African American history and culture should be recognized and celebrated every day of the year, not just in Black History Month. But during this time, we are excited to celebrate African American history and its figures through new lenses. It is interesting how much literature and authorship has had an enormous impact on the lives of many great African American figures. Barack Obama wrote his first autobiography, Dreams From My Father in 1995, thirteen years before he would become President of the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. created a non-violent movement with his 1967 analysis on the state of the country’s racial relations, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Maya Angelou had pursued a full acting career before she finally used her words to liberate her life story in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Learn more about the great African American leaders you love by reading their own words in these first edition works:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
No name is more tied with the Civil Rights Movement than perhaps that of American baptist minister and activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He advanced civil rights greatly with his commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience as a means to draw attention to the many forms of oppression black people were facing at the time. More than that, MLK Jr. was known for his compelling language in beautifully moving speeches that led a revolution.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became an activist early in his career, leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and helping found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference just two years later in 1957. In the first edition of his book, Stride Toward Freedom: A leader of his people tells The Montgomery Story, King Jr. wrote:
Nonviolence is directed against forces of evil rather than against people who happen to be doing the evil. It is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil.
Stride Toward Freedom is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s account of the first successful large-scale application of nonviolence resistance in America is comprehensive, revelatory, and intimate. His words inspire black activists to this day. Stride Toward Freedom is available in its first edition with a lengthy inscription by MLK Jr. himself.
Ten years later, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, wrote his analysis on the country’s race relations and their future in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? With powerful eloquence, he discusses what he considers the end of phase one of development in the civil rights revolution with Selma and the Voting Rights Act.
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
President Barack Obama
Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States, but he was also an influential leader of civil rights and education before he campaigned to be president. He began his career as a civil rights attorney, attending a fellowship at University of Chicago Law School for two years while he wrote his first book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. The book begins with the death of Obama’s father, a man he knew more as a myth than a figure, and the journey that leads Obama to reconcile his both black and white ancestry.
All men live in the shadow of their fathers—the more distant the father, the deeper the shadow. Barack Obama describes his confrontation with this shadow in his provocative autobiography and he also persuasively describes the phenomenon of belonging to two different worlds, and thus belonging to neither. At a young age and without much experience as a writer, Barack Obama has bravely tackled the complexities of his remarkable upbringing. (The New York Times)
Barack Obama wrote Dreams from My Father without much experience as a writer, and yet earned outstanding reviews. We have two first editions available, both signed by the author. He would go on to write his second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, shortly before his 2008 presidential campaign. The phrase, “the audacity of hope,” was derived from a sermon from his former pastor that talked about having the “audacity to hope” when someone has so little left to hope for. In his book, Obama gives an autobiographical summary of his core values as a senator, the state of the United States, and what steps he thinks the country could take to reclaim the American dream.
The Audacity of Hope is Barack Obama’s call for a new kind of politics—a politics that builds upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans. Lucid in his vision of America’s place in the world, refreshingly candid about his family life and his time in the Senate, Obama here sets out his political convictions and inspires us to trust in the dogged optimism that has long defined us and that is our best hope going forward.
Richard Wright’s ground-breaking novel Native Son tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, an African American living in utter poverty in Chicago’s South Side ghetto in the 1930s. Rather than apologizing for Bigger’s crimes, Wright brings to like the systemic oppression that made them inevitable.
The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. It made impossible a repetition of the old lies [and] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.” (Irving Howe)
Before becoming an author and poet, Maya Angelou lived out a full career as an actor, producer, and director of plays, movies, and public television shows. But when Maya Angelou did earn a name for herself as a writer, she did so right away with her critically-acclaimed first book, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings.
In 1968, MLK Jr. asked Angelou to organize a march shortly before he was shot and killed on April 4. She was devastated, and as a result the world experienced the depth of her creative spirit and genius. With only the experience of her acting career behind her, Maya Angelou produced and narrated Blacks, Blues, Black!. Then after an inspiring dinner party with Random House editor Robert Lumis, she wrote her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:
This testimony from a black sister marks the beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts of all black men and women… I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity. I have no words for this achievement, but I know that not since the days of my childhood, when the people in books were more real than the people one saw every day, have I found myself so moved… Her portrait is a biblical study in life in the midst of death.” (James Baldwin)
The book named Angelou as a new kind of memoirist, one of the first African American woman to speak openly about her personal life. In addition to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you can find Maya Angelou’s first editions works: Letter to My Daughter signed, Amazing Peace signed, Even the Stars Look Lonesome signed, A Song Flung Up to Heaven signed, and more available with us.
Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison made a big name for herself in history as an African American woman. Her famous works include Beloved, Sula, The Song of Soloman, and The Bluest Eye. It was her third book, The Song of Soloman, that won her national attention as an author. She once said about her work:
Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity.
Toni Morrison’s writing focused primarily around the experiences of African American girls and women. Her first novel The Bluest Eye, which she wrote while she had two children and was teaching at Howard, is about a young black girl who longs to have blue eyes. Her novel The Song of Soloman was chosen for Book Club of the Month, the first novel by a black novelist since Richard Wright’s Native Son.
Men and women, politicians and pastors – African American history has been shaped by the hands of so many individuals from every walk of life. What better way to celebrate their contributions than by reading their words, life stories, and dreams.