Narrowing African-American history to a manageable number of books is nearly impossible. The offerings are so voluminous and various it’s overwhelming.
But we have to start somewhere. Ignorance is too lethal a disease to leave untreated. Too many people do not know even the basics of the African-American sojourn.
So, below is a short list of representative titles that ought to be in every library. With the exception of the one-volume work that surveys the entire African-American sojourn, I’ve divided the list into major periods of African-American history so that the reader will have book-length works in each era. Some of the works are dated but still stand as classic and useful texts. I’ve attempted to include in each era works of standard history (not ideology passing as history) and at least one original source from an author in the era. I’m hoping the combination of a secondary text along with a primary source gives the reader a big picture view along with a lived experience.
The book descriptions come from the book covers. Along the way I’ve also slipped in a video or two for those who’d rather watch than read (lazy rascals! ;-))
One Volume History
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African-American History, 1513-2018
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., gives us a sumptuously illustrated landmark book tracing African American history from the arrival of the conquistadors to the election of Barack Obama. Informed by the latest, sometimes provocative scholarship and including more than seven hundred images—ancient maps, fine art, documents, photographs, cartoons, posters—Life Upon These Shores focuses on defining events, debates, and controversies, as well as the signal achievements of people famous and obscure. Gates takes us from the sixteenth century through the ordeal of slavery, from the Civil War and Reconstruction through the Jim Crow era and the Great Migration; from the civil rights and black nationalist movements through the age of hip-hop to the Joshua generation. By documenting and illuminating the sheer diversity of African American involvement in American history, society, politics, and culture, Gates bracingly disabuses us of the presumption of a single “black experience.”
Video alternative: The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross is a six-part, six hour documentary. The series is the first to air since 1968 that chronicles the full sweep of 500 years of African American history, from the origins of slavery on the African continent and the arrival of the first black conquistador, Juan Garrido, in Florida in 1513, through five centuries of remarkable historic events right up to the presidency of Barack Obama. It delves into the multiplicity of cultural institutions, political strategies, and religious and social perspectives that African Americans have created in the half a millennium since their African ancestors first arrived on these shores. The series guides readers on an engaging journey through the Black Atlantic world—from Africa and Europe to the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States—to shed new light on what it has meant, and means, to be an African American. By highlighting the complex internal debates and class differences within the Black Experience in this country, readers will learn that the African American community, which black abolitionist Martin R. Delany described as a “nation within a nation,” has never been a truly uniform entity, and that its members have been debating their differences of opinion and belief from their very first days in this country. The road to freedom for black people in America has not been linear; rather, much like the course of a river, it has been full of loops and eddies, slowing and occasionally reversing current.
Eugene Genoese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made
This landmark history of slavery in the South—a winner of the Bancroft Prize—challenged conventional views of slaves by illuminating the many forms of resistance to dehumanization that developed in slave society.Rather than emphasizing the cruelty and degradation of slavery, historian Eugene Genovese investigates the ways that slaves forced their owners to acknowledge their humanity through culture, music, and religion. Not merely passive victims, the slaves in this account actively engaged with the paternalism of slaveholding culture in ways that supported their self-respect and aspirations for freedom. Roll, Jordan, Roll covers a vast range of subjects, from slave weddings and funerals, to the language, food, clothing, and labor of slaves, and places particular emphasis on religion as both a major battleground for psychological control and a paradoxical source of spiritual strength. Displaying keen insight into the minds of both slaves and slaveholders, Roll, Jordan, Roll is a testament to the power of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression.
John Blasingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South
From Wikipedia: The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South is a book written by American historian John W. Blassingame. Published in 1972, it is one of the first historical studies of slavery in the United States to be presented from the perspective of the enslaved. The Slave Community contradicted those historians who had interpreted history to suggest that African American slaves were docile and submissive “Sambos” who enjoyed the benefits of a paternalistic master-slave relationship on southern plantations. Using psychology, Blassingame analyzes fugitive slave narratives published in the 19th century to conclude that an independent culture developed among the enslaved and that there were a variety of personality types exhibited by slaves.
