Dr. John Hope Franklin at the at Duke University John Hope Franklin Center
for Interdisciplinary and International Studies
(photo: Duke Photography)
From the day in 1957 that I came home from school with an “F” on a paper, because my fifth grade teacher at PS 138 in Brooklyn, NY, completely rejected my assertion that “Egypt” was in Africa (much to my parents dismay—they wound up going to my school and confronting the principal), I knew that there was something very wrong about “history” and how it was being taught.
As we move to the end of Black History month, more than 5 decades from that time, I wound up thinking about historian Carter G. Woodson, who pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week," and of historian John Hope Franklin who had a major influence on the development of modern black historical scholarship (see his selected bibliography). Franklin died in 2009, after a lifetime of achievements:
He was the first African-American president of the American Historical Association; the first black department chairman at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College; the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke; the first black chairman of the University of Chicago’s history department; and the first African-American to present a paper at the segregated Southern Historical Association, one of many groups that later elected him its president.
The John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, at Duke University, where he taught was named in his honor. Franklin was quoted, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work:
"My challenge was to weave into the fabric of American history enough of the presence of blacks so that the story of the United States could be told adequately and fairly."
Follow me below the fold for my suggested history book list.
I'm not an historian, but do teach history as part of interdisciplinary courses in anthropology and women's studies, and have done so in community political education settings. I'd like to share with readers some of the books that helped shape my understanding of black history and politics that I suggest we all should read. I was surprised to find that Amazon.com had a guide to Franklin's "Top 10 on African American History" booklist, and though some of my choices differ from those on his list, I have his at the top.
For those of you who never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Franklin, or hear him lecture, there is a series of interviews with him which are available at the visionary project.
My list is not comprehensive. It doesn't include novels or poetry. I have well over a thousand books on my shelves at home, but I wanted to list, as black history month ends, a few of the histories, essays, and biographies that influenced my thinking, growth of awareness, and continue to do so. Many of you are aware of works by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and the The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so they are not listed.
From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, John Hope Franklin:
From Slavery to Freedom remains the most revered, respected, and honored text on the market. The preeminent history of African Americans, this bestselling text charts the journey of African Americans from their origins in Africa, through slavery in the Western Hemisphere, struggles for freedom in the West Indies, Latin America, and the United States, various migrations, and the continuing quest for racial equality. Building on John Hope Franklin's classic work, the ninth edition has been thoroughly rewritten by the award-winning scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. It includes new chapters and updated information based on the most current scholarship. With a new narrative that brings intellectual depth and fresh insight to a rich array of topics, the text features greater coverage of ancestral Africa, African American women, differing expressions of protest, local community activism, black internationalism, civil rights and black power, as well as the election of our first African American president in 2008.
Slavery in the New World was wrapped in a newly created "pseudo-science
" of racial hierarchy, and for that to be successful, Africans had to be portrayed as peoples without civilization. Therefore it is important that we look at this myth making through the work of noted African scholars, and among that group, Cheikh Anta Diop heads the list.
The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, by Cheikh Anta Diop. Though this book was not translated into English until 1974, I had already learned a bit about Diop from my father. Tired of living in a carefully fostered racist myth of African "primitivism and savagery" in school, my parents and their friends from the continent ensured that I learned as much as was available about the history of Africa as the birthplace of humankind and of its civilizations. Diop's work inspired my future study of anthropology.
Diop's early condemnation of European bias in his 1954 work Nations Negres et Culture, and in Evolution of the Negro World has been supported by later scholarship. Diop's view that the scholarship of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was based on a racist view of Africans was regarded as controversial when he wrote in the 1950s through to the early 1970s, the field of African scholarship still being influenced by the scientific racism of Carleton S. Coon and others. Coon used racial rankings of inferiority and superiority, defined "true Blacks" as only those of cultures south of the Sahara, and grouped some Africans with advanced cultures with Caucasian clusters. Based on Coon's work, the Hamitic Hypothesis held that most advanced progress or cultural development in Africa was due to the invasions of mysterious Caucasoid Hamites. Similarly, the Dynastic Race Theory of Egypt asserted that a mass migration of Caucasoid peoples was needed to create the Egyptian kingships, as slower-witted Negro tribes were incapable. Genetic studies have disproved these notions.
Eric Eustace Williams, historian, scholar
and first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago
The establishment of the trans-atlantic trade
in black humans, after the devastation of many indigenous populations
in the Caribbean basin was firmly rooted in capitalism and packaged neatly in racial justification. The groundbreaking work in this regard came from scholar, historian, and statesman Eric Williams
Eric Williams, in full Eric Eustace Williams (born Sept. 25, 1911, Port of Spain, Trinidad—died March 29, 1981, St. Anne, near Port of Spain), first and longtime prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago (1962–81), who founded (1956) the People’s National Movement (PNM) and led his country to independence.
