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Books of African American Interest

   General Text & Reference

 Biographies, History and Specific Topics

  Children/Young Adult

 More books are reviewed in subject categories of my TEACHER TOOLKIT for Grades K-12.

General Text & Reference Books

IN THE WORDS OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Quotations From Liberty’s Champion. Edited by John R McKivigan and Heather L. Kaufman. Cornell University Press, 2012. Order at

From the era leading up to the Civil War until nearly the dawn of the 20th Century, Frederick Douglass - a runaway slave - was perhaps the most famous and influential black man in the Western world. Considered one of the nation’s preeminent orators and writers, passionately involved in reform movements ranging from Abolition to Women’s Rights, his was a household name in the United States and the British Isles for most of his adult life. He counted many dignitaries among his friends and acquaintances including Abraham Lincoln, who met with him three times at the White House.

As the editors say in their preface, “Douglas was not only the leading representative of nineteenth-century blacks, he stood for what was best in American ideals.” Through three autobiographies, countless speeches, personal correspondence, editorials and essays, Douglass left one of the most extensive bodies of public statements of any figure in American history.

So extensive in fact that over the years (and over the Internet) he has been misquoted, taken out of context, or even had the words of others attributed to him. The editors of this new canon - both staff members of the Frederick Douglas Papers founded in 1973 - have only included quotes that could be firmly attributed to Douglass’s authorship.

The quotes are arranged chronologically within over 100 categories and subcategories, including ones you’d expect - Slavery, Civil War, and African Americans - but also ones you might not such as Travel, Photography, and Friendship. The introduction provides a brief biography and chronology, useful for placing Douglass (and the quotes) in context. All quotes are meticulously cited as to the original source, and these citations themselves provide further context.

This valuable resource should be made available in every library.

Franklin, John Hope and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. New York: Random House, 2000. Order at

First written in 1947, now in it's 8th edition, this is still THE definitive textbook for African American History. Among the many improvements in the latest edition is expanded information on black women's history, and increased information about slave insurrections. Don't be scared off by the word "textbook" since this is a highly readable book. Update 2009: John Hope Franklin passed away Wednesday, March 25, 2009. He was 94.

Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 2005. Read more and Order at

Back in the 1970's, when I worked as an education assistant at a small historical library in Ohio, John Hope Franklin spent several days in residence doing research. Having a man of such stature in our midst was a rare occurrence, and the head librarian had instructed us to walk on eggs so as not to disturb him; to her chagrin, I was scheduled to lead a group of eighth graders on a tour during his stay. Before my charges entered the building I explained who Dr. Franklin was and why it was very important we not disrupt his work. As we tiptoed silently through the reading room hoping to go unnoticed, Dr. Franklin looked up, smiled and asked me to bring them over. He inquired about their school, their studies, their interests in history, etc. before discussing his current research project with them. Their teacher told me they were still talking about him months later.

Each page of this astounding memoir reminded me of that compassion, that ability to connect with people at all ages and levels of experience and sophistication. John Hope Franklin is more than a world-class scholar. Personally and professionally, he is the bridge connecting America to its African American history. At times I felt like I was rereading FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM, augmented by personal asides and inside stories.

Reviewers detail Franklin's numerous high profile accomplishments, but for me, smaller, more personal moments in the book stand out. For example, I gave little thought to the obstacles he would have encountered while trying to access archives in the Jim Crow South, despite his impeccable Harvard credentials. Even when librarians were supportive, they had to work around the absurdities of segregation, sometimes with ironic results. For example, at one library he was given his own key to the stacks because it was deemed improper that he be waited upon by white pages who typically fetched materials for researchers. This meant he had unlimited access to the stacks - every historian's dream. Soon the white researchers demanded equal access, which was impossible, so the white pages ended up serving him instead.

And I nearly cried when I read that even in his 80's, this internationally renowned scholar was mistaken for a porter in the coatroom of a Washington club where he was a member.

If you read nothing else this year, do yourself a favor and read this book. It is more than just a mirror - it is a gift. Gerri Gribi, Curator,

The Columbia Guide to African American History Since 1939. Harris, Robert L Jr. and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, eds. Columbia University Press, 2006. Read more at

This book explores the central developments in African American history since 1939. The first part (about 90 pages) provides a concise and compelling historical narrative broken into five time periods. It begins with a discussion of the various approaches to interpreting black history post-1939, including revisionist, vindicationist, Afrocentric, integrationist, nationalist and multidimensional approaches. The authors take a multidimensional approach, demonstrating that "The Movement" was/is not a united front, but rather a struggle waged on many different fronts in different ways with different objectives - sometimes at cross purposes. Also, things which seemed like progress at the time (e.g. school desegregation) are now being reexamined.

The second part examines seven "key themes" including business, music, military service, sports, and literature, plus the answer to a question which has cropped up numerous times on my listservs lately: why and when did we become Negro/black/African American, who prefers which term, and why is self-designation important? The third part provides a chronology, the fourth A-Z entries with a paragraph or two about key persons and organizations.

