Every February, the U.S. honors the contributions and sacrifices of Black Americans who have helped shape the nation. Black History Month celebrates the rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that are an indelible part of our country’s history. If you’re looking for a way to educate yourself and expand your knowledge about the accomplishments and contributions of Black people in American history, as well as reflect on the inequalities and injustices that have been done against them, we’ve rounded up 7 recent books by some of the most brilliant Black authors and historical scholars to read this month and beyond.
1. Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism―and How to Do It by Celeste Headlee
A self-described “light-skinned Black Jew,” Celeste Headlee has been forced to speak about race—including having to defend or define her own—since childhood. In her career as a journalist, she’s made it a priority to talk about race proactively. She’s discovered, however, that those exchanges have rarely been productive. While many people say they want to talk about race, the reality is, they want to talk about race with people who agree with them. The subject makes us uncomfortable; it’s often not considered polite or appropriate. To avoid these painful discussions, we stay in our bubbles, reinforcing our own sense of righteousness as well as our division.
Yet we gain nothing by not engaging with those we disagree with; empathy does not develop in a vacuum and racism won’t just fade away. If we are to effect meaningful change as a society, Headlee argues, we have to be able to talk about what that change looks like without fear of losing friends and jobs, or being ostracized. In Speaking of Race, Headlee draws from her experiences as a journalist, and the latest research on bias, communication, and neuroscience to provide practical advice and insight for talking about race that will facilitate better conversations that can actually bring us closer together.
This is the book for people who have tried to debate and educate and argue and got nowhere; it is the book for those who have stopped talking to a neighbor or dread Thanksgiving dinner. It is an essential and timely book for all of us.
Traditional accounts of the making of the modern world afford a place of primacy to European history. Some credit the fifteenth-century Age of Discovery and the maritime connection it established between West and East; others the accidental unearthing of the “New World.” Still others point to the development of the scientific method, or the spread of Judeo-Christian beliefs; and so on, ad infinitum. The history of Africa, by contrast, has long been relegated to the remote outskirts of our global story. What if, instead, we put Africa and Africans at the very center of our thinking about the origins of modernity?
In a sweeping narrative spanning more than six centuries, Howard W. French does just that, for Born in Blackness vitally reframes the story of medieval and emerging Africa, demonstrating how the economic ascendancy of Europe, the anchoring of democracy in the West, and the fulfillment of so-called Enlightenment ideals all grew out of Europe’s dehumanizing engagement with the “dark” continent. In fact, French reveals, the first impetus for the Age of Discovery was not — as we are so often told, even today — Europe’s yearning for ties with Asia, but rather its centuries-old desire to forge a trade in gold with legendarily rich Black societies sequestered away in the heart of West Africa.
The iconic Black hood, like slavery and Jim Crow, is a peculiar American institution animated by the ideology of white supremacy. Politicians and people of all colors propagated “ghetto” myths to justify racist policies that concentrated poverty in the hood and created high-opportunity white spaces. In White Space, Black Hood, Sheryll Cashin traces the history of anti-Black residential caste—boundary maintenance, opportunity hoarding, and stereotype-driven surveillance—and unpacks its current legacy so we can begin the work to dismantle the structures and policies that undermine Black lives.
Deeply researched and sharply written, White Space, Black Hood is a call to action for repairing what white supremacy still breaks.
4. Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho
“You cannot fix a problem you do not know you have.” So begins Emmanuel Acho in his essential guide to the truths Americans need to know to address the systemic racism that has recently electrified protests in all fifty states. “There is a fix,” Acho says. “But in order to access it, we’re going to have to have some uncomfortable conversations.”
In Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, Acho takes on all the questions, large and small, insensitive and taboo, many white Americans are afraid to ask―yet which all Americans need the answers to, now more than ever. With the same open-hearted generosity that has made his video series a phenomenon, Acho explains the vital core of such fraught concepts as white privilege, cultural appropriation, and “reverse racism.” In his own words, he provides a space of compassion and understanding in a discussion that can lack both. He asks only for the reader’s curiosity―but along the way, he will galvanize all of us to join the antiracist fight.
An empowering and celebratory portrait of Black women—from Josephine Baker to Aunt Viv to Cardi B.
In 2013, film and culture critic Zeba Blay was one of the first people to coin the viral term #carefreeblackgirls on Twitter. As she says, it was “a way to carve out a space of celebration and freedom for Black women online.”
In this collection of essays, Carefree Black Girls, Blay expands on this initial idea by delving into the work and lasting achievements of influential Black women in American culture—writers, artists, actresses, dancers, hip-hop stars—whose contributions often come in the face of bigotry, misogyny, and stereotypes. Blay celebrates the strength and fortitude of these Black women, while also examining the many stereotypes and rigid identities that have clung to them. In writing that is both luminous and sharp, expansive and intimate, Blay seeks a path forward to a culture and society in which Black women and their art are appreciated and celebrated.
6. You Don’t Know Us Negros and Other Essays by Zora Neale Hurston
Spanning more than 35 years of work, the first comprehensive collection of essays, criticism, and articles by the legendary author of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, showcasing the evolution of her distinctive style as an archivist and author.
You Don’t Know Us Negroes is the quintessential gathering of provocative essays from one of the world’s most celebrated writers, Zora Neale Hurston. Penned during the backdrop of the birth of the Harlem Renaissance, Montgomery bus boycott, desegregation of the military, and school integration, Hurston’s writing articulates the beauty and authenticity of Black life as only she could. Collectively, these essays showcase the roles enslavement and Jim Crow have played in intensifying Black people’s inner lives and culture rather than destroying it. She argues that in the process of surviving, Black people re-interpreted every aspect of American culture—”modif[ying] the language, mode of food preparation, practice of medicine, and most certainly religion.” White supremacy prevents the world from seeing or completely recognizing Black people in their full humanity and Hurston made it her job to lift the veil and reveal the heart and soul of the race.
7. How to Talk to Your Boss About Race: Speaking Up Without Getting Shut Down by Y-Vonne Hutchinson
Reporting and personal testimonials have exposed racism in every institution in this country. But knowing that racism exists isn’t nearly enough. Social media posts about #BlackLivesMatter are nice, but how do you push leadership towards real anti-racist action?
Diversity and inclusion strategist Y-Vonne Hutchinson helps tech giants, political leaders, and Fortune 500 companies speak more productively about racism and bias and turn talk into action. In this clear and accessible guide, Hutchinson equips employees with a framework to think about race at work, prepares them to have frank and effective conversations with more powerful leaders, helps them center marginalized perspectives, and explains how to leverage power dynamics to get results while navigating backlash and gaslighting.
How to Talk To Your Boss About Race is a crucial handbook to moving beyond fear to push for change. No matter how much formal power you have, you can create antiracist change at work.
Question: What titles would you add to your reading list for Black History Month and beyond?
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