6 Books to Help You Grasp How We Got to This Moment

6 Books to Help You Grasp How We Got to This Moment

6 Books to Help You Grasp How We Got to This Moment

6 Books to Help You Grasp How We Got to This Moment

No book can provide a full understanding of the complex pain and enduring injustice that is the recent wave of countrywide protests. But books can provide context and texture, and memoirs and sociology texts by black writers have been flying off the shelves. So have history books.

And history is important here: While the protests are unprecedented in their number, scope and impact, their newness is built on a long past, one that scholars have grappled with for decades. The list of their books is long; here are a few of the major works to get you started.

With roots in Marxist theory, Eugene Genovese’s “Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” published nearly 50 years ago, has stood the test of time. It was among the first to look at enslaved people as agents — not as mere “slaves,” but as human beings with their own ideas, culture and, above all, strategies of resistance. Even now, few books provide a comparable level of insight and moral clarity into the centuries of American slavery.

Like Genovese, Nell Irvin Painter flips convention on its head with her book “The History of White People,” in which she examines race through the lens of whiteness, instead of blackness. What has whiteness meant through history, asks Painter, a professor emerita at Princeton, and how has it come to shape race relations in America, from the earliest European settlements to the present? (For those who want to read more from Painter, but in a different register, also check out “Old in Art School,” her memoir about her post-academic career.)

Until Eric Foner’s masterwork “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877” appeared in 1988, many historians — and most Americans — saw the post-Civil War efforts to enfranchise and empower blacks as a failed experiment at best. Many condemned it as a fraud. Foner, a historian at Columbia, showed that, in fact, Reconstruction was initially a success and it had promise to do much more, but precisely for that reason, it threatened entrenched white interests and was quickly brought to an end, setting in motion the rise of Jim Crow.

There are several outstanding books about the lives of black Americans in the first part of the 20th century, but few have the scope and lyrical passion of Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” A former New York Times journalist, Wilkerson masterfully recounts the exodus of millions from the Deep South in search of a better life, an epochal shift that established today’s complex interplay of race, class and justice.

The story of the civil rights movement is long, sweeping, and often told, but in recent years scholars have begun to look beyond the conventional wisdom. That’s precisely what Danielle McGuire does with “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance”: She shifts the focus from men like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to women like Rosa Parks, whose work as an investigator for the NAACP in the 1940s — long before her role in the Montgomery bus boycott — shed sunlight on the near-systematic sexual assault by white men against black women.

These days, many people are reaching for copies of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” to better understand how the promise of the civil rights era gave way to the age of mass incarceration. Alongside it, they should read “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” by James Forman Jr. Where Alexander’s tone is righteous, Forman’s is ironic. He shows how black voters and politicians have consistently supported tough-on-crime legislation — a reasonable response, except that it fails to account for the persistence of structural racism and unequal justice.

How, Forman asks, have black Americans become not just the victims of mass incarceration, but often the agents facilitating it? It is an uncomfortable argument, but an important one — just like so many of the debates around race today.


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