Although the importance of The Slave Community was recognized by scholars of American slavery, Blassingame’s conclusions, methodology, and sources were heavily criticized. Historians criticized the use of slave narratives that were seen as unreliable and biased. They questioned Blassingame’s decision to exclude the more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Historians argued that Blassingame’s use of psychological theory proved unhelpful in his interpretation. Blassingame defended his conclusions at a 1976 meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History and in 1979 published a revised and enlarged edition of The Slave Community. Despite criticisms, The Slave Community is a foundational text in the study of the life and culture of slaves in the antebellum South.
Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave, Written by Himself
This is a special Bicentennial Edition of Douglass’s most famous book which has been published by his direct descendants through Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI). It contains a never-before publicized pencil drawing of Douglass on the cover which was created by his grandson, Joseph Douglass. Bryan Stevenson, author of the New York Times best-seller, Just Mercy, writes a brilliant Introduction to this Bicentennial Edition. Stevenson connects the challenges faced by Douglass with the most problematic social injustices of our time such as mass incarceration, racial inequality, and police violence. Every ebook that is sold will help the Douglass family print and give away hardcover copies of this edition to young people as part of their One Million Abolitionists project. The Library of Congress named Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass one of the 88 Books That Shaped America. Published in 1845, his first autobiography became an instant bestseller putting his life in danger since he had escaped slavery just seven years earlier. The Narrative helped change the course of the U.S. Abolitionist Movement in the mid-nineteenth century and has been changing the lives of readers ever since.
Video alternative: Slavery and the Making of America (PBS documentary)
The history of slavery is central to understanding the history of the United States. Slavery and the Making of America offers a richly illustrated, vividly written history that illuminates the human side of this inhumane institution, presenting it largely through stories of the slaves themselves.
Viewers will discover a wide ranging and sharply nuanced look at American slavery, from the first Africans brought to British colonies in the early seventeenth century to the end of Reconstruction. The authors document the horrors of slavery, particularly in the deep South, and describe the slaves’ valiant struggles to free themselves from bondage. There are dramatic tales of escape by slaves such as William and Ellen Craft and Dred Scott’s doomed attempt to win his freedom through the Supreme Court. We see how slavery engendered violence in our nation, from bloody confrontations that broke out in American cities over fugitive slaves, to the cataclysm of the Civil War. The book is also filled with stories of remarkable African Americans like Sergeant William H. Carney, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at the crucial assault on Fort Wagner during the Civil War, and Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave who led freed African Americans to a new life on the American frontier. Filled with absorbing and inspirational accounts, Slavery and the Making of America is a gripping account of the struggles of African Americans against the iniquity of slavery.
Abolition and The Civil War
Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Ready, and Leslie S. Rowland, Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War
When nearly 200,000 black men, most of them former slaves, entered the Union army and navy, they transformed the Civil War into a struggle for liberty and changed the course of American history. Freedom’s Soldiers tells the story of those men in their own words and the words of other eyewitnesses. These moving letters, affidavits, and memorials–drawn from the records of the National Archives–reveal the variety and complexity of the African-American experience during the era of emancipation.
Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
Viewing the Civil War as a major turning point in American religious thought, Mark A. Noll examines writings about slavery and race from Americans both white and black, northern and southern, and includes commentary from Protestants and Catholics in Europe and Canada. Though the Christians on all sides agreed that the Bible was authoritative, their interpretations of slavery in Scripture led to a full-blown theological crisis.
David Walker’s Appeal is a landmark work of American history and letters, the most radical piece of writing by an African American in the nineteenth century. David Walker was an outspoken African-American abolitionist and anti-slavery activist. In 1829, while living in Boston, Massachusetts, he first published his famous “Appeal”, a call for black unity and self-help in the fight against oppression and injustice. The work brought attention to the abuses and inequities of slavery and the obligation of individuals to act responsibly for racial equality, according to religious and political tenets. At the time, some people were outraged and fearful of the reaction that the pamphlet would have. Many abolitionists thought the views were extreme. Historians and liberation theologians cite the “Appeal” as an influential political and social document of the 19th century. Walker exerted a radicalizing influence on the abolitionist movements of his day and inspired future black leaders and activists.
