Recommended Reading List: African American History and Race Relations

From the silent protests of athletes like Colin Kaepernick to the massive ground swelling of the Black Lives Matter movement, examples of discontent and outrage are growing in reaction to systemic racial injustice in the United States. Understanding and facing these challenges requires historical context – how we got to this dark place – and analysis from scholars and journalists who follow the issues closely and are gifted with the ability to explain the problems and offer possible solutions. The following annotated bibliography is in no way intended to be exhaustive. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the books that have been published in recent years on African American history and race relations. It is simply a list of books I can honestly recommend because I have read them and think they are representative of the topic.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Although she is not the first person to write about America’s caste system, Wilkerson probably has better examples and research to support her conclusions than did previous writers on the subject, especially after the presidency of Donald Trump. She makes a compelling argument for why we need to dig much deeper than race and class to understand the complexities of white privilege, discrimination, injustice, prejudice, poverty, and a whole host of other societal ills in America.

She draws comparisons to the ancient caste system in India to explain how arbitrary lines are drawn between groups of people that are irrational, indefensible, and immoral. She illustrates the paradox of a country that was founded on liberty and justice for all that at the same time enslaved people for 250 years of its history and continued to enforce a segregated society, often with horrible acts of violence, long after slavery was abolished. The chapter describing how the Nazis in Germany used the rhetoric and Jim Crow policies of the United States to construct their own pogroms is chilling and painful.

One of the major strengths of this book is Wilkerson’s use of metaphors to describe how the caste system in America originated and continues to be perpetuated by the dominant caste: the power base mostly of European descent. She uses a neglected house as a symbol of how the caste system has slowly but effectively compromised the structure of American society, eating away at its foundation and crumbling its walls. The inevitable result will eventually be a pile of rubble if we continue to avoid the problem.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

What a fine book. Not only does Gates bring a mountain of research to the table, but he also offers insight and thoughtful commentary based on decades of reading, thinking, teaching, and writing about Reconstruction and the Redemption period in American history that encompasses almost 100 years following the formal end of slavery. This topic has been covered to some degree by several scholars in recent years, with Doug Blackmon being the first to come to mind. I think what sets this book apart is the examination and analysis of the concept of the New Negro as it was proposed and argued by the major figures of African American society in the late 19th century and moving through the period now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance: W. E. B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, and Booker T. Washington.

Gates recently published a book titled The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which is a wonderful history of African American religious communities and a study of how churches served much more than just places of worship. I am currently reading the book and cannot review it properly yet, but I do highly recommend it.

White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper

Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. Obviously, much of the paranoia centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”

However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day. This book is a fine addition to American history and African American studies.

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones

Well, this was painful . . . and so relevant. Jones is armed with a searing spotlight that reveals how Christianity in America was nurtured and sustained by white supremacy throughout its history and is still embracing it today. With compelling data, careful research, and thoughtful commentary, Jones forces readers to confront how racial discrimination and social injustice are far more prevalent in all denominations of Christianity than most people are willing to admit, including clergy and elected officials.

One of the lightbulb moments for me in this book was the realization that people who do horrible things while also identifying as Christians, are indeed Christians by the way our society defines it. He uses the horrific case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine African Americans during a Bible study session at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. This young man was an active member of his Lutheran church and frequently posted Bible verses and Christian doctrinal messages through social media and his personal documents. He justified his actions with his Christian beliefs. As Jones astutely observes, if Roof had killed white Christians and had been attending a mosque and posting verses from the Koran, how many white Americans would have denied that he was a Muslim? Roof is a Christian terrorist, and the justification for his violence is directly linked to white supremacy. And, he is not alone in that twisted mindset.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

I had a pre-conceived image of someone who was much more violent than Malcolm X actually was based on this book. I was intrigued with how the man born Malcolm Little evolved from being a petty criminal, often robbing even members of his own family, to become an intellectual force to be reckoned with by the U.S. government and even foreign powers. It may not be fair to say that a few years in prison turned his life around. It would even be a weak cliché; however, there is no doubt that some of the relationships he developed with older mentors he met while in prison had a tremendous impact on his self-awareness, his belief system, his intelligence, his understanding of racial inequality, and his vision for the future of African Americans.

It was also interesting to watch how he eventually abandoned his complete devotion to Elijah Muhammad as the head of the political organization, Nation of Islam, to pursue his own leadership role within the framework of Islam as a world religion. Leaving the NOI and speaking out against it precipitated his violent death. Before he died, Malcolm moved to the forefront in the fight for civil rights and was unapologetic about the means employed to overcome racial injustice. Malcolm X had no patience for pacifists who advocated a moderate approach. He wasn’t asking for justice — he demanded it.

