay, Cottom shares her gut-wrenching experience of racism within the healthcare system.

Fleming called this piece an "excellent primer on intersectionality" between racism and sexism, calling Cottom one of the most influential sociologists and writers in the US today. 

Read it here>>

"A Report from Occupied Territory" by James Baldwin

James Baldwin
James Baldwin lived from 1924 to 1987.Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Baldwin's "A Report from Occupied Territory" was originally published in The Nation in 1966. It takes a hard look at violence against Black people in the US, specifically police brutality.

"Baldwin's work remains essential to understanding the depth and breadth of anti-black racism in our society. This essay — which touches on issues of racialized violence, policing and the role of the law in reproducing inequality — is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to understand just how much has not changed with regard to police violence and anti-Black racism in our country," Fleming told Insider. 

Read it here>>

"I'm From Philly. 30 Years Later, I'm Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing" by Gene Demby

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Gene Demby pictured here with his colleague NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates in 2019.JC Olivera/Getty Images

On May 13, 1985, a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the MOVE compound in Philadelphia, which housed members of the MOVE, a black liberation group founded in 1972 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Eleven people, including five children, died in the airstrike. In this essay, Gene Demby, co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team, tries to wrap his head around the shocking instance of police violence against Black people.

"I would argue that the fact that police were authorized to literally bomb Black citizens in their own homes, in their own country, is directly relevant to current conversations about militarized police and the growing movement to defund and abolish policing," Fleming said. 

Read it here>>

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