Eric Foner’s “masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history” (New Republic) redefined how the post-Civil War period was viewed.
Reconstruction chronicles the way in which Americans—black and white—responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. It addresses the ways in which the emancipated slaves’ quest for economic autonomy and equal citizenship shaped the political agenda of Reconstruction; the remodeling of Southern society and the place of planters, merchants, and small farmers within it; the evolution of racial attitudes and patterns of race relations; and the emergence of a national state possessing vastly expanded authority and committed, for a time, to the principle of equal rights for all Americans.
This “smart book of enormous strengths” (Boston Globe) remains the standard work on the wrenching post-Civil War period—an era whose legacy still reverberates in the United States today.
W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880
After four centuries of bondage, the nineteenth century marked the long-awaited release of millions of black slaves. Subsequently, these former slaves attempted to reconstruct the basis of American democracy. W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the greatest intellectual leaders in United States history, evaluates the twenty years of fateful history that followed the Civil War, with special reference to the efforts and experiences of African Americans.
Du Bois’s words best indicate the broader parameters of his work:”the attitude of any person toward this book will be distinctly influenced by his theories of the Negro race. If he believes that the Negro in America and in general is an average and ordinary human being, who under given environment develops like other human beings, then he will read this story and judge it by the facts adduced.”
The plight of the white working class throughout the world is directly traceable to American slavery, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, Du Bois argues. Moreover, the resulting color caste was adopted, forwarded, and approved by white labor, and resulted in the subordination of colored labor throughout the world. As a result, the majority of the world’s laborers became part of a system of industry that destroyed democracy and led to World War I and the Great Depression. This book tells that story.
The Nadir (1877-1915) and Jim Crow
Dickson C. Bruce, Black American Writing from the Nadir, 1877-1915
The years between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of World War I represented a low point in American race relations. In Black American Writing from the Nadir, Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., considers the black writers who worked during that period an examines the ways in which they sought to give perspective and meaning to the black experience in a time of deep-seated racism.
Whereas some scholars have examined in a broad way the black literature produced during these years, and others have made individual studies of such significant figures of the time as Charles W. Chestnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and W. E. B. Du Bois, no one until now has presented a full-scale analysis of post-Reconstruction and turn-of-the-century black writing. Bruce’s study treats minor as well as major authors and encompasses a broad range of creative work.
Bruce shows that black writers confronted the conditions of an increasingly racist society in almost every aspect of their work—from their choice of subject matter, to the way they drew their characters, to the moods they portrayed. At the same time, these writers—most of whom were members of a small but growing black professional class—displayed a concern for middle-class aspirations and values. Bruce maintains that it is important to comprehend the tensions and ambiguities between these two forces in studying the literature of the time.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow
The abolition of slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War is a familiar story, as is the civil rights revolution that transformed the nation after World War II. But the century in between remains a mystery: if emancipation sparked “a new birth of freedom” in Lincoln’s America, why was it necessary to march in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s America? In this new book, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of our leading chroniclers of the African-American experience, seeks to answer that question in a history that moves from the Reconstruction Era to the “nadir” of the African-American experience under Jim Crow, through to World War I and the Harlem Renaissance.
Through his close reading of the visual culture of this tragic era, Gates reveals the many faces of Jim Crow and how, together, they reinforced a stark color line between white and black Americans. Bringing a lifetime of wisdom to bear as a scholar, filmmaker, and public intellectual, Gates uncovers the roots of structural racism in our own time, while showing how African Americans after slavery combatted it by articulating a vision of a “New Negro” to force the nation to recognize their humanity and unique contributions to America as it hurtled toward the modern age.
C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow
The Strange Career of Jim Crow is one of the great works of Southern history. Indeed, the book actually helped shape that history. Published in 1955, a year after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ordered schools desegregated, Strange Career was cited so often to counter arguments for segregation that Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.” The book offers a clear and illuminating analysis of the history of Jim Crow laws, presenting evidence that segregation in the South dated only to the 1890s. Woodward convincingly shows that, even under slavery, the two races had not been divided as they were under the Jim Crow laws of the 1890s. In fact, during Reconstruction, there was considerable economic and political mixing of the races. The segregating of the races was a relative newcomer to the region.