Malcolm’s parents were heavily influenced by the separatist and sovereign ideas for people of color espoused by Marcus Garvey, which probably led Malcolm to make distinctions between segregation and separation. The former was imposed, but the latter was voluntary and desirable — a fascinating perspective. He wanted to see black people become completely independent of white influence, dominance, and charity. His disdain for white people (white devils, as he called them) waned toward the end of his life, but he never felt compelled to be conciliatory or to make excuses for racial discrimination and the privileged white society that perpetuated it. Nobody could ever mistake Malcolm X for a “team player,” and his vision for black people presented a stark contrast to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Revised Edition) by Michelle Alexander

Alexander presents us with a comprehensive and disturbing study of how mass incarceration resulting from the “war on drugs” in America has disproportionately imprisoned people of color in comparison to whites. As a well-trained attorney, she presents a mountain of evidence to argue her case, using quotes and testimonies from a wide array of historical and contemporary figures along with hard data and heartbreaking stories. No segment of American society escapes her stinging indictment: blacks and whites; conservatives and liberals; rich, poor, and middle class; champions of the Civil Rights Movement; and modern political figures, all the way up to Barack Obama (the book was published in 2010). This is an important book that deserves serious consideration by decision makers at almost every level of government, and especially those who are in any way connected to the criminal justice system.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr.

To some degree, Forman’s book takes up where The New Jim Crow leaves off. Understanding mass incarceration of black people at the hands of a legal system that is dominated by white people is not too difficult, but the situation gets cloudy when it happens in cities across the country that are largely governed by black people. In Forman’s experience as a public defender, Washington D.C. is a model city for the disturbing phenomenon. Using personal accounts from his own case files and extensive research into the historical developments that bred the “war on drugs” and “war on crime,” Forman carefully examines why the arc of the moral universe is longer than Martin Luther King, Jr. may have imagined, and it doesn’t seem to be bending very much toward justice for people of color.

Critics will argue that, first and foremost, breaking the law is not justified simply because we don’t like the laws and that black people cannot expect a pass just because they find themselves in difficult circumstances that often leave them with few options other than criminal activity. They will likely argue that Forman is proving the point that race is not a factor at all, especially since black people are arrested and convicted by black officers and judges. However, Forman digs deeper than the surface appearances to uncover complicated and nuanced systemic issues that lead to discrimination and inequality on our streets, in our courts, and in our prisons.

I had the opportunity to sit next to Professor Forman at a luncheon when he was honored with a Lillian E. Smith Book Award in 2018 for his work. His own life story is fascinating; his methods of teaching law are innovative and inspiring; and his passion for justice is akin to a minister’s drive to lead his congregation. He even sounds slightly like a preacher when he talks about the topic of this book. Readers will have to judge if he presents a convincing argument, but I don’t believe anyone can doubt his conviction.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This is such a compelling story from the man who leads up the organization that most recently brought us the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial, as many are calling it) in Montgomery, Alabama. I was particularly drawn to Stevenson’s reflections near the end of the book in the chapter titled “Broken.” He observes how our society has legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we surrender to the harsh instinct to crush those among us who are most visibly injured by circumstances that are in many cases beyond their control. Stevenson explains that we are all broken, but we are not defined solely by the mistakes we have made.

“I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule

Ty Seidule has written a book that immediately and unequivocally transformed him into a heretic in the eyes of many Americans, especially those in the South. It takes amazing courage for a southerner who is also a decorated officer of the U.S. Army and a retired history professor at West Point to openly and very publicly admit that Robert E. Lee committed treason and should be viewed as a traitor to his country. And that’s exactly what Ty Seidule has done. I applaud his bravery and the extensive research he has completed to make that claim. This is a damn fine book, not because it covers new ground or reveals any real hidden truths, but because it says what has needed to be heard and understood for a very long time by someone in a position of authority who deserves respect and serious consideration.

Seidule has heard every excuse in the book for why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, for why the Confederacy didn’t really lose the war, and for why Robert E. Lee was such an honorable man. For the first 20+ years of his life, he believed the excuses too. He probably doesn’t give quite enough credit to his wife for finally helping him escape the vortex of Confederate mythology. She forced him to question what it means to be a “Christian Southern Gentleman,” something he had aspired to from childhood through his graduation from Washington and Lee University, an institution that has been responsible more than any other place for perpetuating the cult of Robert E. Lee. His definitions of Christianity and gentleman have drastically changed through the years, and his perception of the South is much clearer than it was when he was a young man.

This book should be required reading in just about every college and university in the South, and even in many other parts of the country where the Civil War is still romanticized beyond recognition for what it truly was: a rebellious uprising against the United States of America. Seidule spends a lot of time talking about the impact of the novel and movie “Gone With the Wind,” which is appropriate; however, I wish he had given some attention to the earlier movie, “Birth of a Nation,” especially in his discussions of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most striking arguments he makes concerns the inaccurate terminology that has been used for generations to describe the Civil War, including the ridiculous names for the conflict itself, from “the recent unpleasantness” to “the war of northern aggression.”

He also makes a convincing point about how using the term “Union” is an inappropriate way to describe the U.S. Armed Forces while they fought against the Confederacy, as if the Union were some entity separate from the United States. That distinction brings us back to the problem with Robert E. Lee, who abandoned his commission as an officer of the U.S. Army and chose to side with a rebellious confederacy of states – a domestic enemy against whom Lee had sworn to protect his country. In the end, Lee was more loyal to the State of Virginia and the other southern states than he was to the United States, and that makes him a traitor. And it’s about time southerners and the rest of the nation came to terms with that stinging but absolutely honest indictment.

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