The final section (about 70 pages) is a substantial Resource Guide to textbooks, general references, military records, manuscript collections, film, video and recordings, and more. The various bibliographies are annotated, but the listings of Libraries/Museums/Historical Sites, Newspapers/Periodicals/Journals, and Web Sites are not, and that's the only weakness I found here. (Note: I maintain an extensive annotated listing of libraries/museums/historical sites.) Provides a clear and compelling introduction to a complex era, and the resources will spark students to dig deeper.

The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle . Clar, D. et al Editors. New York: Penguin Reprint, 1991. Read more at

Produced in conjunction with the 14-part PBS Eyes on the Prize television series, this is a collection of over 100 court decisions, speeches, interviews, and other documents on the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1990.

Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity by Dee Parmer Woodtor. Random House, 1999.

This is a well-written and comprehensive guide to the types of records which can be used to document the African American experience, how to interpret them and understand them in the context of American social history. Sadly, it's out of print but new and used copies are available at

Appiah, Kwame Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Basic Civitas Books: 1999. High School A unique work that covers the African diaspora on both sides of the Atlantic. The scope is exhaustive: its 3500 entries and articles chronicle prominent individuals, events, places, politics, art, economy, religion and countries and more. More than 1000 illustrations and maps. Read selections at

Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Hine, Darlene Clark, Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, eds. Indiana University Press, 1993. Over 800 entries and 400 signed essays by scholars. Order at

Black Women in America, Second Edition. Darlene Clark Hine, Ed. Prentice Hall, 2005. 3 vols. Order at

This new edition includes

*more than 150 new entries, plus revisions and updates to all previous entries

* Contains 500 illustrations, many published here for the first times

* Includes over 335 biographies, many newly prepared for this publication

* Offers sidebars on interesting aspects of the history and culture of black women

* Provides a bibliography for each entry, plus a major bibliographical essay

* Features a chronology and a comprehensive index

Hine, Darlene Clark. A Shining Thread of Hope: History of Black Women in America. New York: Broadway Books, 1999. This scholarly and comprehensive history is quite a page-turner...I found it difficult to put down! It is a celebration of the strength, determination and creativity of black women throughout America's history, as told through the stories (and often, the very words) of hundreds of individual women from all eras and all classes. But it's more than simply a list of "women of achievement." It redefines the narrative of American history by including a viewpoint long neglected. Give this one to your daughter...or to your mom. Order at

Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith, Eds. All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies. Feminist Press, 1986. Essays, bibliographies and more. Order at

Christian, Charles M and Sari J. Bennett. Black Saga : The African American Experience : A Chronology. Packed with little-known facts about early African American history, plus hundreds of images. Order at

Stewart, Jeffrey C. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History. New York: Doubleday, 1997. This is a hard one to put down once you start reading. Comprehensive, easy to read, and an "Aha! I never knew that!" on every page. I especially appreciate the way he drops in lists of significant books, plays or films of various time periods. Order at

New York Public Library African American Desk Reference; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York: Wiley, 1999. An indispensable reference book when you're looking for a quick piece of information. No library should be without this one. Order at

Dance, Daryl Cumber. From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore. New York NY: Norton, 2003. Order at

For most people, the term "folklore" probably conjures the image of songs and stories, but as Daryl Cumber Dance illustrates, it's much more than that. It's about quilts and the history they embody. It's about hair styles, dress, food, traditions of marching bands, sermons, speeches...even internet rumors and graffiti. As one chapter is headed, it's about "The Style of Soul." Start at any topic that piques your interest, and I promise, you'll find it impossible to put this book down. There are surprises around every corner...for example, I was delighted to find a low fat recipe for greens! This vast, rich book belongs in every library.

Stange, Maren. Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures 1941-1943. New York NY: New Press, 2004. Order at

In the 1940s, the federal government sent two gifted photographers, Russell Lee and Edwin Rosskam, to Chicago's South Side, where they eventually produced over a thousand documentary images of "Bronzeville's "life. This unprecedented coverage of a black urban community has largely gone unpublished. I first skimmed this book simply to enjoy the 120 compelling photographs...that alone would have been enough for the money. But then add the text, which includes original essays and contemporary accounts from Richard Wright, and you'll feel you've time traveled. I've read about the Great Migration, but this book lives it.

Chicago was the "black capital" in the 1940's, having supplanted Harlem as the center of black culture and nationalism. It was home to notables like Joe Lewis, Thomas A. Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Ebony Magazine and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. But the most arresting images and stories here are about the everyday people, ranging from grim images of the overcrowded slums to the more joyful life: a crowd watching the orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom, kids lined up in front of the movie theater, the Easter Parade outside Pilgrim Baptist. The book is divided into four parts: House & Home, Work, Church, Going Out.

One of the original essays discusses the fact that during the time period, most white media images of blacks perpetuated negative stereotypes, while many black photographers strove to counter this with "the strongest possible contrast to such representation." Which makes this collection even more important in that it presents such a wide range of people and situations, without trying to support an agenda. The photographers simply captured life. This book should be a part of every photography and African American history collection.