Hailed as one of the top 100 nonfiction works of the twentieth century, The Strange Career of Jim Crow has sold almost a million copies and remains, in the words of David Herbert Donald, “a landmark in the history of American race relations.”
Civil Rights Era
From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.
With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.
Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic.
Taylor Branch, America in the King Years Trilogy
Parting the Waters, 1954-63: Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the corridors of Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of America, torn and finally transformed by a revolutionary struggle unequaled since the Civil War. Taylor Branch provides an unsurpassed portrait of King’s rise to greatness and illuminates the stunning courage and private conflict, the deals, maneuvers, betrayals, and rivalries that determined history behind closed doors, at boycotts and sit-ins, on bloody freedom rides, and through siege and murder.
Pillar of Fire, 1963-65: In the second volume of his three-part history Taylor Branch portrays the Civil Rights Movement at its zenith, recounting the climactic struggles as they commanded the national stage.
At Canaan’s Edge, 1965-1968: In At Canaan’s Edge, King and his movement stand at the zenith of America’s defining story, one decade into an epic struggle for the promises of democracy. Branch opens with the authorities’ violent suppression of a voting-rights march in Alabama on March 7, 1965. The quest to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge engages the conscience of the world, strains the civil rights coalition, and embroils King in negotiations with all three branches of the U.S. government.
The marches from Selma coincide with the first landing of large U.S. combat units in South Vietnam. The escalation of the war severs the cooperation of King and President Lyndon Johnson after a collaboration that culminated in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After Selma, young pilgrims led by Stokely Carmichael take the movement into adjacent Lowndes County, Alabama, where not a single member of the black majority has tried to vote in the twentieth century. Freedom workers are murdered, but sharecroppers learn to read, dare to vote, and build their own political party. Carmichael leaves in frustration to proclaim his famous black power doctrine, taking the local panther ballot symbol to become an icon of armed rebellion.
Also after Selma, King takes nonviolence into Northern urban ghettoes. Integrated marches through Chicago expose hatreds and fears no less virulent than the Mississippi Klan’s, but King’s 1966 settlement with Mayor Richard Daley does not gain the kind of national response that generated victories from Birmingham and Selma. We watch King overrule his advisers to bring all his eloquence into dissent from the Vietnam War. We watch King make an embattled decision to concentrate his next campaign on a positive compact to address poverty. We reach Memphis, the garbage workers’ strike, and King’s assassination.
Parting the Waters provided an unsurpassed portrait of King’s rise to greatness, beginning with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and ending with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In Pillar of Fire, theologians and college students braved the dangerous Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 as Malcolm X raised a militant new voice for racial separatism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation by race and mandated equal opportunity for women. From the pinnacle of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King willed himself back to “the valley” of jail in his daunting Selma campaign.
At Canaan’s Edge portrays King at the height of his moral power even as his worldly power is waning. It shows why his fidelity to freedom and nonviolence makes him a defining figure long beyond his brilliant life and violent end.
“The Year of Birmingham,” 1963, was a cataclysmic turning point in America’s long civil rights struggle. Child demonstrators faced down police dogs and fire hoses in huge nonviolent marches against segregation. Ku Klux Klansmen retaliated by bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls. Diane McWhorter, daughter of a prominent Birmingham family, weaves together police and FBI records, archival documents, interviews with black activists and Klansmen, and personal memories into an extraordinary narrative of the personalities and events that brought about America’s second emancipation.
In a new afterword—reporting last encounters with hero Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and describing the current drastic anti-immigration laws in Alabama—the author demonstrates that Alabama remains a civil rights crucible.
Video alternative: Eyes on the Prize
Eyes on the Prize traces the movement from the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education case in 1954 to the march on Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Eyes on the Prize tells the definitive story of the Civil Rights era from the point of view of the ordinary men and women whose extraordinary actions launched a movement that changed the fabric of American life.