Williams was educated at Queen’s Royal College, Port of Spain, and at the University of Oxford, from which he received a B.A. in 1932 and a D.Phil. in 1938, with studies in history and political science. In 1939 he went to the United States and joined the faculty of social and political science at Howard University. While he was at Howard, Williams became associated with the Caribbean Commission that was established by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands in an effort to coordinate the economic development of the Caribbean area. His aggressive, commanding role in the commission, however, tended to alienate the national powers, especially the United States, and in 1955–56 he organized the PNM party, which won the 1956 general elections. He became chief minister in the country’s first party government, and, with the achievement of internal self-government in 1959, he served as premier. The PNM won the December 1961 elections by a landslide. Williams became prime minister of the colony and then of the new nation upon its achieving independence in August 1962. He made the country a republic in 1976.
As prime minister, Williams practiced what was called “pragmatic socialism,” which stressed social services, improved education, and economic development through the cautious attraction of foreign investment capital. The policy was fruitful in making Trinidad and Tobago the wealthiest Commonwealth Caribbean nation. He was successively reelected and served as prime minister until his death.
William's body of historical work and socioeconomic analysis deserves more exposure, since for many years his political stance vis-à-vis democratic socialism and capitalism kept him off many reading lists here in the states.
Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams:
Slavery helped finance the Industrial Revolution in England. Plantation owners, shipbuilders, and merchants connected with the slave trade accumulated vast fortunes that established banks and heavy industry in Europe and expanded the reach of capitalism worldwide. Eric Williams advanced these powerful ideas in Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944. Years ahead of its time, his profound critique became the foundation for studies of imperialism and economic development. Binding an economic view of history with strong moral argument, Williams's study of the role of slavery in financing the Industrial Revolution refuted traditional ideas of economic and moral progress and firmly established the centrality of the African slave trade in European economic development. He also showed that mature industrial capitalism in turn helped destroy the slave system. Establishing the exploitation of commercial capitalism and its link to racial attitudes, Williams employed a historicist vision that set the tone for future studies.
Resistance, Revolt and Revolution
I have written about Haiti here frequently—about the role they played in our American revolution, and about current and ongoing crises for Haitians and those of Haitian ancestry. I was fortunate to have a history professor in college, at Howard University, who introduced me to this book, and to C.L.R. James.
The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
, by C.L.R. James:
James ran into the McCarthy witch-hunt here in the U.S, after his publication of Black Jacobins.
Not long after that book appeared, James decided to visit the United States for a brief lecture tour. As he traveled throughout the country, audiences, black and white, crowded to hear him. James could speak for hours without notes, quoting facts and documents from memory. Listeners sat, enraptured by his knowledge and skill. He decided to extend his visit. And then, sometime in 1939, C.L.R. James seemed almost to vanish from the face of the earth.
What happened? Over the next dozen years or so, James quit writing under his own name, and he stopped lecturing in public. He stayed on in the United States until 1953, when, at the height of McCarthyism, he was thrown out of the country. In the meantime, he lived "underground." He published countless articles and pamphlets under a variety of pseudonyms. He became, in short, a professional revolutionary.
He continued on in his life as a radical activist and historian, and eventually was able to come back to the U.S.
James' forced departure from the United States was a turning point in his career. He had always been a cosmopolitan thinker, yet throughout the second half of his life, James became an ever more profoundly international figure. He moved among Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, writing, speaking and organizing like a revolutionary elder statesman-without-a-state.
In 1957, he met with Martin Luther King in London to discuss the Montgomery bus boycott. When his former student Eric Williams became the prime minister of Trinidad, James returned there to edit a newspaper and lecture. Younger African and West Indian intellectuals rediscovered his work. And during the late 1960s, when university students began demanding courses in black studies, U.S. authorities allowed him back into the country to teach. Throughout the 1970s, he lectured on numerous campuses, and for several years he was a professor at the University of the District of Columbia (then called Federal City College).
The resistance, revolt and rebellion against enslavement here in the U.S. was muted by much of what has been traditionally taught here. Yes, we leaned of escapes, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but "fighting back" narratives tended to be overlooked, under-researched, and ran counter to right-wing memes of "happy darkies," and the new Teapublican push to convince us about how all those happily enslaved folks fought in the civil war on the side of their masters.
