As we often point out at Kirkus, black history is a subject to be read and studied all year round – not just in the month of February, when it is officially recognized. Nevertheless, many publishers take this opportunity to release a large number of important books on the history and life of African Americans, and that is certainly cause for celebration. Among the most inspiring are those who bring to light forgotten or overlooked figures who deserve more attention and study. Here are three pioneering books by black women — one for adults, one for teens, and one for children — that Kirkus recently reviewed.
Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality by Tomiko Brown-Nagin (Pantheon, Jan. 25): Constance Baker Motley may not be a household name, but her life story reveals a woman who had a powerful influence on law and politics — arguing ten Supreme Court cases (and winning nine) and he was elected New York State Senator and Manhattan borough president before being appointed to the federal judiciary — the first black woman in any case. In a starred review, Kirkus . mentions Queen of Civil Rights a “troubled life of a civil rights crusader” and an “excellent exploration of the life of an admirable pioneer who deserves to be much better known.”
Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life by Marilyn Nelson (Christy Ottaviano Books, Jan. 25): This YA biography elevates a black fine artist who deserves to be better known. During the 1920s and 1930s, the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, Savage painted important figures and motifs in black life. She was commissioned to create a sculpture for the 1939 World’s Fair – the only black artist to be exhibited and one of only four women. (Unfortunately, her plaster sculpture, The Harp, was destroyed after the fair; Savage couldn’t afford to cast it in bronze.) Nelson tells Savage’s life story in verse and an afterword by the curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black in New York Culture provides an essential historical context. Our starred review calls it a ‘lyrical biography of a master of the trade’.
Call Me Miss Hamilton: One Woman’s Case for Equality and Respect by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford (Millbrook Press, Feb 1): Like Constance Baker Motley, Mary Hamilton is a civil rights activist largely unknown today. Her life story is told in this middle-aged book written by the author of last year’s acclaimed picture book Unspeakable: The Massacre of the Tulsa Race† (The illustrations here are by Weatherford’s son, accompanied by archival photos.) Hamilton, a Freedom Rider and the Southern Region’s first female head of the Congress of Racial Equality, was regularly arrested. The title of this book comes from her accusation by a White Alabama prosecutor who insisted on addressing her by her first name rather than using the honorific, as he did with others in court. Hamilton was charged with contempt of court and dragged her case all the way to the Supreme Court. Our review calls the book “essential reading for teaching children the importance of demanding equality and respect.”
Tom Beer is the editor in chief†