“How We Got Here: Writers on Race and Racism in America”

From a New York Times story headlined “How We Got Here: Writers on Race and Racism in America”:

In an effort to deepen our understanding of race and racism in America, we asked writers to share with us the texts that have done the most to deepen theirs. Together these histories, novels and verses have helped shape our collective consciousness of a subject that is irreducible, and universal.

Gabriel Bump, novelist

Appreciating social movements in hindsight is a complicated endeavor. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman are often whitewashed to appease modern sensibilities. Some, like Bayard Rustin, are almost forgotten entirely.

I came across John D’Emilio’s LOST PROPHET (2003) by chance, in my local bookstore in college. I don’t often take notes while reading for pleasure, but this time I made a detailed index on the back flap, marking pages and lines I wanted to save for future reference.

For example, did you know Rustin introduced Gandhian tactics of nonviolent protest to Dr. King? Did you know he helped organize the first Freedom Rides, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a boycott of segregated New York City public schools? . . .

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, novelist and essayist

UNEXAMPLED COURAGE (2019), by Richard Gergel, is a remarkable book. In clear and elegant prose, Gergel — a United States district judge in South Carolina — strips legal cases of jargon and presents them as what they essentially are: human drama. The result is intellectually and emotionally satisfying. . . .Meticulously researched and full of heart, this book is important at this time when the United States is confronting its ever-present past.

Clint Smith, poet

Ira Katznelson’s WHEN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION WAS WHITE (2005) was one of the first books that helped me concretely understand how racism was embedded into federal policy. In my American history classes growing up, the New Deal had been celebrated as the great catalyst of intergenerational opportunity and wealth for millions across the country. And it was. What I had not been taught, however, was how New Deal legislation was intentionally crafted to prevent millions of Black Americans from having access to its benefits. As Katznelson outlines, in the 1930s, 75 percent of Black workers in the South were employed as either maids or farmworkers. People in those professions were excluded for decades from social programs that set the minimum wage, regulated work hours, created labor unions and Social Security — which is to say, the programs that were the economic bedrock for millions of White Americans.

Sandra Cisneros, novelist

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (2014) helped me clarify my place in this country. It confirmed what had been told to me by my ancestors: that Indigenous peoples, from the North Pole to the South, have been here since before the world was known as round. As a conquering nation, the United States has rewritten history to make people of the U.S. forget our past as natives to this land. This is especially apparent in the Mexi-phobic, immigrant-phobic policies of our time. . . .

Jill Leovy, journalist

For understanding the Jim Crow South, I always recommend AFTER FREEDOM (1939), based on the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker’s hard-won observations in Mississippi and the best of the great fieldwork studies from that era. Less often read, although it ought to be more, is Mark Schultz’s THE RURAL FACE OF WHITE SUPREMACY: Beyond Jim Crow (2005). Schultz spent years on this oral history project, capturing the fascinating personal stories of elderly black and white residents of a Georgia county who spoke candidly about race relations in the first half of the 20th century. For contemporary inner-city politics and violence issues, check out Cid Martinez’s THE NEIGHBORHOOD HAS ITS OWN RULES (2016), an astute analysis of activist politics in Los Angeles. Although it is not about America, INFORMAL JUSTICE IN DIVIDED SOCIETIES (2002), by Colin Knox and Rachel Monaghan, helped me place our domestic race issues in a global context. Americans tend to view this country’s racial situation as singular and distinct, but in the streets of Watts ring echoes of Belfast and Cape Town.

Darryl Pinckney, novelist and essayist

Among the books I have gone back to in this historic moment are: DARKWATER: Voices From Within the Veil (1920), by W.E.B. Du Bois, because of his thoughtful insights 100 years ago into the very matters that now call people into the streets at some risk; and DARKNESS OVER GERMANY: A Warning From History (1943), by E. Amy Buller, because of what she tells us about the mass psychology of fascism.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, sociologist and essayist

I read Anne Moody’s COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI (1969) as a child, before I knew what memoir was. But still the book resonated with me, as I already understood what it meant to be a Black girl in a world where race and gender circumscribed who we could become. As a young adult, I read A FINE BALANCE (1996), by Rohinton Mistry, and for the first time understood that racism in the United States has genealogies other than the global slave trade. (I immediately signed up for courses on South Asian studies at my historically Black college.) As an adult, I think of Derrick Bell’s science-fiction story THE SPACE TRADERS (1992) at least once a week, mostly wishing everyone else had also read it so that we could stop reliving its message. Finally, there is no book more important to understanding the underpinnings of race, racism and uprisings right now than a new book by William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, FROM HERE TO EQUALITY (2020). Part history and part social policy, it takes economic reparations for Black Americans seriously. I wish we could say the same for America.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian and literary critic

Few reading experiences on the history of race in America have been as profound for me as the works of Eric Foner. From RECONSTRUCTION (1988), his definitive study of the era, to last year’s tour de force on the trio of constitutional amendments that established THE SECOND FOUNDING after the Civil War, no one has done more since W.E.B. Du Bois’s BLACK RECONSTRUCTION IN AMERICA (1935) to refute the racist fabrications of previous generations of Lost Cause “scholars.” In rescuing the facts about the promise and violent overthrow of our country’s most thrilling experiment in interracial democracy, Foner has proved that no one set of historians has the final word. “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” Du Bois wrote — succinctly, poetically and so very sadly — of the period of Reconstruction’s nakedly racist rollback (perversely named “Redemption”) that ushered in nearly a century of Jim Crow.

