Award-winning historian Keisha N. Blain shares some of the most vital books to read on race.
The recent uprisings across the nation have brought to the surface a myriad of social issues many Americans have long tried to ignore. While the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have sparked recent protests, activists are confronting longstanding underlying problems that have plagued American society for centuries.
The rampant police violence targeting Black people across the country is one of the many manifestations of white supremacy—a persistent issue that shaped the very foundations of the United States. In this moment, Americans of all walks of life must confront this tragic and painful history if we ever hope to overcome racism and inequality.
Understanding how the past informs the present—and the future—is vital in the struggle for Black rights and freedom.
While there is an abundance of books to read at this moment, I recommend these eight books, all written by women, which have shaped my own thinking on race, politics and activism. They each grapple with the current challenges we are facing as a nation and offer solutions and strategies for how we might build a more just and equal society. And in this moment of pain and despair, they may even offer some hope.
Carol Anderson (2016)
In White Rage, historian Carol Anderson examines how white Americans have worked to block efforts for Black progress, from the end of the Civil War to the era of Black Lives Matter.
Drawing insights from historical developments, including the backlash following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, Anderson demonstrates how ‘white rage’ has been an impediment to Black civil and political rights. ‘White rage,’ Anderson reveals, has been a major driver shaping national politics as well as state and local ones.
Angela Y. Davis (2016)
This vital collection includes an array of writings and interviews from renowned political activist and theorist Angela Davis that offer both historical and contemporary perspectives on national and global struggles for freedom. Davis draws the links between political movements in the United States and abroad, including the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. The book examines past and present challenges of state-sanctioned violence—from Ferguson, Missouri to Palestine—and emphasizes the significance of prison abolition and Black feminist thought.
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Mary Frances Berry (2018)
In History Teaches Us to Resist, historian Mary Frances Berry—former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights—draws lessons from the past to demonstrate how mass resistance to presidential administrations have led to significant changes in American society.
Beginning in the 1930s, with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Berry offers a compelling narrative of how activists have successfully challenged national policies in an effort to advance social justice. At a moment when so many Americans are despondent about the Trump presidency, Berry’s book offers hope, inspiration and clarity.
Joy James (1996)
In Resisting State Violence, political theorist Joy James offers a collection of essays that examine violence and oppression in the United States and other parts of the globe. The book provides a primer for radical activists committed to advancing social justice and human rights. It offers a powerful critique of racism and sexism and provides concrete solutions for many of the challenges Black people are now facing in the United States.
Barbara Ransby (2018)
In Making All Black Lives Matter, historian Barbara Ransby examines the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Ransby powerfully captures the stories of the many courageous activists of the movement who work tirelessly on the grassroots level to advance a radical vision of freedom.
Drawing insights from an array of sources—as well as her own observations as an activist in the movement—Ransby examines the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement, its connections to earlier Black social movements, and its promise for transforming American society.
Angela J. Ritchie (2017)
The recent police killing of Breonna Thomas, an EMT from Louisville, Kentucky, underscores Black women’s vulnerability to state-sanctioned violence.
In this important study, Angela J. Ritchie, one of the authors of the groundbreaking #SayHerName report, examines the long and tragic history of how Black women, indigenous women and women of color have experienced police violence and brutality in the United States. She offers valuable historical context, as well as policy solutions and strategies for protecting the lives of those who are vulnerable to police violence and terror.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016)
Drawing connections to earlier political movements for Black rights and freedom, Taylor powerfully demonstrates how racism and inequality has limited Black access to rights, opportunities, and services. She highlights many of the problems that continue to devastate Black communities, including mass incarceration, housing discrimination and unemployment.
Significantly, Taylor emphasizes the significance and potential of the Black Lives Matter movement to radically transform American society.
Jeanne Theoharis (2018)
The connections between the civil rights movement and contemporary developments are evident. However, too many politicians and news pundits have tried to distort the legacy and vision of key figures of the 1960s—especially individuals like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, historian Jeanne Theoharis boldly confronts the many ways the civil rights movement has been misrepresented and misused in an attempt to delegitimize contemporary movements. As Theoharis reveals, the civil rights movement was far more diverse, disruptive and unpopular than many Americans imagine.
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