So I head back to another book by John Hope Franklin.
Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, John Hope Franklin:
From John Hope Franklin, America's foremost African-American historian, comes this groundbreaking analysis of slave resistance and escape. A sweeping panorama of plantation life before the Civil War, this book reveals that slaves frequently rebelled against their masters and ran away from their plantations whenever they could.
For generations, important aspects about slave life on the plantations of the American South have remained shrouded. Historians thought, for instance, that slaves were generally pliant and resigned to their roles as human chattel, and that racial violence on the plantation was an aberration. In this precedent setting book, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, significant numbers of slaves did in fact frequently rebel against their masters and struggled to attain their freedom. By surveying a wealth of documents, such as planters' records, petitions to county courts and state legislatures, and local newspapers, this book shows how slaves resisted, when, where, and how they escaped, where they fled to, how long they remained in hiding, and how they survived away from the plantation. Of equal importance, it examines the reactions of the white slaveholding class, revealing how they marshaled considerable effort to prevent runaways, meted out severe punishments, and established patrols to hunt down escaped slaves.
To be able to understand what black enslavement was, it is not enough to read the work of historians. We need to hear directly from those who knew what it was to be shackled by the color of their skin. I recently featured Weevils in the Wheat, narratives from enslaved people in Virginia, in my piece on slaveholder George Washington. The best-known voice in that respect are the words of Frederick Douglass, former slave, abolitionist and statesman.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass is one of the most celebrated writers in the African-American literary tradition, and his first autobiography is the one of the most widely read North American slave narratives. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was published in 1845, less than seven years after Douglass escaped from slavery. The book was an instant success, selling 4,500 copies in the first four months. Throughout his life, Douglass continued to revise and expand his autobiography, publishing a second version in 1855 as My Bondage and My Freedom. The third version of Douglass' autobiography was published in 1881 as Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, and an expanded version of Life and Times was published in 1892. These various retellings of Douglass' story all begin with his birth and childhood, but each new version emphasizes the mutual influence and close correlation of Douglass' life with key events in American history.
The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave Related by Herself
Like many slave narratives, Douglass' Narrative is prefaced with endorsements by white abolitionists. In his preface, William Lloyd Garrison pledges that Douglass's Narrative is "essentially true in all its statements; that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated." Likewise, Wendell Phillips pledges "the most entire confidence in [Douglass'] truth, candor, and sincerity." Though Douglass counted Garrison and Phillips as friends, scholars such as Beth A. McCoy have argued that their letters serve as subtle reminders of white power over the black author and his text. Indeed, in all of his subsequent autobiographies, Douglass replaced Garrison and Phillips' endorsements with introductions by prominent black abolitionists and legal scholars.
Douglass begins his Narrative with what he knows about his birth in Tuckahoe, Maryland—or more precisely, what he does not know. "I have no accurate knowledge of my age," Douglass states; nor can he positively identify his father. Douglass notes that it was "whispered that my master was my father . . . [but] the means of knowing was withheld from me." He recalls that he was separated from his mother "before I knew her as my mother," and that he saw her only "four or five times in my life." This separation of mothers from children, and lack of knowledge about age and paternity, Douglass explains, was common among slaves: "it is the wish of most masters . . . to keep their slaves thus ignorant."
. The Abolition Project
documents the importance of her published narrative to the movement.
Mary Prince was born in 1788, to an enslaved family in Bermuda. She was sold to a number of brutal owners and suffered from terrible treatment. Prince ended up in Antigua belonging to the Wood family. In December 1826, she married Daniel James, a former slave who had bought his freedom and worked as a carpenter and cooper.
For this act, she was severely beaten by her master. In 1828, she traveled to England with her owners. She eventually ran away and found freedom, but only in England and she could not return to her husband. Mary campaigned against slavery, working alongside the Anti-Slavery Society and taking employment with Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer and Secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society.
She became the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament and the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography, The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave. The book was a key part of the anti slavery campaign.
There are many versions of her narrative that are available—for classroom use some of the edited editions are best like the one illustrated here
First published in London and Edinburgh in 1831, and well into its third edition that year, The History of Mary Prince inflamed public opinion and created political havoc. Never before had the sufferings and indignities of enslavement been seen through the eyes of a woman—a woman struggling for freedom in the face of great odds.
Moira Ferguson's edition of the book added an introduction, annotations, and appendices. The book has found popularity both in the classroom and with the general public. Recently, an adaptation of the memoirs of Mary Prince appeared as one segment of A Skirt Through History, a six-part feature film series produced by the BBC. Mary Prince's story has also been the centerpiece of BBC radio broadcasts.
