We commemorate so much in this country that we tend to become numb to celebrations like Black History Month. The U.S. has observed the occasion every February since 1976. (Prior to that, it was Negro History Week, which originated in 1926.)
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that setting aside one month to ponder something we should be thinking about all the time is questionable at best. That said, an opportunity is an opportunity.
So the Voice took this one to reach out to four insightful New Yorkers to help us assemble a reading list worthy of Black History Month and beyond.
You won’t find classics by authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes — not because they’re not worth reading, but because we figured plenty of people know about them already. Instead, we aimed to up our game with these newer or lesser-known works from the canon.
Award-winning poet; teaching fellow, Columbia University; associate editor, Callaloo
“C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins is a history of the revolution in Haiti and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an emperor of Haiti, in the late eighteenth century. And reading that aside Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia makes a pretty scary [contrast].
“One of the ideas I think we have about American history and our Founding Fathers is that they operated in this kind of vacuum, or that their only source of inspiration or intellectual exchange was with Europe. When I read this, it was a revelation to me that the U.S. was trading weapons with this nascent black government.
“Yeah, we know about the ‘Triangle Trade’ and the movement of black bodies across the Atlantic, but we’re trained so deeply to think about those bodies as commodities and objects.
“At the same time that Thomas Jefferson is writing about the ‘deficiencies’ of blacks, he’s also deeply threatened by the success of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution in Haiti.”
“I think it’s hilarious when people get up in arms when we reimagine history in ways that challenge our cultural assumptions. Have you seen Django? It imagines a slapstick comedy in the face of the American narrative of slavery. I think that’s quite liberating.
“[I’m intrigued by] any writer who’s willing to take a sledgehammer to these historical narratives. Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage: It’s about a young man, African American man, who wants to get away from his wife.
“He just wants to carouse. He doesn’t want to be tied down.
“He stows on a ship to get away from her, only to discover he’s stowed on a slave ship! And he’s conscripted to work on this ship and they pick up a load of African slaves.
“[Stories about slavery] are always told from the perspective of suffering: ‘Oh, look how horribly they must have suffered,’ rather than giving people a sense of agency and ambition…It must have been hard to write this without falling into the ways [the main character] was oppressed.”
Associate professor of history, New York University
“[Given the popularity of] the film Selma, this book is incredibly important. It’s about Ella Baker. It’s not just a standard biography. By looking at Ella Baker, Ransby is able to look at the long history of the civil rights movement. It gives a real sense of Baker’s take on the importance of grassroots activism, not just big leaders going into places.
“It’s such a good book. It really is.”
“Both of these books really do take people into the lives of individuals, and I think that can be one of the most compelling ways for people to read history.
“The first is an edited collection of interviews with former slaves during the 1930s through the Works Progress Administration [an economic stimulus plan during the Great Depression].
“The big issue is — the interviewers meddled with the integrity of these interviews. They were edited…and in some cases, they’re the descendants of slave owners interviewing people [their families] owned.
“We’ve recognized they’re problematic, but they’re also used a lot [by historians].
“For Remembering Jim Crow, [researchers at Duke University] wanted to replicate what was done with former slaves. I was one of the field interviewers….We recorded things that would later be transcribed, and they were not to be editorialized as in the the early [Remembering Slavery] interviews.
“We went to church, community centers, old folks’ homes — we went all over the place to talk to people.
“I spoke with a woman in New Orleans…She leads this sit-in protest at her church when she’s in the tenth grade.
“She was protesting segregation in the church: Black people were relegated to the last two pews. She convinces a whole range of her cousins to sit in the front row…And then she goes to confession, and the priest slams the door on her.”
Owner, Sister’s Uptown Bookstore
“One of our profound sellers this year has been The New Jim Crow. It’s about the mass incarceration of black males. [The author makes] the analogy of how it was for black males in the past and what they’re going through today.
“It’s almost a business to imprison males…The book is confirmation of what we live. It’s our reality at this point.”
Jennifer L. Morgan
Professor of social and cultural analysis, New York University
“It’s about Haiti [and the Haitian revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, largely ignored by popular culture today]. It’s about how we commemorate, or don’t commemorate, the past…Trouillot is thinking about why it is we have no stories about Black people as complicated historical figures. Why are they so challenging to get into the master narrative?
“He opens a chapter with a letter from a slaveowner in Haiti to his wife, only a few weeks before the revolution breaks out. And it says, ‘The Negroes are totally passive here, we sleep with our windows open at night, you have nothing to worry about.’
“What is it that makes Black freedom so unimaginable?”
“I was simply gripped by it. It was beautifully written.
“I’m an eighteenth- and seventeenth-century historian…I loved what I learned about Afro-Atlantic life [in the 21st century] but I’m not an expert in that. I just thought it was a great novel.
“[Adichie] uses this Nigerian life to put Black American life into relief. She is both connected to Black America and separate from Black America…It helps you think about the ways in which slavery produces a particular afterlife.”
“I love this novel. It follows an individual woman who is captured in West Africa and escapes from South Carolina. It’s an eighteenth-century novel, and we know very little about the eighteenth century popularly. She ends up in the revolutionary war. And she’s actually aligned with the British [loyalists, against the American Revolution], because they’re offering her freedom. And when the British are finally pulling out of Manhattan, they take all of these loyalist slaves from New York to Nova Scotia. She ends up in Nova Scotia, then Sierra Leone, and then in London.
“Through her life you get this beautiful picture…there’s a lot of heartache; you really identify with her.
“What does it mean to be ‘against the Revolution’? She’s not really against revolution. She’s for freedom. She’s trying to be free.”
“This is a study of the slave market in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Johnson’s an incredible writer, so the book just reads beautifully. He really talks about the fact that the market is at the center of the city. And he makes this argument that the market is at the center of American life. White people are, essentially, purchasing whiteness.
“There are a lot of people who are never wealthy enough to own slaves. But…whiteness is what allows you to go into that market and buy another person, or simply fantasize about being able to do so. Just like we can aspire to buy a house or buy a car, part of what Americans aspired to in the nineteenth century was to buy a slave — to be that wealthy.
“The buying and selling of people happens in broad daylight. It’s at the center of everyday life…You know, if you’re white, that you’re not going to be subject to that kind of experience. And what that does is it [reminds you of] your freedom.”
“This book is about plantations in the antebellum South. There’s a long history of thinking about slaves through this focus on the plantation: What kind of crops are being grown? How was the house organized? It’s pretty common. And one of the ideas produced is the slaveowner’s house as a kind of place of beauty, in comparison to the field.
“If you go to a plantation now it’s inevitable that you’re told about the beauty of it. ‘The beautiful rugs, the beautiful silverware.’ And what’s more, a lot of the plantations are now gardens. What you have is a vision of grandeur, of elegance, of beauty.
“And the plantation mistress, [the slaveowner’s wife], she’s seen as powerless in a lot of ways. She’s seen as a decorative appendage to her husband, as someone who benefits from being waited on. That image of a plantation mistress who is enslaved to her husband, who is unable to do anything but focus on the latest calico prints and sit languidly out in the heat with somebody fanning her, I think that’s still part of our [popular imagination].
Glymph really talks about the plantation mistress as holding a significant amount of power against enslaved people. She portrays [the slaveowner’s wife] as a person who is deeply committed to the institution of slavery herself — who contributes to it ideologically, but also gets her hands dirty. The plantation wife is overseeing a significant amount of production in the house [for example, in the kitchen, or entertaining guests]. And she brings violence down on their heads just like the overseers do out in the field.
“This is straight American History…It’s a historian’s book. But it’s incredibly powerful.”
These interviews were edited and condensed.