A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement. Jim Carrier. Harcourt Books, 2004. Order at

This book is fascinating even if you never leave home. It's both a travel guide and a reference for anyone wanting to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. But it's not limited to modern times; like many historians, the author takes the view that the struggle for civil rights began the moment the first enslaved African set foot on these shores and tried to break free. And it continued anywhere that people fought for dignity and equality. Consequently, the sites described here include sites of slave rebellions, legal battles, Underground Railroad safe houses, historically black colleges, churches, museums...even the minor league stadium in Florida where Jackie Robinson broke through the color line.

I particularly enjoyed the author's honest and opinionated style. Black history has been overshadowed by white interpretation for a very long time, even in locations where the majority population was black. Visit a Southern plantation and you will learn about the lifestyle of the owners, but very little about the slaves who made that lifestyle possible. You may ogle the beautiful handcrafted furniture, yet never be told that a black artisan created it. He notes that much depends on which particular docent you end up with. Regarding Monticello, he says '...some guides more comfortable with the old Jefferson story of his inventions and quirks acknowledge the Hemings affair in clipped tones. Others discuss it volubly.'

Women are equally represented here. For example, he notes that the Montgomery bus boycott was Jo Ann Robinson's brainchild and that a 'reluctant' Martin Luther King Jr. was brought in to head the movement the day after the Women's Political Caucus had distributed leaflets to every business and church in town. He also notes that despite black women's long history of struggle for civil rights, the male leadership refused to allow any to speak at the 1963 March on fact, Coretta King and other wives weren't wasn't even allowed to march with their husbands. '...after all their work and sacrifice, deliberate rebuff by male activists was unforgivable' he says. A book that belongs in every high school library!

Africana Women: Her Story Through Time. Carter, Chynthia Jacobs. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2004. Order at

This is a rich browsing book. It presents a diverse array of Africana women, from those you'd expect (images of slavery, for example, or famous people like Oprah) to those that might surprise you; my favorite features two sportingly-dressed Nebraskan women at the turn of the century, smiling broadly as they hoist some trophy-sized fish. Such everyday images of black women just aren't part of our collective memory, and it's a delight to find them here. Most of the images are half page, many are full page, making it useful for classrooms.

I'm not as thrilled with the text as I am with the images, which is rather formulaic and general, but still provides a good introduction to many topics. But several places made me pause. For example, in a section about black women as mistresses to powerful white men, we find the Jefferson/Hemings story. The text says this:

"In 1998, DNA evidence proved that Jefferson most likely sired one, if not more, of Hemings's children."

But the sidebar says this:
" Although some people still debate the issue, DNA evidence has shown that a Jefferson - it could have been Thomas's brother - fathered at least one child by Hemings."

One wonders why the sidebar vacillates by introducing "Thomas's brother" when even the research scholars at Monticello agree "The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings's children appearing in Jefferson's records."

But still, this is a useful book for libraries, as teachers will find it a useful supplement and students will find much to inspire projects and reports.


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Specific Topics & Biographies: Just some books on my shelf you might enjoy, in no particular order

 History  Art/Music/Culture/Literature   Biography  Issues  Miscellaneous: Travel, Cookbooks, etc.


New! Freedom's Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America. Myra B. Young Armstead. New York University Press, 2012 Available at

James F. Brown was born a slave in Maryland and died a free man in Upstate New York. More than a free man - he became a Master Gardener, a husband, a voter, a citizen, a respected member of his community at large and the horticultural community of the Hudson River Valley in particular. And he accomplished all of this in the pre-Civil War period.

Armstead has painstakingly teased most of his story from his 10-volume diary (covering the years 1829 - 1866.) Admittedly, in keeping with diaries of the period the journals do not reveal "secrets of the heart" so much as matter-of-fact accounts of daily goings on. But when used with other sources - and one can tell Armstead has meticulously combed through them all - the author is able to create a "historically contextualized reconstruction" of his life that makes for a fascinating story.

As the author states in her introduction, this is more than one man's story. It is a reflection upon three national struggles during the period "regarding personhood, regarding work, and regarding democratic association." This theme (combined with the fact that so much of the information about Brown is by necessity well-founded conjecture tempered with qualifiers such as "very likely" and "probably") raises the book to a more academic level, and makes me hesitate to recommend it to the general reader with an interest in horticulture.

But I can definitely recommend this book for readers interested both in African American or American Studies and horticulture. And it is a Must Read for anyone planning a trip to the Mt. Gulian Historic Site. Though their web site does have a page devoted to Brown, it really doesn't do him justice.

NEW! Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. Available at
Cameron McWhirter. Henry Holt and Company, 2011.

Nearly 5,000 black Americans were lynched between 1890 and 1960. There are two prevailing (and in a way, competing) perceptions about lynching in white communities today:

1) These were clandestine and regrettable acts perpetrated by a handful of outside agitators and "bad apples."

2) Lynching was the result of bad actions on the part of the victim. (In other words, they got what they deserved.)

This book focuses on 1919, the record-breaking year in the history of lynching and mob violence. The Tuskegee Institute recorded 83 lynchings during what James Weldon Johnson called "the Red Summer." But 1919 also stands out because it marks the first time that blacks - including WWI veterans and the newly formed NAACP - fought back in the streets, in the courts and through the political process.

