Smithsonian Scholars Pick Their Favorite Books

Smithsonian scholars turned to the books mirroring the country’s problems and anxieties. Whether a book served as an antidote to doomscrolling, a path to enlightenment, a way to surface lost histories or biographies, or to peer deep into the future to find the footprints of our civilization in the fossil record, the books Smithsonian experts recommend this year are, in a word, relevant.

Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America:

At a time when children’s television meant vacuous fantasy playhouses, slapstick puppet theaters and boisterous peanut galleries all designed to help sell toys and sugary cereals to kids and their parents, a few visionary educators, performers and producers began to think that television could do more for children. In David Kamp’s compelling popular history of the late-60s and 1970s children’s television revolution, we learn how the creators of “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Zoom” crafted revolutionary programs that changed the face of the genre and influenced a generation of Americans. Informed by research, Fred Rogers and the Children’s Television Workshop set out to prove that television could be used to teach social skills and encourage emotional development and to help close the racial and economic achievement gap. Kamp’s engaging history of the heady and provocative golden age of educational entertainment casts these beloved series in a new light—including the groundbreaking decision to set “Sesame Street” in a racially-diverse city neighborhood amidst white flight and urban decay. The book also speaks to our educational present, when screens have never been more important to helping children learn.

Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

If you see McDonald’s as the embodiment of evil capitalism, labor exploitation and a vector for obesity, you need to read this book. If you think history is messy and realize good guys do not always wear white hats, then Marcia Chatelain’s deep dive into the history of fast food companies is for you. She tells a surprising and important story about the giant McDonald’s franchise and its important role in the struggle for racial justice and social equality. A bittersweet story, Chatelain is not a company booster but does suggest that hope sometimes comes in strange forms. This is a must-read for those that love the complexity of business and labor history.

Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard

Instead of uniform blankets of green crew cut lawns, imagine driving down a street where the yards are a medley of color, structure and floral fragrance, full of butterflies, beetles, bees and birds. Educator and author Doug Tallamy, a leading voice for a growing movement that empowers homeowners in any location to become conservationists, advocates a societal shift in mindset about residential lifestyles and the traditional neighborhood aesthetic. He is urging homeowners to reject their lifeless monoculture lawns made of invasive grasses and ornamentals that are dependent on toxic pesticides in favor of a biodiverse sanctuary of wildflowers and native plants. The latest in his series of best sellers on this topic, Tallamy hopes to create valuable habitat for struggling wildlife in our built environments while also protecting homeowners from the known and unknown impacts of chemical poisons.

Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism

n a world increasingly shaped by surveillance capitalism and competing narratives of events in the media, journalism professor and scholar Allissa Richardson unpacks in concise prose what is happening now with smartphones and the documentation of violence against African Americans. Using the term “black witnessing,” Richardson not only provides a compelling history of how African Americans have documented the structural violence of racism, but also examines how in the present, the smartphone and social media are creating important counter-narratives and spaces for conversation. This book is not only timely but incredibly important if we are to understand the diverse media ecologies we inhabit, how racism persists in these diverse fields, and how it is being challenged.

The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild

Dubbed a “love letter to the planet,” this book from National Geographic explorer-in-residence and founder of the Pristine Seas project, Enric Sala, is a moving and well-informed read for anyone curious about how and why we should save the planet and its innumerable biodiversity. From understanding the implications of species extinctions to factoring in the economic impacts of an increasingly uninhabitable world, Sala offers a well-traveled road map. Although at the surface, the overwhelming message is that we quite frankly will all perish without Mother Earth’s protective swaddle, there’s no lack of optimism for strides in conservation and our future as a species.

Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Soon after arriving at the Smithsonian, I began working on a commemorative event on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I chose to focus on the stories of women like Johnnie Carr, Juanita Abernathy, JoAnn Robinson, Minnie McCants Harris and others who were essential in driving and sustaining this revolutionary movement even as their stories were overlooked. The timely new work from historian Martha S. Jones is the perfect book and story for America in 2020 as we rightly reexamine and revise, not history, but memory. With brilliant and passionate storytelling, Jones’ sweeping narrative reminds us that black women have been an essential part of the work to expand democracy and to force the United States to become a truly great nation. And it’s been a choice we’ve made not to remember that. Her research and writing provide admonition that to expand our memory of the past is, in fact, a laudable and necessary effort if we want to better understand and navigate the present to create a better future.

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