Below are the main books I use for American history. I am not saying they are the best – just the ones I use. Commenters can probably come up with some better ones.
The perfect American history book would be produced by five historians: a Black American, a Native American, a White American, an Asian American and a Latino American. They would each have equal editorial control, with the Native American as the head.
As far as I know, there is no such book. Therefore I have done the next best thing: bought books about Black American history by Black Americans, about Asian American history by Asian Americans and so on. This comes from the bitter experiences of depending on white historians to get things right.
Native American history:
Robert W. Venables, “American Indian History” (2004) – it goes on and on about treaties, but that is to be expected.
Black American history:
Lerone Bennett, Jr, “Before the Mayflower” (1962) – I no longer have this book and it appears to be out of print, but it was where I learned the basics of Black American history. It is more or less burned into my brain. Especially the part about the bodies of slaves at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Nell Irvin Painter, “Creating Black Americans” (2006) – a good, solid, up-to-date overview.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr, “Life Upon These Shores” (2011) – Gates is pretty whitewashed and his fact checking is not always rock solid, but the book has tons of stuff I never knew about. Knowing Gates, though, most of the book was probably written by whites.
White American history:
Peter N. Carroll and David W. Noble, “The Free and the Unfree” (1977) – race and class conscious, helps you to understand broader patterns, tends not to sugarcoat, knows about Cointelpro. Now in its third edition (2001).
Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States” (2003) – openly left-wing but has much of the stuff they do not teach at American high school. There is an edition for young people.
James Loewen, “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (2007) – not a history but a look at the holes and biases in history as taught at American high schools. I always check what Loewen says.
Asian American history:
Ronald Takaki, “A Different Mirror” (1993) – talks about all races but seems to be best on White and Asian Americans. Not so good on Blacks and Natives. Still, if I had to recommend a single book to someone who did not know much, it would be this one. There is an edition for young people.
Iris Chang, “The Chinese in America” (2003) – I have not read any of this one yet, but it looks good. She is best known for “The Rape of Nanking” (1997).
Latino American history:
Rodolfo Acuña, “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos” (2004) – If you read only one book on Chicano history, this is the one! Acuña is a highly respected Chicano historian. His book is now in its seventh edition. Banned from Tucson schools, so you know it must be good!