What made 1919 so racially volatile? McWhirter traces several themes throughout the book, including:
- the "Red Scare." in which government officials assumed a connection of black politicalization to radicalization;
- the aftermath of WWI, which led black veterans to expect the same freedoms for which they'd fought overseas, and which created a backlash of hate and fear from the white community;
- the Great Migration which saw thousands of blacks flee the South, only to encounter racism and violence in the North as well.

The economic advancement of blacks in the post-slavery era also threatened whites - it's interesting to note how frequently a mere rumor of black misbehavior (like a black man having spoken to a white woman) would provoke mobs to destroy black-owned businesses. Sadly, I couldn't help thinking that the election of our first black president has elicited a similar though less physical racial response - "birthers" still deny he is American born, others claim he is a Socialist, and whole segments of the population would rather allow the economy to collapse than endure the success of a black president.

McWhirter - a journalist - guides us through that year with an engaging narrative style firmly rooted in extensive and well-sourced research. Not surprisingly, newspapers figure prominently in his narrative, creating a sense of immediacy which makes this book difficult to put down. Highly recommended - a book I'd like to see on every library's shelf.

NEW! Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC Available at
Editors: Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, Dorothy M. Zellner
University of Illinois Press, 2010

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was the cutting edge of the Civil Rights Movement. Born out of the student sit-ins that erupted on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro North Carolina, within months thousands of students across the south were engaged in similar non-violent protests against racial segregation, risking their lives in the process. But it was far from a spontaneous uprising; the organizers (though mostly college age) were well trained and deeply committed to building a grassroots movement within the communities of the Deep South, working with local people to bring about change.

This well-organized book shares the personal narratives of 52 women - northern and southern, young and old, urban and rural, black, white and Latina - who served on the front lines of freedom. The narratives are grouped by regional movements, and also by themes such as issues of personal identity.

There are similarities found in some of the narratives - for example, many relate terrifying encounters with the Klan and the public authorities who were supposed to protect them, beatings and deprivations in jail, but also love and overwhelming support from local people who lifted them up, fed them, and sheltered them to the best of their ability in the Jim Crow south. One recurring theme that touched me deeply was how many of these women were just girls, often the first in their family to attend college, terrified not only of being murdered in the Deep South but equally terrified about disappointing their parents by postponing (or sometimes being expelled from) college. Some recount having broken bonds with family which were never mended.

But beyond these similarities each woman’s story is related through a very personal lens. In fact, they are so intensely personal and compelling that at times I couldn’t stop reading, and at other times I had to look away because I was overwhelmed. I especially appreciated the biographical notes, and was heartened by how many of these women continued to work for freedom and peace in some capacity throughout their lives, many as teachers, organizers and activists.

As I write this review, Memorial Day is just around the corner. I hope I live to see the day that veterans of the Civil Rights Movement are honored for their valiant service to this country in the cause of true freedom and democracy. They are heroes and deserve to be honored as such, but it’s now over 50 years later, and time is running out. This book should be on every public library shelf, and I think it would make an inspiring gift for a daughter heading off to college.

Related: American Experience: Freedom Riders Available at
120 minutes
PBS 2011

The powerful harrowing and ultimately inspirational story of six months in 1961 that changed America forever. From May until November 1961 more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South.

Jack, Bryan M. The St. Louis African American Community and the Exodusters. University of Missouri Press, 2008. Read more and Order at

When Reconstruction ended in 1877, blacks in the South were in some ways worse off than they’d been before the Civil War. Though slavery as it had been known was now illegal, Southerners found new ways to subjugate black Americans through fear, intimidation, forced labor and murder. For many Freedmen, the only glimmer of hope for a reasonable life was elsewhere, in a more tolerant and progressive area such as Kansas.

An unorganized mass exodus began in 1879, and thousands of mostly penniless refugees began arriving in St. Louis as their first stop. The city, while not exactly progressive or tolerant, did have a thriving, established and educated African American community (and some white allies) who sought to aid the Exodusters. As the title of the book indicates, this is the primary focus of this study, though other supporting threads are also explored and help place the story in context.

It’s not a simple story; within the African American community and among their white allies there were different ideas about what the goals were and exactly how best to accomplish them. Powerful personalities sometimes clashed and even lost sight of the goals. As the flood grew, some began to question whether the Exodusters might be better served by going back home, or being discouraged from leaving in the first place. (Frederick Douglass opposed the Exodus on several grounds, and rebuffed appeals for assistance.) Unfortunately some black citizens even abused their trust. But all in all, most of St. Louis’ black citizens understood they had a stake in all this, too; they were taking a stand for civil rights, for the freedom of movement. And perhaps depriving the South of its cheap/free labor force would force it to change.

Tightly written and highly readable, I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in St. Louis history, as well as to those interested in African American studies.

