13th Documentary Reading List for Teens

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th named after Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution explores race and the criminal justice system. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery with the exception unless it was a punishment for a crime. This documentary explores how slavery is continuing under the guise of mass incarceration.



Mass incarceration is a social justice issue and racial issue. 13th documentary, which is currently available on Netflix, is a film that is accessible and engaging to teens, and a must for everyone to see. Ava DuVernay has tweeted that public screenings “are allowed by Netflix in a first-of-its-kind general waiver ever made by the company. Show + share.” It is highly discussable. Here are a list of teen-friendly books that explore themes and content further for teen collections:

the-new-jim-crow-mass-incarceration-in-the-age-of-colorblindness  understanding-mass-incarceration-a-peoples-guide-to-the-key-civil-rights-struggle-of-our-time-by-james-william-kilgore  slavery-by-another-name-the-re-enslavement-of-black-people-in-america-from-the-civil-war-to-world-war-ii-by-douglas-a-blackmon

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

This explores that even though there has been a lot done to dismantle Jim Crow Laws, “the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control.” It looks at most people who use or sell illegal drugs are white, but in many states 90 percent of those arrested and sent to prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. This in turns means that those incarcerated or on probation or parole are often denied employment, housing, education and public benefits. Written by a civil-rights lawyer, this is an engaging read that teens will appreciate in its readability and arguments.

Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time by James William Kilgore

Much like The New Jim Crow this explores how mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos is creating a system where civil liberties are being violated through the criminal justice system. This also explores issues of mental illness and gender identification in the criminal justice system, and talks about the debilitating financial pressure that those arrested and their families face from court fees and fines. Teens will appreciate this engaging narrative and introduction to mass incarceration that offers an overview with enough facts and figures.

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America From the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

Blackmon explores the history of African-American incarceration from the end of the Civil War through World War II. He looks at how mostly African-American charged with petty crimes where then put into forced labor camps operated by “state and county governments, large corporations, small time entrepreneurs and provincial farmers.” This fleshes out parts of U.S. history that get skipped when it comes to civil liberties studies that usually end with the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 and picks back up in the 1950s with the Civil Rights Movement. The 13th documentary explores how this history laid the groundwork for the systemic mass incarceration we see today.

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Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education by Mychal Denzel Smith

Smith, who is in his 20s, explores what it means to be young and Black in the U.S. today. Starting with a recount of the killing of Trayvon Martin and then other young Black men this got Smith asking, “How do you learn to be a black man in America?” To answer this, Smith looks at issues of systemic racism, white supremacy and class-based elitism, while also looking at issues misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, self-hatred, violence, and untreated mental illness that can be harder to dissect for young Black men in today’s society. Smith is a master at the essay and teens will find this a highly engaging and thought-provoking read.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2015 Alex Awards Nominee) *

Stevenson’s memoir recounts his calling to serve the largely neglected clientele in our justice system. His experience as a law-intern and lawyer brings to life the inconsistencies of the death penalty and race, and how if the victim is white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim is black. He discusses several cases he has handled, the most notorious of which  is Walter McMillian, a  black man from southern Alabama who was falsely accused of a murder. Then through a series of  bogus legal situations, police harassment, racism, and  phony testimony, McMillian found himself on Alabama’s death row. Teens will appreciate the fast-paced memoir that reads like a true crime while it it explores the injustices in the criminal justice system.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2016 Alex Award)

Written as a letter to his son, this series of essays looks at how race and racial issues have shaped American history, and at how this has often been at the cost of many Black lives. Coates looks at what it means to be Black in America and more specifically what it means to be a Black male. Coates breaks down issues of systemic racism in an immediate way that teens will appreciate and want to discuss.

the-other-wes-moore-one-name-two-fates-by-wes-moore       charleston-syllabus-readings-on-race-racism-and-racial-violence-by-chad-williams-kidada-e-williams-and-keisha-n-blain      they-cant-kill-us-all-ferguson-baltimore-and-a-new-era-in-americas-racial-justice-movement-by-wesley-lowery

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore (2011 Alex Award Nomination)

Moore’s memoir tells the story of his life growing up in Baltimore and the Bronx, his time as an army officer in Afghanistan, and as a Rhodes Scholar and White House Fellow. He parallels his life’s journey with another man, also named Wes Moore, who grew up near him at roughly the same time who is serving a life-sentence for  for the murder of a police officer. It looks at how we as a nation alternately can both support and fail youth.

Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence by Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

With the focal point of the 2015 killings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina where a white supremacist openly shot and killed 9 members of the congregation during a Wednesday night Bible study this book, through a series of essays and articles, looks at the roots of American systemic racism, white privilege, the uses and abuses of the Confederate flag and its ideals.

They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and A New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery

Lowery in a journalistic style explores behind the scenes of the building of the Black Lives Matter movement. Lowery brings up elements of his childhood growing up in Cleveland and his work as a reporter covering racial issues. He also profiles prominent activists, such as Johnetta Elzie, DeRey Mckesson, Bree Newsome, and  Brittany Packnett.

-Danielle Jones, currently reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah