As promised on my podcast this week this blog is my recommended reading list for the third era of United States History. I think U.S. History (so far) has had three great and co-equal eras. The first is the American Revolution, when the United States became a nation. The second is the Civil War, when America freed its people. And the third, a longer era, is the struggle for Civil Rights that fought and continues to fight for the equality promised, but not delivered, by the Declarations and Amendments of the first two eras. I have been wanting to write this for a while, but wanted to finish the books related to the topic before compiling this list. I was also recently inspired to do this by something I heard on the Adam Carolla Show. I am a big fan of Carolla and have been a guest numerous times on his show. I agree with many of his views on day-to-day life and find him to be an incredibly quick and sharp wit, but politically, and on racism’s role in America, I am often nearly a polar opposite to him. Breaking this down will require another blog post (or appearance on his show), but on a recent show he played a Morgan Freeman interview clip where Freeman said he did not think Black History Month should be a thing because Black History is American History. Of course this quote was used by Carolla as a way of saying “See, dividing by race only perpetuates problems,” but I believe part of Freeman’s point is that the story, struggles and contributions of black people are central to American History and should not be treated as some niche branch of American History and perhaps Black History Month is a copout that allows people to deny the centrality of Black History to American History. At least that is the way I took it. And as I have said on my podcast, I feel that the civil rights struggle and Black History should be considered a co-equal of the first two major events/eras, but often feels like more of an elective course than a core requirement.
The list I am going to post also feels necessary in an era of Trump. He is a man with poor reading skills and an apparent aversion to reading itself (he needs “killer graphics” for even important national security briefings), a disdain for facts, an ignorant and bigoted view of minorities and history and a willingness to use racial animosity to exploit, manipulate and exacerbate anxieties and hostilities among poor and middle class white people. So although I know most people who would be willing to read these books might be people seeking confirmation of things they already believe and/or know, the folks who should really read this are those who believe the myths on race that we learn in schools and are told from mostly “conservative” politicians and thinkers. If you read at a moderate pace like myself this list could take you a year to complete but I think it is worth it. So, without further adieu here is the list in recommended order:
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
The National Book Award winner for History provides an epic scope of how racism developed and evolved in America. In early cases racism was a justification for policies (like cheaper labor) rather than the starting point of people’s beliefs and then of course, evolved into culturally held beliefs that had to continue to evolve to both maintain white supremacy and justify poor treatment across the spectrum of American life of black people. The book also examines how some heroic figures in American history, both black and white, held compromised views that were moderately racist (one broad example of this – believing slavery was wrong, but that black people were not endowed by their creator with the same abilities as Caucasians) and how this two steps forward, 1.5 steps back dance with America and race persists to this day, perpetuated at times by black leaders’ desire for accommodation and compromise and not just white supremacy and hate.
Grant by Ron Chernow
A phenomenal biography about the hero of the Civil War and the only President in the 80+ years until Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House to use the power of the federal government to affirmatively push for full equality of black people. The bittersweet tragedy of this great book is that Grant showed what was possible if the North and Republicans had stayed vigilant to protect the rights of blacks and how Grant saw the terrible future that awaited black citizens once he left the White House due to Republican and northern fatigue over the “Race issue.” Obviously a lesson not learned well by America if you look all the way back to the 2016 election.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
This Pulitzer Prize winner explores how during and especially after Reconstruction the South and major industries used the criminal justice system as a way of using thousands of Black Americans to work as free labor (at times even worse than slavery because prisoners working for free did not give employers the same incentive to preserve the health of the labor as they would have had they been owned by the employer). There were heroic efforts by some US Attorneys (Warren Reese Jr. is the particular hero of a good portion of the book – the son of a Confederate who becomes a passionate fighter for stopping the new slavery in Alabama) at times to investigate and stop this, but companies like U.S. Steel still reaped enormous profits knowingly from slave labor. Reading this book made it laughable that someone could think there is NOT a case for reparations, at least for those able to prove definitive links to these laborers.