Arcadia Publishing Black History Series

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Arcadia Publishing’s Black America Series is worth millions. Each title in the series (currently 82 and growing) focuses on a region or theme, and is written by a local history buff with an obvious passion for their subject. Each is packed with 200 photographs depicting scenes from family, social, business, cultural, religious and political life, with narrative to place them in context. Many of the photos are from private collections and the archives of black newspapers.

The power of making visible what was formerly invisible cannot be overestimated. I have personally reviewed three titles and recommend them all: ANOTHER ANN ARBOR by Carol Gibson and Lola M. Jones, CINCINNATI by Gina Ruffin Moore, and KANSAS CITY by Delia C. Gillis.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African American History and its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2006. Read more and Order at

The past isn't what it used to be.

That's one of the threads which runs throughout this engaging narrative of African American history from 1619 to the present. Too often students misconstrue history as being carved in stone but as this book illustrates - literally, for it includes nearly 150 works of art which provide comment upon on historical events - interpretations of the past change as new facts come to light, or are viewed through a more diverse lens and connected to current events. For example, Painter frequently uses the word "terrorist" when referring to white supremacists who have used violence to limit the rights and economic development of black Americans for centuries. It's a word which is not only appropriate, but more meaningful to contemporary students.

Though not an art history book per se (it does not provide analysis of the art, only descriptions which place it in historical context) there is biographical information about each artist at the end of the book. Engaging and highly readable, I recommend this book to anyone seeking a general overview of African American history and culture. I think it would be particularly useful as a text for high school Advanced Placement courses.

New in Paperback! Buchanan, Thomas C. Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, free blacks and the western steamboat world. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Read more and Order at

Having grown up back in a day when we were taught Antebellum life was a monolithic experience for African Americans, books like this - opening an entirely new door on that era - always fascinate me even though by now, I know better. For example, who knew that some slaves hired themselves out on steamboats for a few weeks or months with no intention of escaping, but simply as respite from the hardships of plantation life?

The title is obviously a play on Mark Twain's nostalgic memoir. Though Buchanan does find some similarities between Twain's liberating experience of the Great River and the opportunities afforded African Americans by the western rivers - for example, mind broadening mobility, communication networks, accumulation of assets by both slave and free persons through labor or trade, and of course, escape routes for fugitives - he notes the dark side absent from steamboat nostalgia is the fact that the horrible "Second Middle Passage" broke up families and transported thousands of slaves in deplorable conditions into the Deep South.

Whether exploring the lives and culture of steamboat workers, free black travelers, abolitionists or scoundrels, the author draws upon the experiences and observations of many individuals through a variety of primary and secondary sources (including slave narratives and travel accounts) demonstrating how multifarious and uncategorizable the experiences of these men and women were. Even many of the laws and customs attempting to control black movement were circumvented in this fluid economy.

Buchanan's writing is concise, and his narrative flows smoothly. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in maritime history as well as those interested in African American Studies.

Ifill, Sherrilyn A. On the Courthouse Lawn: confronting the legacy of lynching in the Twenty-first Century. Beacon Press, 2007. Read more and Order at

In the aftermath of Michael Richards' racist meltdown in 2006, I found it curious that outrage focused primarily on his spewing of the n-word, whereas his casual reference to his alleged heckler being a candidate for lynching not long ago drew comparatively little comment in the white media. Then again, perhaps it's not surprising. Nearly 5,000 black Americans were lynched between 1890 and 1960, and the prevailing perception in white communities is of clandestine acts perpetrated by a handful of outside agitators and "bad apples." But in reality, as Sherrilyn Ifill clearly documents, lynchings were public spectacles, community events cheered on by large crowds of people from all walks of life - often quite literally on the courthouse lawn, and photographed for posterity. The conspiracy of silence (or "passive postlynching complicity") ensured that not a single perpetrator was ever brought to justice for the heinous crimes, and white supremacy was reinforced.

In the first part of the book, Ifill lays a foundation by exploring the history of lynchings and near lynchings on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1930's, and discusses the legacy of this racial trauma on both white and black communities. The second part examines techniques for racial reconciliation and reparation, including those of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and suggests a roadmap for communities interested in restorative justice, which requires honest and open communication not only among races but within them.

A civil rights lawyer and professor, Ifill's writing is clear, concise and compelling. This is more like a conversation with a friend than a lecture from a professor, and despite the painful subject matter, I found it hard to put down. Highly recommended!

Kaufman, Will. The Civil War in American Culture. Edinburgh University Press, 2006. Read more and Order at

This slim volume covers a LOT of territory. It explores and analyzes the pervasive influence of the American Civil War (or as it's known in some quarters, the War of Northern Aggression) on many aspects of culture, including literature, film, music, marketing, video games...and even overseas. It covers so much territory in fact, that it's difficult to sum up in a review, so I'll just hit a few things which stand out in my mind.

It explores the roots of notions like "plantation nostalgia" (those good old days of happy slaves, the foundation of "Gone With the Wind" and "Song of the South") which were planted in the Antebellum years and grew to fruition during Reconstruction and after.I particularly enjoyed the chapter on "Abe Lincoln's Mixed Reviews," which not only pits Lincoln's supporters against his detractors, but demonstrates how various politicians have called upon his spirit over the years to justify their actions or vilify others. (Or as the author puts it, the "What Would Lincoln Do?" syndrome.) The chapter "Rebels, Inc." examines how Confederate images and icons have sold everything from whiskey to country music and t-shirts, and more subversively, the vision that "Southerner" doesn't include African Americans, even though in many cities they are the majority. The chapter on Civil War re-enactors helped me understand how these folks manage to completely avoid any of the contentious political dimensions of the war, while focusing instead on authenticity of food, dress, weaponry, etc. Other topics include the cultural uses of martyrdom, the centrality of race and slavery, the War's destabilization of gender norms, and alternative histories...that is, "What would have happened if the South had won?"

In short, I'm guessing this is NOT a book your uncle the Civil War buff will enjoy. But it's required reading for anyone interested in topics of race and/or culture in the U.S.

Knupfer, Anne Meis. The Chicago Black Renaissance and Women's Activitism. Univeristy of Illinois Press, 2006. Read more and Order at

The Chicago Black Renaissance was a revitalization of black expressive arts and community activism rooted in a pan-African identity which blossomed during the 1930's to the 1960's in Chicago's "Black Belt" - or, as residents preferred, "Bronzeville." It was also a tumultuous period in which longtime urban black Chicagoans were faced with assimilating thousands of rural migrants from the South.

The lens through which Knupfer examines the Renaissance is women's activism: as club members and individuals, as reformers of schools and libraries, builders of art and community centers, ministers, writers, politicians and more. They were highly successful in some areas; for example, the nation's oldest WPA arts center, South Side Community Art Center, continues to offer classes and host exhibitions, while the "Special Negro Section" begun in 1932 by the first black librarian in the Chicago Public Library system has evolved in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History & Literature, one of the largest collections of African American historical documents in the nation. But the book also explores the failures and disappointments, which can be instructive to contemporary activists.

One of the most fascinating chapters for me was "Women's Activism in Public Housing" which explores the neglected topic of women's involvement in tenant associations and other public housing groups.

This is a groundbreaking book, but as the author asserts, there is much more research yet to be done. In aid of this she suggests dissertation topics and provides two resources in the appendices: an annotated list of more than 200 women whose names are found in local black newspapers, archives and bibliographic sources, and a list of Chicago Black Southside community organizations and their addresses, 1930-1960. I'd recommend this engaging and highly readable book to those interested in Chicago history in general, and Women's or African American studies in particular.

Glave, Dianne D. and Mark Stoll, Editors. To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

It's a popular assumption that black people aren't "environmentalists," but what is meant by this? That black people lack proportional representation in mainstream environmental organizations like the Sierra Club? That black people are more concerned about civil rights than they are about endangered species? That they don't go camping? And if so...why?

American environmental history as a field took shape in the late 1960's, but as this book illustrates, viewing that history through the lens of race or gender is relatively new. This diverse collection of articles by historians, social scientists and environmentalists broadens both our understanding of the word "environment" and the relationship of African Americans to it. For example, historical articles explore how slaves interacted with nature (including hunting, fishing, gardening and working "in the pines" of the turpentine industry), blacks and outdoor recreation, and the "suburban passage." Others address contemporary issues of Environmental Justice, a movement which concerns itself less with wilderness preservation and more with people-centered environmental issues such as the exposure of low-income people to hazardous waste, and the societal forces which make them more likely to be in harm's way. Two articles look specifically at black women's activism during the Progressive Era.

With one or two jargon-heavy exceptions, I think most of the articles will be accessible to lay readers as well as academics. I especially liked Martin V. Melosi's "Environmental Justice, Ecoracism and Environmental History" and Carl Anthony's "Reflections on the Purposes and Meanings of African American Environmental History," the latter of which could serve equally well as an introduction. This groundbreaking book raises as many questions as it answers, and will surely stimulate further scholarship in this important field of study. I'd recommend it for readers interested in American History, African American Studies or Environmental Studies.

Farrow, Anne, Joel Lang & Jenifer Frank. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery. Ballentine Books, 2005. Read more at

A substantial portion of America's wealth - even today - is directly attributable to the slavery. This book debunks the myth of the Virtuous North vs Evil South, and presents a wealth of photographs, broadsides and documents to illustrate how and why the entire nation depended upon and benefited from the system. Teacher's Guide

Berg, Manfred. The Ticket to Freedom: The NAACP and the Struggle for Black Political Integration. University Press of Florida, 2005. Read more and Order at

Despite its long history at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, no one has yet written a comprehensive history of the NAACP, largely because it would be impossible to do so in a single volume. In TICKET TO FREEDOM, Manfred Berg focuses on the NAACP's struggle for the right to vote, from its founding in 1909 until the early 1970's. Along the way, he addresses many of the criticisms (and myths) surrounding the organization: is it a grassroots or "top down" organization? Did it embrace anticommunism to the detriment of the movement? Did it simply create a "racial spoils system" which ensured privileges for those who did not need them?

