I grew up in a religious household in the south. Southern, evangelical, Republican. I was homeschooled and, because of that, most of the history I learned came from a distinctly evangelical perspective. This history was presented as objective and neutral, merely a retelling of the stories that shaped the country I was living in: the new promised land that (despite being under attack by liberals) was generally the Best Country in The History of the World because God and manifest destiny and shit.
I’m not sure if it’s clear but did not get a good historical education. Embarassingly it took me wellllll into adulthood to realize this and start the process of asking questions. In the years since I’ve been trying to do the work to destabilize the myths of white America I grew up with, to gain a more accurate understanding of the full, complicated story of this country. This process is very much ongoing. The books below are some that I’ve read in the past few years as I recognized and tried to fill these gaps in my education.
The more I work to gain a better understanding of American history—which requires work to undo bullshit I’d been taught and also find and fill gaps that had been intentionally left—the more I appreciate that celebrating Black History Month is critically important, because Black people—despite active work to write them out of our history—have always been central to American history. Black History Month is an active attempt to fight that false, rewritten history. Until we can accurately talk about how we got to today, and what today is like for all Americans, how can we pretend to know the way forward? Or, to frame this question like N.K. Jemisin does: How long til’ black future month?
Happy Black History Month!
The Struggle for Black Equality
by Harvard Sitkoff
I grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, AL, less than 20 miles from where many of the notable events of the Civil Rights movement occurred. And while those events happened only 20 years before I was born, I didn’t learn anything about them in my education. Thanks to this book I was able to learn about the collective struggle for—and the many people involved in—pushing for Civil Rights legislation to be seen as necessary, and then fighting to see that legislation passed. Sitkoff explores the struggles involved in the era and sheds light on the many people who poured all their effort into trying to make the American political system recognize them as equal citizens.
How We Get Free
Edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
In the 1970’s a Black feminist collective known as the Combahee River Collective wrote and released the Combahee River Statement, in which they explored a politics where they “are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.” Years later, Kimberlé Crenshaw would write a paper that conceptualized “intersectional” feminism, and her work would be recognized as building on the Combahee River Collective’s earlier work. In this book, Taylor collects interviews with many of the writers of the statement which explore a history so foundational to our current era.
by Zora Neale Hurston
Cudjo Lewis was one of the last Africans carried across the Atlantic as an enslaved human. In 1927, when he was 86—long a free man—Zora Neale Hurston went to his community outside Mobile, Alabama to interview him and transcribe his story. In this posthumously-published book that was the result of multiple interviews between Lewis and Hurston, we learn of his life and story. The book is heavy and necessary; allowing us an opportunity to listen to a man who had first-hand experience of the horrors of slavery and the middle-passage.
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution
by Eric Foner
I read this book in the past few months because I kept hearing about how interesting Reconstruction was as a historical era, and I realized I had no insight into it whatsoever. It turns out the era WAS fascinating. For a period of 10-ish years after the civil war we attempted to have a multi-racial democracy! Black people held powerful positions across the south! It was unclear if Southern aristocrats would be able to maintain political or economic power! And then it all fell apart. In this thorough volume, Foner masterfully tells the story of how the Civil War ended, the ways that Radical Republicans (who were on the right side of history) tried to build a country that was more just and equal, and how these efforts ultimately failed. Foner also has a shorter version if the 600 page volume isn’t a thing you want to tackle.
The Color of Law
by Richard Rothstein
For years as I was becoming more aware of systemic injustice in the US, I would hear about “red-lining”, the institutional ways that Black americans (and other POC) were excluded from various housing legislation intended to make home-ownership more accessible to Americans. In 2017, Rothstein published this book that helped me understand the full impact of these institutional discriminations. Rothstein’s project is not simply to document that racial discrimination existed, but to argue that it was intentional, racist policy enacted at multiple levels of government in myriad forms. The book is very successful in its argument. If you are unsure about these histories, this book is an invaluable history.
by Yaa Gyasi
I read this book mid-2018 and even now, 18 months later, I’m not sure I have the language or capacity to describe it well. I could tell you about its structure; the first two chapters tell the stories of sisters who are separated, each proceeding chapter is a story about one of their descendants. But no, that doesn’t capture it, not in the least. Gyasi explores so many themes in this novel, somehow crafting a cohesive broad narrative out of an elegant series of concise, beautiful constructed short stories focusing on inter-connected characters. This novel changed my understanding of how stories work while also helping me better imagine the histories I have long misunderstood.
Thanks for reading! If you feel like I left off books, please please please let me know. I know there are so many more and I love to find books I should be reading.