This Black History Month, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most important books on African American (and, therefore, American) history published within the last three years. Taken together, they provide a painstakingly detailed counter-argument to some of the basic assumptions about African Americans (about the minority group and the exceptional individuals within it) that have been allowed to fester in our cultural imagination over the centuries. Read these books and experience the thrill of your long-held assumptions about black history and culture melting away.
‘Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom’ by David Blight (2018)
“Time has a way of sanding off the rough edges of historical memory, turning even the most convulsive, contentious lives into opportunities for national triumphalism and self-congratulation. With ‘Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,’ the historian David W. Blight wants to enrich our understanding of an American in full who, for more than half his life, wasn’t even legally recognized as such. Now that Douglass is enshrined on his pedestal, shorn of what made him ‘thoroughly and beautifully human,’ Blight notes how the ‘old fugitive slave” has been ‘adopted by all elements in the political spectrum,’ eager to claim him as their own […]
“Blight, who has edited and annotated volumes of Douglass’s autobiographies, undertakes this project with the requisite authority and gravity. The result is comprehensive, scholarly, sober; Blight is careful to tell us what cannot be known, including the persistent mystery of Douglass’s father (who was most likely white, and may have been Frederick’s mother’s owner). On the stuff that’s known, Blight is an attentive if sometimes fastidious guide, poring over speeches and texts with the critical equivalent of a magnifying glass. Douglass, Blight says, was a ‘man of words,’ making this book ‘the biography of a voice.'” (Excerpt from Oct. 17, 2018 New York Times review by Jennifer Szalai).
‘The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap’ by Mehrsa Baradaran (2017)
“In the months following the election of Donald J. Trump as president, momentum gathered to unite anti-racist and anti-poverty advocacy in the resurrection of the Poor People’s Campaign — an effort Martin Luther King Jr. was beginning at the time of his death in 1968. Organizers bill the campaign as ‘[a] National Call for Moral Revival […] uniting tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.’ The campaign holds the promise that political activism aimed at racism and economic privation may finally be wedded in ways that the Occupy Wall Street movement failed to achieve. But this recent history doesn’t do justice to the long and complicated history of the tension between the two.
“That history is told in gripping detail by Mehrsa Baradaran in her book The Color of Money. Ostensibly a history of “black banking,” The Color of Money actually tells the tale of racism and poverty experienced by black people in the United States from its very inception. Further, it chronicles the historical failure of supposed anti-racist victories, from emancipation to civil rights legislation, to substantially change the designated bottom-rung position of black people within the US economy. This failure is evident in recent studies showing that black wealth is actually decreasing while white wealth is continuing to grow. But the history Baradaran marshals gives extensive evidence of why the wealth gap has persisted and deepened. For one, emancipation did not come with a hand up to freed slaves in the form of the proverbial 40 acres and a mule. In fact, the plan floated within the newly created US Freedmen’s Bureau was not to grant 40 acres, but to mortgage it, with newly freed slaves needing to produce a 40 percent down payment on a subsidized parcel. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson scuttled even that plan. Instead, free blacks were forced into coercive cotton sharecropping arrangements. The endless indebtedness of sharecroppers to plantation owners in these arrangements meant that both the “economic order” and ‘the lives of freedmen’ were ‘virtually unchanged’ by emancipation. In the place of real economic change came the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, the first of many government interventions based on the idea that through black banking and ‘black capitalism,’ black people’s economic status could be improved without changes to the dominant economy.” (Excerpt from March 19, 2018 Los Angeles Review of Books review by Armond Towns and Carolyn Hardin).
‘The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,’ by Richard Rothstein (2017)
“To scholars and social critics, the racial segregation of our neighborhoods has long been viewed as a manifestation of unscrupulous real estate agents, unethical mortgage lenders, and exclusionary covenants working outside the law. This is what is commonly known as ‘de facto segregation,’ practices that were the outcome of private activity, not law or explicit public policy. Yet, as Rothstein breaks down in case after case, private activity could not have imposed segregation without explicit government policies (de jure segregation) designed to ensure the separation of African Americans from whites.
A former columnist for the New York Times and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, as well as a Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Rothstein has spent years documenting the evidence that government not merely ignored discriminatory practices in the residential sphere, but promoted them. The impact has been devastating for generations of African-Americans who were denied the right to live where they wanted to live, and raise and school their children where they could flourish most successfully.” (Excerpt from Economic Policy Institute book review).
‘From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America,’ by Elizabeth Hinton (2016)
“Prison is on our minds. Its tentacles reach far beyond the two million Americans who are incarcerated, extending to their beloved friends and families, to the schools, homes and streets of people who once were, and who will someday be, locked up. In the years following the 2010 publication of Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book ‘The New Jim Crow,’ several scholarly works have emerged that explain the rise and reality of mass incarceration. Like Naomi Murakawa’s ‘The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,’ Elizabeth Hinton’s ‘From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime’ argues it was not just a conservative backlash to the civil rights movement that led to mass incarceration; it was a bipartisan enterprise.
She describes how, from the administration of John F. Kennedy to that of Ronald Reagan, the executive, Congress and the courts together expanded the architecture of criminalization, driven by assumptions about the cultural inferiority and ‘pathology’ of African-Americans. The Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961, which Kennedy promoted, imagined black youth as being in need of repair rather than justice. Lyndon B. Johnson recast this war on delinquency as a War on Crime. Police were militarized; law and order touted as essential; and black youth labeled ‘delinquent’ and ‘potentially delinquent,’ reputedly in need of special surveillance and supervision.” (Excerpt from May 27, 2016 New York Times book review by Imani Perry).