I’ve been part of several antiracism and racial justice book groups over the past years, and have read a lot on my own, as well, especially since taking a course in African American history in college. That course was the first time I encountered a course on history that connected, that didn’t seem like just a recitation of uninteresting details of presidential elections and military victories.
For the almost 20 years I wrote for the web about women’s history, I made a concerted effort to be sure that I made room for a strong presence of Black women’s history in that collection of articles. For the American Ethical Union, I created a long list of books to support antiracism and racial justice work, with particular attention to including books from lists recommended by Black writers. So I thought that this week, for my Leader’s message, I’d recommend just five books on Black history that I wish everybody had read or would read. They are not all new, not all for adults.
- Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? by James Cone. I first read it in the early 1990s. This book remains one of the most effective books about mid 20th century Black History that I’ve ever read. James Cone, better known as a theologian, looks at the ideology of both leaders, how they compared and contrasted, and how those were rooted in very different experiences of America: the racism of white Americans of the north and south, the Black community experience of the north and south. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley is one I’d add if this were a list of ten books.
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. It was not what I expected, and it was transformational. Kendi himself writes that what he learned from researching and writing this history upended his view of how racist ideas developed. It is a long and dense book, but well worth the careful read. And it helped me to understand how we should approach those people — in history and in our lives — who have a more complicated relationship with racism than just good guys/bad guys. I especially enjoyed the experience of the audio version of this book: somehow, hearing the story made it clearer and richer than just reading it.
- Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 edited by Ibram Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. I’m making my way through this, and haven’t yet finished. But I can already tell that it is another transformational experience. As a white person, to read selections on different points in American history, written by more than ninety Black writers, is to see history through different eyes, and thus see a more complete view of the totality of American history.
- The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. It was repeated over and over as I was growing up in the northern US in the 1960s that a major difference between north and south was de jure segregation in the south — segregation by explicit law — and de facto segregation in the north — segregation because of individual prejudice, and indirect effects of racism like income difference and “urban renewal.” This book explodes that notion, showing how explicitly-racist government polices created segregation in the north, too.
- Finish the Fight!: The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote by Veronica Chambers. I wanted to include something for children. This book, published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of ratifying the 19th Amendment last August, introduces a variety of Black, Indigenous, and other women of color who have fought to expand the right to vote to all women, not just white women. Aimed at children 8-12, some younger children will find it interesting if it’s read to them. And parents, you’ll learn a lot, too, since this is not history most of us have learned before.
There are four others that I’m not sure would be as interesting to others who don’t share some of my idiosyncratic interests in history, but I’ll list them in case someone finds them valuable. Two are more biography than general history, but then, I often find I “get” history better through the lens of life stories. Two are more about white strategy to use race as a political tool — and I believe that counts as Black history because of the way that political strategy affects current race-based experience.
- The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley
- The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
- The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics by Angie Maxwell
- How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson
Let me know what you think of any of these you are inspired to read!