New York City is the largest city in the USA, so it should come as no surprise that this city is also home to the nation’s largest black population. Out of NYC’s total population of 8.5 million, well over 2 million of its inhabitants identify as black. That means there are over 2 million stories to be told about what it’s like to be black in New York City. Fortunately, some people have recorded their experiences into books. While no single book can ever be representative of an entire group, these seven books are a good place to start if you want to gain insight on what it’s like to be black in NYC.
1. Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City by Carla Peterson
For a lot of black people, it’s difficult to trace their family history. This was no different for Carla Peterson, whose journey to uncover the lives of her ancestors led her to learn about the surprising world of 19th century NYC’s black elite.
2. The Black New Yorkers: The Schomburg Illustrated Chronology: 400 Years of African American History by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
If learning that New York City had a class of black elites in the 19th century surprised you, you better take your heart medication before you dive into The Black New Yorkers. This thick tome chronicles over 400 years of black history in New York, showing that black history has always been a part of New York’s story.
What do you think about as you stroll through the streets of New York? In Open City, we get a peek into the mind of a young Nigerian psychiatry resident as he ponders race, his love life, and post 9/11 NYC while he walks through Manhattan’s streets.
This book tells the story of Selina Boyce, a girl growing up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and World War II. As the daughter of Bajan immigrants, Selina tries to figure out her own identity as her family struggles to achieve the American dream.
This book is intense. Through the story of a group of friends coping with the aftermath of another friend’s death, Baldwin explores race, sexuality, and raw emotions.
Nicknamed the “Poet Laureate of Harlem,” Langston Hughes is a lyrical legend. His poem “Harlem” is a good entry into his work and a window into the frustrations of black Americans.
“There are eight million naked cities in this naked city—they dispute and disagree. The New York City you live in is not my New York City; how could it be?” This comes from Colson Whitehead’s book of essays about NYC. Whitehead tells stories of struggle and triumph, change and adjustment, and every facet of NYC life in between. If you’re not convinced that you should pick up this book right now, read this.
These books aren’t the end-all be-all to being black in NYC, but they are a good place to start on our journey to broaden our perspectives. Are there any books you’d add to the list? Which ones have you already read? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.
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