You'll have to read the book yourself to find the answers, but rest assured that will be smooth sailing. Berg's narrative style is fluid and compelling, revealing a resourceful and dynamic organization which has done much to open up the electoral process to greater black participation.

Bigham, Darrel E. On Jordan's Banks: Emancipation and it's Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley. University Press of Kentucky, 2005. Read more and Order at

Each morning when he was a boy growing up along the banks of the Ohio River, my dad used to row across to a small farm on the Kentucky side to buy milk. Though the maps in our childhood history books portrayed the river as a nearly impenetrable boundary between North and South, ON JORDAN'S BANKS reveals its true nature as more of a superhighway by comparatively studying African American life in the Ohio River Valley as a region. The book covers the period from 1861 - 1890 (and a bit beyond to the Great Depression in the epilogue.)

Drawing primarily on secondary sources, Bigham finds surprising similarities between the north and south shores during both the antebellum and postwar eras. He explores the wide ranging forms slavery (and freedom) took in various areas...for example, it seems that some slaves in Louisville possessed greater liberties than some free blacks in Cincinnati. He examines the development of churches, schools (both integrated and segregated), benevolent societies and the social strata within black communities and across racial lines. He explores the evolution of free labor. And he shows that the fight for civil rights and suffrage knew no boundaries.

At times I felt statistics stalled the narrative, but this is a minor complaint and I'm not sure it could have been handled differently; there is simply an overwhelming amount of information packed into this fascinating book. I recommend it to Ohio River history buffs as well as to African American Studies.


Cobb, James C. The Brown Decision, Jim Crow & Southern Identity. University of Georgia Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

The fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004 brought forth a plethora of related media. In addition to the tributes, there were also dismissive and negative revisionist histories claiming, for example, that Brown had no impact at all, or worse, that it actually interrupted and delayed the inevitable process of desegregation already unfolding in the South following WWII.

James C. Cobb (Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia) responds to what he sees as distortions of Brown's legacy with scholarly guns a'blazing in this series of lectures presented for the Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures . In the first chapter, he makes quick work of the revisionists' claims that Jim Crow teetered on the brink of collapse by 1954. The second chapter challenges writers who claim that Brown's contribution to civil rights progress was ultimately less significant than its role in energizing white resistance to it. The final chapter argues that Brown and the ensuing civil rights movement accomplished more than its critics acknowledge, not insignificantly by allowing blacks the opportunity to embrace their identity as southerners. He examines the current trend of black migration to the south, as well as the trend to self-segregate not merely by race, but economic class.

His writing is clear, concise and engaging, his research rock solid and his attitude unabashedly liberal. I appreciated the inclusion of his personal observations as a white Southerner growing up under Jim Crow. And he doesn't mince words; in the final chapter he notes that dismay with the civil rights movement could be due in part to expectations. He writes "Many black and white liberals assumed that removing racial constraints on opportunity would somehow produce an unending stream of Alice Walkers but never a Condoleezza Rice." (Or, for that matter, a Clarence Thomas.) This slim volume packs a wallop, and is must reading for anyone interested in Brown in particular, or Jim Crow in general.

Pierce, Richard B. Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970. Indiana University Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

Much has been written about the Great Migration, and the evolution of African American protest in Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit. But the African American community developed differently in Indianapolis than in places farther north. Indianapolis already had a sizable black community during its formative years, making African Americans an integral part of the city-building process even though they occupied different strata within the city. When compared to other African American communities in neighboring states, they routinely outpaced them in quality of life measures such as educational advancement and home ownership.

The author argues that this investment in the city’s political economy caused the black community to protect the status quo, eschewing violent protest and mass demonstrations when white civic leaders started to increase segregation measures shortly after WWI. (For example, Indianapolis had integrated secondary schools until 1927, when the school board created an all-black high school.) They instead chose forms of“polite protest,” such as negotiation and coalition building.

The author examines five examples of this “polite protest,” ranging from high school basketball to housing and work opportunities. He concludes that while the African American community did manage to hold some ground, they were unable to increase their fortunes once the wall of segregation was securely established. As he states, “...I am not dismissive of the protest strategies...but I remain critical of their choices...”

Clearly and concisely written , this book is an important contribution to urban studies.

Black, Timuel D. Jr. Bridges of Memory: Chicago's First Wave of Black Migration. Northwestern Univeristy Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

In 1988, Timuel Black began to record and preserve the recollections of people who had lived in Chicago a long time, particularly the first generation of the Great Migration. When he wrote the introduction to this book, he had recorded over 125 conversations and still had “many , many more people with whom I would like to speak.” Forty of those conversations are presented here, with two more volumes planned to follow.

The interviews are conducted using the “participant observer” technique, and since Dr. Black - a long time resident himself - is an “insider” these interviews are essentially honest, intimate conversations among old friends, many of whom have now passed. As Dr. Black makes clear, this book is not intended to be a history of Black Chicago and its institutions, but rather a collection of oral memories from people who participated in shaping those institutions. His field work provides invaluable data for future researchers attempting to compile that history.