I’m also inspired by a new generation of scholars — from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s CRITICAL RACE THEORY (1995) to Martha Jones’s VANGUARD (2020) — who are shining a light on this crucial chapter in our story, pointing out its harbingers in earlier efforts to circumvent the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (especially voter suppression). As dark and unsettling forces attempt to roll back the gains of what historians sometimes call “The Second Reconstruction” of the 1960s, and as tyrannical impulses seek to curtail our most foundational and sacred constitutional rights, let us look to these examples of great scholarship, which preserve the noble tale of the triumphant determination of black people to rise undiminished out of the ashes of racial repression, violence and lynching.

Denzy Senna, novelist

Every work of American literature is about race, whether the writer knows it or not. That said, these are some nonfiction books that have given me necessary tools to think about our culture. In college I read both bell hooks’s BLACK LOOKS (1992) and Donald Bogle’s TOMS, COONS, MULATTOES, MAMMIES & BUCKS(1973), and was never the same. Toni Morrison’s PLAYING IN THE DARK (1992) is utter genius, revealing through literary analysis how whiteness doesn’t exist without blackness. Nella Larsen’s QUICKSAND (1928) and PASSING (1929), both published during the Harlem Renaissance, feel just as contemporary and lucid today in their portrayal of mixed-race women and the perils of white passing. More recently, I have been enamored by the brilliance of both Hilton Als’s WHITE GIRLS (2013) and Margo Jefferson’s NEGROLAND (2015).

Carol Anderson, historian

Jesmyn Ward’s SING, UNBURIED, SING (2017); Isabel Wilkerson’s THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS (2010); Kiese Laymon’s HEAVY (2018); David Oshinsky’s WORSE THAN SLAVERY (1996); Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN (2014); J. Mills Thornton’s DIVIDING LINES (2002); John W. Dower’s WAR WITHOUT MERCY (1986); Patrick Phillips’s BLOOD AT THE ROOT (2016); Françoise Hamlin’s CROSSROADS AT CLARKSDALE (2012); Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.’s BLACK AGAINST EMPIRE (2013).

Each speaks, in some way, to the power of racism, and sometimes just sheer, raw, unadulterated anti-blackness, in destroying millions upon millions of lives. Each also lays out the power of the refusal to accept subjugation. And that the subsequent and ongoing battles between anti-blackness and freedom are messy.

David Treuer. novelist and historian

BELOVED (1987), by Toni Morrison: I read this when I was 19. No book, no matter the intelligence behind it, can put the reader into the position of unfreedom in which African-Americans lived as enslaved people. Morrison, I think, knew this. What “Beloved” taught me to see and to feel was what it might be like to have the things we think of as universally human — in this case, a mother’s love for her children — twisted and deformed by the institution and experience of slavery.

CUSTER DIED FOR YOUR SINS (1969): In this essay collection, the lawyer and activist Vine Deloria Jr. shouts, chides, teases and preaches about the pain and absurdity of being Native American in a modern world.

NOTES OF A NATIVE SON (1958), by James Baldwin: No other writer has written as lucidly, powerfully and productively about what it means to be black in America — and, as a result, what this country means.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE (1967), by Gabriel García Márquez: Billed as a Latin American fantasy, the Colombian-Mexican author’s magical-realist epic is as much an American fantasy, about the lives caught in the web of 19th- and 20th-century colonialism.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, memoirist and critic

There are several dozen books explicitly about race in America that have left lifelong marks on me, but only two have reversed the course of my own thought. The first is Albert Murray’s THE OMNI-AMERICANS (1970). Murray’s argument is simple but profound: America is a mongrel nation, both culturally and in its DNA. Though we may come up with all kinds of methods to obscure this basic truth, “any fool can see,” he writes, “that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.”

The second is RACECRAFT (2012), by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Elise Fields. The Fields sisters prove with witty, withering brilliance that racism — and the ideology of white supremacy, rooted in economic exploitation — creates race, and not the other way around.

Finally, though it’s trans-Atlantic in scope, the British sociologist Paul Gilroy’s monumental work AGAINST RACE (2000) argues that race is not something intrinsic and immutable but something fluid, illusory and imposed, “an afterimage — a lingering effect of looking too casually into the damaging glare emanating from colonial conflicts at home and abroad.”

All three books convinced me that we will never transcend racism so long as we continue to reify the illusory, inherently hierarchical color categories that it gives us.

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