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
This Pulitzer Prize winner follows a pre-Brown case of Thurgood Marshall in Florida (and after reading this book you will not have to ask me why I did not want to see the hip hop swagger-inspired (from the preview at least) Chadwick Bozeman interpretation of Marshall). In an era full of depressing and heartbreaking stories and histories, this book was especially gut-wrenching. The story is a familiar one of black WWII veterans returning to the South and earning the resentment and hostility of poor whites. A false rape allegation and an impossible fight for justice are the main points of the story, but when you hear about a father forced at gun point to watch his son jump to his death or an NAACP worker named Harry Moore, a Florida Civil Rights worker assassinated in 1951, you realize you have not learned nearly enough about this era. This is not a book with a happy ending, quite the contrary. It is impressive for the depths of despair it will make you feel.
American in the King Years (trilogy) by Taylor Branch
This 2000+ page trilogy has won most book awards between the three volumes (Parting The Waters won the Pulitzer, Pillar of Fire & At Canaan’s Edge). These books cover the Civil Rights struggle from 1954-1968 and the big takeaway from them for me, other than the great and important history, is the number of American heroes that I had not heard of. As I have said on my podcast, the fact that many school kids could probably name as many Confederate generals as Civil Rights heroes speaks to a horrible deficiency in our collective education. Of all the names I learned about in these books, the one that stuck out to me was Bob Moses. The man was basically a one man voter registration drive in early 1960s Mississippi. That would be like being a one man gay marriage advocacy group in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And I don’t make that comparison to be funny – reading these books you realize that the 1960s South (and plenty of the North – as MLK Jr said “Chicago could teach Mississippi something about hate” when he worked to eliminate housing discrimination in Chicago) was nothing short of White Christian terrorism. This is a decade where both of my parents were adults, not some far off time with horses and carriages.
The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
This book from 2017, that I just finished, breaks down how throughout the 20th century the federal and state governments were instrumental in developing and augmenting black poverty and black ghettos. It is too often viewed as an issue of individual racism and black failure for housing blight and poverty, but Rothstein breaks down everything from the New Deal to present day to show that discrimination against black people created and exacerbated poverty and housing issues in the black community, allowed for white middle class people to build intergenerational wealth while also preventing black families from doing the same. While many of the other books on this list give historical perspective that is valuable, this was the first one on the list to show how today’s problems have historical roots that persist (for anyone who wants to act like the 1940s, 60s, 80s and 2000s exist in some vacuum). Individual racism has a mighty role to play, but based on the substantial role that government has played (and now continues to play) in creating a segregated society both in geography and wealth, the government has a Constitutional obligation to put forth remedies.
Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr
The most recent National Book Award winner examines (as sort of a companion to The New Jim Crow) the role that the black community and leaders had in stablishing the world Michelle Alexander discusses in her book. What is interesting in this book is that poverty, drugs and guns represented epidemics in the black community, and contrary to the “What About Chicago?” fake concern of Trumpists, the reason for some of the worst punishments affecting black people in the criminal justice system are because black leaders and communities felt desperate enough and fearful enough to co-sign draconian measures. However, what the book also points out is that leaders of both parties, though significantly more Republicans, would listen to black leaders ask for an all of the above approach (tough on crime, more education and job opportunities, etc.) and only latch on to the first, while cutting benefits thus exponentially increasing the problem – more black people in jails couple with less opportunity than before.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
A great book that examines the use of the criminal justice system to continue the subjugation and lower class status of black people in America. If you have made it this far in the blog than I am guessing you have heard me or dozens of other people discuss this book.
American Tapestry by Rachel L Swarns
Disclaimer – this book is written by my sister-in-law.
This book traces the roots of Michelle Obama all the way back to slavery. What it shows in (if my recollection serves me – 5 generations?) is that in America anything is possible (“Yay” – conservatives), but also shows how it took not one extraordinary ancestor, but many extraordinary leaps to go from slavery to the White House. Steps that would not be needed or required for white Americans. Of course, anyone getting to the White House is extraordinary, but I remember thinking while reading the book (admittedly several years ago) “If any one of these people slips up, or gets killed, or any number of things that would have been far more commonplace for black people than white people, then Michelle Obama may not be here at all, but certainly not in the White House.” And I guess that is why I included it on the list, because it has an enjoyable narrative and an even more important narrative lesson – Anything is possible in this country, but you must acknowledge that it was and still is harder for a black person to achieve that opportunity. And once that is acknowledged then maybe real change can be had for all and not just the exceptional.