Black Ballet History Reading List

As a part of PNB’s celebration of Black History Month 2024, we’ve created a list of books that celebrate black excellence in dance. From classic picture books to exciting releases, there’s a book here for any ballet lover looking to learn more about the art form’s history. Read on to see which book you’ll be adding to your “tbr” pile!

A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib

Dedicated to dancer and singer Josephine Baker, A Little Devil in America gets its title from Baker’s words at the 1963 March on Washington: “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too.” Written by MacArthur Fellow and bestselling author Hanif Abdurraqib, this book is a lyrical reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. With care and generosity, Abdurraqib explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent.

The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson by Misty Copeland

Written by Misty Copeland, this heartfelt memoir reflects on her relationship with trailblazer Raven Wilkinson, who is credited as being the first African-American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company. A trailblazer in the world of ballet, Raven faced overt and casual racism, hostile crowds, and death threats for having the audacity to dance in the 1950s and 60s. The Wind at My Back demonstrates the importance of mentorship, shared history, and honoring the past to ensure a stronger future.

Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir by Halifu Osumare

In this award-winning memoir, Halifu Osumare, professional dancer and scholar, reflects on what blackness and dance have meant in her life and international career. Osumare’s story begins in 1960s San Francisco amid the Black Arts Movement, Black militancy, and hippie counterculture. It was there, she says, that she chose dance as her own revolutionary statement. Osumare introduces readers to some of the major artistic movers and shakers she collaborated with throughout her career, including Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Jean-Leon Destine, Alvin Ailey, and Donald McKayle. Now a Black studies scholar, Osumare uses her extraordinary experiences to reveal the ways that dance has been a vital tool in the black struggle for recognition, justice, and self-empowerment.

Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince

Michaela DePrince, now a soloist with Boston Ballet, was born in war-torn Sierra Leone in the midst of the country’s decade-long civil war. Michaela’s ballet story starts when she finds an old copy of Dance Magazine with former PNB ballerina Magali Messac on the cover. Her interest in ballet is piqued, and what follows is a truly incredible and often painful story of one young person following their dreams.

Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey by Alvin Ailey with A. Peter Bailey

This autobiography relates the powerful story of one man’s painful search for identity despite a lifetime of remarkable achievement. Alvin Ailey was an influential American dancer, director, choreographer, and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Published in 1995, six years after Ailey’s death. Revelations covers his childhood in Texas and Los Angeles, his work with Lester Horton, the founding of his own company, and his friendship with Carmen De Lavallade. The book is out of print, but the link will take you to where you can find a used copy. Please note: this book includes references to potentially troubling topics such as sexual assault, death, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Books for Kids

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream by Kristy Dempsey & Floyd Cooper

Set in 1951 Harlem, this book provides a clear-eyed portrayal of the struggles aspiring Black ballerinas faced in the 1950s and celebrates the hope one girl finds in watching the first Black prima ballerina, Janet Collins, perform onstage at the Met.

Click here for a read-aloud of A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream.

Dancing In the Wings by Debbie Allen, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Sassy loves to dance, but her long legs and big feet keep her dancing in the wings instead of onstage – until she auditions for a famous director who comes to town. This beautifully illustrated tale will give any young dancer inspiration and courage to be themselves.

Click here for a read-aloud of Dancing in the Wings.

Firebird by Misty Copeland, Illustrated by Christopher Myers

Inspired by Copeland’s first principal role in Firebird, this picture book reads like poetry. It’s a love letter to young dancers, encouraging them to keep working and reaching for their dreams.

Click here to watch Misty Copeland read her book Firebird.

Ready to Fly: How Sylvia Townsend Became the Bookmobile Ballerina by A.LaFaye and Lea Lyon, Illustrated by Jessica Gibson

Ready to Fly is the true story of Sylvia Townsend, an African American girl who falls in love with ballet after seeing Swan Lake on TV. There aren’t many ballet schools that will accept a girl like Sylvia in the 1950s, but her local bookmobile provides another possibility. A librarian helps Sylvia find a book about ballet and the determined seven-year-old, with the help of her new books, starts teaching herself the basics of classical ballet. With bright illustrations and appealing text, this book is a great historic dance story for kiddos. 

Click here for a read-aloud of Ready to Fly.

Trailblazer: the Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson by Leda Schubert, Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

This beautiful picture book tells the little-known story of Raven Wilkinson, the first African American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company and an inspiration to Misty Copeland. Theodore Taylor III’s unique, heavy line style of illustration brings a deeper level of fluidity and life to the work, and Misty Copeland’s beautifully written foreword will delight ballet and dance fans of all ages.

Click here for a read-aloud of Trailblazer.