In this revised and expanded edition of The History of Mary Prince, Ferguson has added new material, based on her extensive research in Bermuda and London. The book includes new details of Mary Prince's experiences as a freewoman in England, the transcripts of several libel cases brought against her, and the reactions of British society, as seen in prominent periodicals of the day, against the original publication of The History of Mary Prince. This new material brings greater depth and detail and serves to more fully illustrate and contextualize the life of this remarkable woman
Black Skin, White Masks
Frantz Fanon, (20 July 1925 – 6 Dec. 1961)
, Frantz Fanon:
Few modern voices have had as profound an impact on the black identity and critical race theory as Frantz Fanon, and Black Skin, White Masks represents some of his most important work. Fanon’s masterwork is now available in a new translation that updates its language for a new generation of readers.
A major influence on civil rights, anti-colonial, and black consciousness movements around the world, Black Skin, White Masks is the unsurpassed study of the black psyche in a white world. Hailed for its scientific analysis and poetic grace when it was first published in 1952, the book remains a vital force today from one of the most important theorists of revolutionary struggle, colonialism, and racial difference in history.
Frantz Omar Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, which was then a French colony and is now a French département. His father was a descendant of enslaved Africans; his mother was said to be an "illegitimate" child of African, Indian and European descent, whose white ancestors came from Strasbourg in Alsace. Fanon's family was socio-economically middle-class and they could afford the fees for the Lycée Schoelcher, then the most prestigious high school in Martinique, where the writer Aimé Césaire was one of his teachers.
I was introduced to Fanon, and his work in 1971 when I left the U.S. to go to Algeria, to do some work for and travel with Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver of the International Section of the Black Panther Party. We held long discussions about colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the effects of racism on the black psyche, explored of course by novelist Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man
, but Fanon was the first black psychiatrist and philosopher whose works became a foundational part of my understanding of the damage done by racism and systems of oppression to all of us.
Following my return from Africa, I spent more time reading and researching colonialism and neo-colonialism, and the increasing connections between African-Americans and Pan-Africanist movements on the continent, in Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.
I was introduced to the work of Guyanese born Walter Rodney.
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney:
Before a bomb ended his life in the summer of 1980, Walter Rodney had created a powerful legacy. This pivotal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, had already brought a new perspective to the question of underdevelopment in Africa. His Marxist analysis went far beyond the heretofore accepted approach in the study of Third World underdevelopment. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is an excellent introductory study for the student who wishes to better understand the dynamics of Africa s contemporary relations with the West.
While traveling in Europe with Kathleen, we headed to the south of France to meet with black American exile James Baldwin. I had read his novels, seen his plays, and watched the debate
in which he eviscerated William F. Buckley Jr. on television with my parents when I was much younger, but it was after my return that I decided to read his essays
, which I found to be not only brilliant but eye opening.
I think of him now as America's greatest essayist. I was not surprised to discover that Ta-Nehisi Coates would probably agree.
Novelist, essayist, and public intellectual, James Baldwin was one of the most brilliant and provocative literary figures of the postwar era, and one of the greatest African-American writers of this century. A self-described "transatlantic commuter" who spent much of his life in France, Baldwin joined cosmopolitan sophistication with a fierce engagement in social issues. Edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the Library of America's Collected Essays—the most comprehensive gathering of Baldwin's nonfiction ever published—confirms him as a uniquely prophetic voice in American letters. With burning passion and jabbing, epigrammatic wit, Baldwin fearlessly articulated issues of race and democracy and American identity in such famous essays as "The Harlem Ghetto," "Everybody's Protest Novel," "Many Thousands Gone," and "Stranger in the Village."
Here are the complete texts of his early landmark collections, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), which established him as an essential intellectual voice of his time, fusing in unique fashion the personal, the literary, and the political. "One writes," he stated, "out of one thing only—one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give." With singular eloquence and unblinking sharpness of observation he lived up to his credo: "I want to be an honest man and a good writer."
The classic The Fire Next Time (1963), perhaps the most influential of his writings, is his most penetrating analysis of America's racial divide and an impassioned call to "end the racial nightmare ... and change the history of the world." The later volumes No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976) chart his continuing response to the social and political turbulence of his era and include his remarkable works of film criticism. A further 36 essays—nine of them previously uncollected—include some of Baldwin's earliest published writings, as well as revealing later insights into the language of Shakespeare, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and the music of Earl Hines.
