Updated: Feb 1
February is Black History Month, so this week, we’ve curated a reading list for trauma-informed leaders to increase their cultural humility while honoring and celebrating Black authors.
Although this reading list is inspired by Black History Month, February isn’t the only time we should think about Black History in America. For trauma-informed leaders especially, the legacy of slavery in America shouldn’t be a seasonal fad—it should be something we are consistently aware of and curious about.
If you’re someone who identifies as or who would like to be a trauma-informed professional, the books on this reading list can help you seek out the knowledge that should be common but isn’t.
1 - Kimberlé Crenshaw’s On Intersectionality: Essential Writings
Intersectionality is an important concept for trauma-informed leaders to understand, and there’s no better place to learn than from the woman who coined the term.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” over 30 years ago. She is a thought leader, lawyer, expert on critical race theory, and educator who we can and should learn from.
On Intersectionality: Essential Writings is a collection of Crenshaw’s essays and articles. It is an accessible and comprehensive introduction to Crenshaw’s work and a must-read for anyone interested in racial justice and gender equity. Get your copy here.
2 - James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain
As a writer who explored themes of racial and social justice issues in his work during the civil rights movement, James Baldwin is a significant voice in American literature. Baldwin’s debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is often heralded as one of his best works.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is a semi-autobiographical novel that explores themes from Baldwin’s own life and pulls heavily from his childhood experiences.
This one story contains many stories within it, and flashbacks reveal Baldwin’s own trauma-informed perspectives: he believed that you needed to understand a person’s past in order to understand why they behave a certain way.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is an emotionally and intellectually compelling narrative work that holds a particular place in American history. Get your copy here.
3 - Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou is another key voice of American literature, and like Baldwin, she uses her writing to explore her childhood trauma. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s debut memoir and one of her most popular works. It details her life from age 3 to 16 and explores themes of abuse, prejudice, trauma, and resilience.
Maya Angelou went on to publish six more autobiographical novels, including Gather Together in My Name, which explores her life from age 17 to 19 as a single Black mother struggling in a white-dominated world.
Get your copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings here.
4 - John McWhorter’s Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca
In Talking Back, Talking Black, John McWhorter explores the history and significance of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and the socio-political issues that have impacted it.
AAVE, also referred to as Ebonics, is a dialect of American English that Black Americans have historically been forced to defend. Many people write off AAVE as “unprofessional” and possess implicit bias that assumes the use of AAVE correlates with less expertise or knowledge, but AAVE is a dialect of American English with its own vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.
Trauma-informed leaders who want to deepen their understanding of the relationship between language and culture and seek insightful perspectives surrounding AAVE will enjoy this read. Get your copy of Talking Back, Talking Black here.
5 - Bell Hooks’ Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery
Bell Hooks is a novelist with many great works, including Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism (which she wrote as a graduate student at Stanford University), All About Love (her most popular work), and Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (an essential read for educators)—but today, we’re going to highlight Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery as a must-read for trauma-informed leaders.
In Sisters of the Yam, Hooks explores how structural violence, particularly racism and sexism, impacts Black women’s emotional health and healing journeys.
Hooks focuses on the relationship between self-recovery and political resistance to highlight the balance between engaging in self-healing and collective healing while acknowledging injustice. Get your copy here.
6 - Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Fredrick Douglass was one of the most important abolitionists in history, and his story served as evidence of the horrors of slavery for those who were either unaware or couldn’t believe the stories were true.
Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 in Maryland. He escaped in 1838 and published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, seven years later in 1845.
Douglass’s story details his experiences as an enslaved person as well as his eventual escape from slavery. It also explores his thoughts on slavery and how it impacts a person’s sense of humanity.
Slavery caused widespread trauma to Black Americans, and the legacy of slavery continues to impact our communities. Reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas can help trauma-informed leaders understand the depth of that trauma. Get your copy here.
7 - Rebecca Hall’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts
History and the truth can be empowering, which is why history is often erased as a methodical way to disempower others. In Wake, historian and activist Rebecca Hall uncovered the hidden truths about the female warriors who led slave revolts. She also reflects on the personal and national impacts of the legacy of slavery in this book which is part memoir, part history book, and part graphic novel.
Wake is a riveting and engaging novel that will capture your attention from beginning to end: through the stories of powerful Black women to the insightful reflections of a historian whose grandparents were slaves. Get your copy here.
8 - Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Racism and capitalism are deeply entrenched in one another, and Edward E. Baptist explores that relationship in The Half Has Never Been Told through plantation records, survivors’ stories, and newspaper articles. He argues that slavery and American capitalism cannot be separated.
The implication of these ideas is that anti-racist work and anti-capitalist work overlap, and trauma-informed leaders who operate in a capitalistic society must understand that relationship. Get your copy of The Half Has Never Been Told here.
9 - Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian author who explores the very real experiences of Nigerians during pre-colonial life and the subsequent European invasion in Things Fall Apart through the eyes of his fictional protagonist, Okonkwo.
Okonkwo resists the European invasion, but his efforts are futile. Things Fall Apart is a fictional tale rife with strong commentary on societal expectations, norms, and values. It is a tragedy that explores feelings of despair and helplessness while highlighting the errors of violence and brashness often associated with manliness.
Things Fall Apart is a classic work of literature that uses one man’s ruin to highlight the destruction of an entire culture. It is a powerful story that we can learn from. Get your copy here.
10 - Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Some people believe that we’re in a “post-racial” society. They think racism is a thing of the past. But that is not true.
In Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi presents potent arguments that reveal how racism in America is thriving. By exploring the history of racism through supporting research, Kendi shows just how influential racist ideals have been and continue to be.
By exploring the life and work of five great American thinkers, he proves their complicity in anti-black ideals—even those who were abolitionists and activists themselves.
Kendi also explores the creation of racist ideas. They didn’t begin with outright hatred. Instead, they were developed as a way to justify and rationalize existing racist behaviors, practices, and policies. Essentially, discrimination came first. Then, racism became a way to justify discrimination.
Stamped from the Beginning reveals the truth about American history, but it is not hopeless. Kendi provides solutions and tools that we can use to expose racist thinking while instilling hope for a better future.
Final Thoughts on Trauma-Informed Reading
This short list of ten books can’t contain all the great recommended reading out there for trauma-informed leaders who wish to increase their cultural humility, so if you have any recommendations to add to this list or requests for more trauma-informed reading lists, leave a comment below!
And, if you want to engage in insightful trauma-informed conversations, be sure to check out these two resources from Chefalo Consulting:
Trauma-Informed MasterClass: A 10-week course that covers all the basics of trauma-informed leadership, from the science behind our behavior to methods for improving outcomes. Access an early-bird discount now through June!
Intentional Conversations: Free 90-minute Zoom sessions facilitated by a trauma-informed expert, February through April. Come to listen, learn, and connect!