Robert F. Smith’s Top Back-to-School Book Recommendations


Students are heading back to school, and even though they may have plenty of new binders, pencils and backpacks, there’s more to add to their educational tools. When it comes to learning about African American history, culture and the arts, here are some of Robert F. Smith’s favorite recommendations. They’re perfect for giving to young scholars heading into the classroom, to remind them of all of the amazing contributions by Black writers or the roles of African Americans in our history that may not make the textbooks. Or if you know a recent graduate that may be struggling to find their inner compass, these books could help steer them as they enter the workforce. You can also add them to your own nightstand reading stack.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi

Smith chose this book when asked for reading recommendations by Barrons. The thoughtful tome delves into the history of racism in America and explores how it is deeply rooted in the country’s past and present conflicts. “Racism has marred the great potential of what America stands for and what it can be,” the author, Kendi, commented in Barrons about his book, which also won the National Book Award. “I’m looking to understand its origins in order to overturn its effects.”

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

Smith has recommended investor and entrepreneur Ray Dalio’s books as recently as his appearance last March in the Presidents Summit Masterclass where he was asked for advice for young people who are interested in investing. He advised them to not purchase material goods that they think may increase in value one day, but instead to educate themselves about the business of investing. 

Smith added, “So, one of the most important things you can do as a young person, frankly…don’t live in a vacuum…. And I would highly recommend, from an investing perspective, you know, get involved in an investing club…and and make sure that, in doing that, you get a diversity of ideas and that can be through people or backgrounds or experiences, and the good news about virtual, man, you can have a global investment club…You can have people from anywhere on the planet….Read some of the books …from Ray Dalio and others, and and think about…how to become a unique investor in your time.”

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Fiction is often a perfect way to teach readers about the challenges of setting off on their own and exploring life’s many chances to make choices. For those who may be wandering, Smith recommends books by Paulo Coelho, including The Alchemist. This “fable about finding your dream” can be the stirring book that you or a young person you know can’t put down. 

Two Novels by Guy Johnson

The son of poet and author Maya Angelou, Guy Johnson’s books are some of Smith’s favorites to recommend. He recently wrote about the Johnson’s first book, Standing on the Scratch Line, in Forbes, where he praised the book’s exploration of the often passed-over “Harlem Hellfighters” regiment of WWI soldiers. 

Smith wrote, “I gift this book to as many young people as I can, particularly to young Black men. Among its other messages, the book clearly articulates how business ownership can be a means of building self respect, investing back into your community, and strengthening the fabric of your family — all of which have been core tenets in my life.”

Johnson’s other book, Echoes of a Distant Summer is also a top pick by Smith, and continues the story begun in Standing on the Scratch Line. Good for “winding down,” as Smith put it, fiction can also tell tales that stick with us, and show us how to persevere through the toughest times.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois

A common pick for reading lists in sociology, history and even English major courses, The Souls of Black Folk is a seminal work by author and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. The Souls of Black Folk, originally published in 1903, draws on DuBois’ own experiences as a Black man trying to lift up his fellow African Americans in a post-Civil War state of struggle. As a founding member of the NAACP, and the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard University, DuBois was lauded and sought out during his time as an author and orator. His book is known for its keen insights into turn of the century America, with all of its flaws laid bare. 

Poetry, Short Stories, and Nonfiction by Some of America’s Best African American Authors

Poetry might seem an odd choice coming from entrepreneur and philanthropist Robert F. Smith, but he knows that there’s no better way to understand the cultural contributions of a society than looking at its poets. Smith likes to recommend to young readers the works by Maya Angelou. You can explore her nonfiction, like her book Letters to My Daughter, poetry including And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or even read about Angelou’s social justice and civil rights activism

As the nation’s current Youth Poet Laureate, you may have seen Amanda Gorman’s stirring reading of her original poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Biden’s inauguration ceremony in 2021. Her first book of poetry, The Hill We Climb, which includes the title poem, is available now, and makes a wonderful selection for those looking to read contemporary works by a riveting young African American poet.  

Finally, we go back to the 1920s and ‘30s and the prolific work of the Black authors, painters and playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance. Smith’s pick from this era includes works by Langston Hughes, and often includes Hughes’ poetry, such as the collection The Weary Blues or even Hughes’ Selected Poems or short stories The Ways of White Folks, which has long been taught as an insightful look at the segregated society in America during the 1930s. The stories, funny and tragic, still ring true today.

Read more about Smith’s support for the arts, including his support of Black musicians at the Sphinx Organization and work via the Fund II Foundation, of which he is founding director and President, to preserve and promote arts education.