I've written about Baldwin here, in the past, on the anniversary of his death
, and to celebrate his birth
Since I have already covered Rosa Parks
this month, and books deconstructing the myth perpetrated about her, and have also discussed Ella Baker, and her influence on organizers of SNCC and Freedom Summer 1964, I think it is important to place on this list a biography of a woman who is one of my "sheroes" of the movement for civil rights.
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Barbara Ransby:
One of the most important African-American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives.
A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white.
In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.
Dr. Barbara Ransby is a scholar, activist, and historian and a founder of Ella's Daughters
As a young high school student who was affected strongly by the civil rights movement and joined it, I was also growing up in a home with a white grandmother, who had to deal with coping with hearing and seeing racism all around her, from other white people who didn't know she was married to a black man. I used to wish that white people could be turned "black for a day" if only to experience what it feels like, for a brief moment in time, to walk in our shoes. To be honest, I still wish that sometimes. Thus, the publication of this book was for me, very important. A white man had taken it upon himself to do just that. I am of course speaking of Black Like Me.
Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, was an eye opener for many Americans at the time of its publication in 1961 and beyond.
In the autumn of 1959, John Howard Griffin went to a friend's house in New Orleans, Louisiana. Once there, under the care of a dermatologist, Griffin underwent a regimen of large oral doses of the anti-vitiligo drug Methoxsalen, trade name Oxsoralen, and spending up to fifteen hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp.To complete the illusion, Griffin used dyes to cover uneven areas and closely cut his hair.
During his trip, Griffin abided by the rule that he would not change his name or alter his identity; if asked who he was or what he was doing, he would tell the truth. In the beginning, he decided to talk as little as possible to ease his transition into the social milieu of southern U.S. blacks. He became accustomed everywhere to the "hate stare" received from whites.
Though written in the 1960s, the book takes on new relevance at a time when we still face overt racism and death due to the color of our skin.
Black Like Me made Griffin a national celebrity for a time. In a 1975 essay included in later editions of the book, Griffin described the hostility and threats to himself and his family which emerged in his hometown of Mansfield, Texas, where he was hanged in effigy. He eventually moved his family to Mexico for about nine months before returning to Fort Worth.
Following publication of the book, which was subsequently made into a film starring James Whitmore, Griffin lectured and wrote on race relations and social justice. In 1964, he received the Pacem in Terris Award from the Davenport (Iowa) Catholic Interracial Council for his contributions to racial understanding.
Though the book was later made into a film
, it was the book that had the most impact.
Since I brought up film, I have to include a book covering the history of blacks on the silver screen of Hollywood. Film has helped shape the stereotypes about us and still does. I will never forget the first film class I took, in 1964, at Hunter College. The professor lauded the "film classic" Birth of a Nation, by D. W. Griffith. As I listened to him heap praise on Griffith, with not one mention of the disgusting racism I was watching, I got up and left the class. I was pleased that two white students did the same.
Many years later in my life I would become involved in the distribution of independent black films, made by filmmakers like Spike Lee and Julie Dash who were fighting for a place in cinema history, shot from a black perspective.
This is a book that everyone who has ever been to a movie or watched the re-runs on television, or who has considered how cinematic stereotypes shape the common perception of blacks and other people of color (starting with "scalping" done by "savage" Native Americans against "good guy" cowboys and settlers) should read.
Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Donald Bogle:
This study of black images in American motion pictures, is re-issued for its 30th anniverary in its 4th edition. It includes the entire 20th century through black images in film, from the silent era to the unequalled rise of the new African American cinema and stars of today. From The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Carmen Jones to Shaft, Do the Right Thing, Waiting to Exhale, The Hurricane, and Bamboozled, Donald Bogle reveals the way the image of blacks in American cinema has changed—and also the shocking way in which it has often remained the same.
Post-Civil War Enslavement to a Modern Prison Nation
Lest we believe that enslavement ended with the Civil War and proclamations of emancipation, we need to disabuse ourselves of that notion.
Two books stand out for me in this respect.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 2009.
In this groundbreaking historical expose, Douglas A. Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—when a cynical new form of slavery was resurrected from the ashes of the Civil War and re-imposed on hundreds of thousands of African-Americans until the dawn of World War II.
Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of "free" black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.
The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system.
The book is also a documentary film
Following up to today and what we still face, I end my short list with The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, which has evoked a multitude of laudatory reviews. For me, this has been the most important book published in this decade.
Last year, Alexander spoke about the New Jim Crow at a lecture during Black History Month.
I will stop here. There is no way that I can really do justice to a reading list, since I have to leave out more than I cover, but this was a start. Please join me in discussion and share the books that helped shape your understanding of race, racism and black history.