There is something to be said about a community of people who have been able to endure enslavement, the centuries of inequitable treatment that followed and the derivative systemic racism that continues to exist. In spite of the odds, African Americans have managed to create a fascinating, and often coveted, culture heavily influenced by their unique American experience, all the while rooted in the land they were stolen from; a culture that has impacted the nation at every turn, from music to medicine, literature to legislature and all manner of areas in between. Make no mistake: African-American history, though set aside to be celebrated during the month of February each year, is American history.
In this edition of Have Books, Will Travel, we present books that capture that history; depicting what it means to endure the trial and triumph, pain and promise, heartache and hope that is commonly found in the stoic African-American experience.
Slavery (1776 – 1865)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is still considered one of the most powerful pieces of literature tied to the abolitionist movement and is nothing short of required reading. In it, Douglass presents part memoir, part abolitionist commentary as he recalls his former life as a slave in Maryland. Born into slavery on a date that is unknown, Douglass chose the date of February 14, 1818 to begin his story, and what follows is the harrowing account of his journey to freedom, one in which he remained undeterred by beatings from numerous cruel masters, incarceration and multiple previous failed attempts. Encouraged and inspired by the abolition support he witnessed in the North, as well as his acquaintance with Anna Murray, a free black woman he met and fell in love with while in Baltimore, Douglass finally found success with his escape attempt in September of 1838.
Jim Crow (1865 – 1945)
Douglas A. Blackmon’s research on, and presentation of, the unjust use of African-American convict labor is so significant that it was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. After researching the subject for an impending Wall Street Journal article, Blackmon sought a correlation between the rise in African-American inmates after the Civil War and the legitimate records of the crimes they had committed. What he discovered, and what he so earnestly explores in Slavery by Another Name, is a trend of systemic racism that affects African Americans to this day.
“There’s no evidence that that ever happened. In fact, it’s the opposite. The crime waves that occurred by and large were the aftermath of the war and whites coming back from fighting in the Civil War and settling scores with people and all sorts of renegade activity that didn’t involve black people at all, but they were blamed for it…”1
Civil Rights (1954 – 1968)
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Anne Moody’s memoir captures a unique perspective as she shares the ebbs and flows of life in rural Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement as a member of two marginalized groups: African Americans and women. Written in four parts spanning from childhood to her years spent as a Civil Rights activist, Moody gives first-hand accounts of the incidents that defined her life and solidified her commitment to fighting for the fair treatment of people of color: from the news of Emmett Till’s horrendous murder to the fear wrought from being beaten during sit-ins shortly before learning that her name had been added to the Ku Klux Klan’s hit list. She also touches on a topic that often goes unspoken of regarding the internal conduct of Civil Rights organizations: the sexism displayed towards women by male counterparts in the movement.
Post-Civil Rights Era (1970 – 2000)
Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis
On par with the revelation of internal conduct within the Civil Rights Movement is Congressman John Lewis’ bestselling memoir, Walking with the Wind. He speaks to the struggles of his life as candidly as he does the victories, recounting not only his racially charged youth as the son of sharecroppers in Alabama, but also his formative college years which saw his first foray into political leadership as head of the Nashville sit-ins. Lewis would go on to be recognized as one of the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, his name synonymous with the likes of James Farmer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Present (2000 – 2020)
Magical Negro by Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker pulls the title of her collection of poems from the cinematic epidemic of supporting African-American characters who readily come to the aid of their white protagonist leads, even to their own detriment. She expands on the stereotypical depictions of African-American women in society; expressing themes of trauma, grief, displacement and loneliness in beautiful, melancholy prose. Her work elegantly, and adequately, addresses the anxieties and ambitions of today’s African-American woman while shining a much needed light on the issues that plague the culture as a whole.
We hope this list of books provides readers with new insight into the African-American experience, and we encourage you to share the list with others. Stories of people of color, as well as stories of people that are a part of all marginalized groups, deserve to be heard. And if a single reader is moved to show more compassion towards others, to stand up for those who are less fortunate, to fight for rights that they are privileged to enjoy automatically…well, we’d say we’ve done our part.
Which books based on the African-American experience are you reading, and sharing, this year?
1 Wurzer, Cathy (February 13, 2012). “‘Slavery By Another Name’ documentary has Minn. connection”. Minnesota Public Radio.