If this book contained nothing more than the biographical information about each of the 40 interviewees, it would make fascinating reading. But the interviews bring each of them vividly to life. We meet people from all walks, including civil servants, educators, politicians, jazz musicians, railroad workers, business people, even two generations of South Side Chicago represented by by mother and daughter Mildred Bowden and Hermene Hartman. Some, like George Johnson, tell a story of “from rags to riches.” Others fall into a category of “just keep on keepin’ on.”

All are riveting reading. I look forward to the next two volumes!

White, Shane and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech. Beacon Press, 2005. Includes 18-track CD.Read more and Order at

In West African tradition, sound making is functional, part and parcel of daily life, integral to most activities: working,, celebrating, praying, mourning, placating, criticizing or just passing time. It's a tradition that was carried to the New World on slave ships, a tradition which enthralled, amused, repelled or even terrified white listeners...often simultaneously. This book goes beyond the music created by enslaved Africans/African Americans (such as work songs and spirituals) to explore other forms of sound expression (including sermons, drumming, field hollers and storytelling) placed within a historical context to create a soundscape of African American slave life from the 1700's to the 1850's.

The written sources generally fall into two broad categories: the written observations of whites (letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles by travelers, missionaries, even slave owners themselves) and the testimony of former slaves collected by the WPA Federal Writer's Project during the 1930's. With only three exceptions, the sound sources on the 18-track CD are field recordings by John, Ruby and/or Alan Lomax from the late 1930's. By that point, the sounds had been "tainted" by pop culture (many are the times I have tracked down one of my father's rural childhood favorites from the 1920's, only to discover that this "old folk song" his grandma sang was actually an 1890's parlor tune) but alas, this is as close as we're going to get to listening in on a time which preceded sound reproduction devices. And as there are few things more frustrating than trying to understand sound by reading about it, the CD alone would be worth the price of the book.

The book is written in a nonlinear style, perhaps reflecting the subject matter which is itself quilt-like: slaves were constantly creating and recreating from the sound materials at hand, materials which often were not even recognized as such by white listeners. This nonlinear style could make the book a bit difficult to use for reference purposes, but fortunately it is well indexed. This fascinating soundscape is recommended for anyone interested in African American music in general, or the era of slavery in particular.

Ward, Thomas J., Jr. Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South. University of Arkansas Press, 2003. Read more and Order at

When author Thomas Ward first set out to write this history, he received a gentle but fortuitous dope slap from one of his early interviewees. When asked what it was like to be a black physician in the South in the late 1950's, Dr. Page replied, "I don't know, but I can tell you what it was like to be Matthew Page." Thus Ward avoids the common trap of trying to homogenize experiences which were actually quite diverse.

Which is not to say he doesn't explore common threads, such as the rise and fall of black medical colleges, the policies of philanthropists and the AMA which excluded black doctors from pursuing specialities and research, their social status - or lack thereof - in the Southern black and white communities, their exclusion from residencies, medical societies, denial of hospital privileges, etc. But individual motivations, educations, and practices varied widely, as did race commitment. Class consciousness caused some to exploit members of the black lower classes (e.g.. black doctors participated in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment up until it was shut down in the 1970's) while it motivated others to work to uplift the underprivileged black masses. Some used a medical degree as their ticket out of the South altogether, while others became the pillars of their community.

This book is a welcome addition to our growing awareness of how Jim Crow's legacy continues to have consequences for the entire nation. It's of interest to medical history buffs as well as African American studies.

Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. University of Kentucky Press, 2004. Order at

Even though I know better, like most people, the term "Underground Railroad" conjures the image of white folks rescuing hapless black folks. Griffler believes this is partly because historians have focused too much on the "Railroad" (with its mostly white conductors and stations) and not enough on the "Underground." Without diminishing the interacial aspects, Griffler documents how African American communities created and utilized a vast underground front-line network decades before there was much white involvement. As he states, "Even at its height the Underground Railroad did not entice African Americans to escape; rather, the loosely organized support operation was formed in response to the constant stream of fugitives."

In addition to introducing black freedom fighters like John Parker (a former slave who built a prosperous business in Ripley, Ohio and worked from that base) Griffler crosschecks letters, reminiscences and oral histories against contemporary scholarship to explore the inner workings and attitudes of various participants and societies, providing a fascinating new perspective on things we thought we knew.

In less skilled hands, this book could have been an unwieldy tome, but Griffler packs a wallop in a slim volume. His writing is concise, his narrative smooth, and God bless him, he never belabors a point. I easily rank this as my #1 book of the year, for general readers and academics alike.

Boyd , Herb, with Ossie Davis ,Ruby Dee. We Shall Overcome: The History of the Civil Rights Movement As It Happened (Book with 2 Audio CDs) Order at

Witness the courageous and controversial stories that defined America's civil rights movement. An entire generation of Americans faced the lynching of teenager Emmett Till, the murder of four girls at church, and the denial of basic liberties like voting rights, equal education and political representation. This is their story. We Shall Overcome is a gripping chronicle of the words and voices of the civil rights movement. From stirring speeches to the voices of hate, this collection brings to life the battle for justice and equality that shook America to its core. We Shall Overcome brings you there--from the schools to the sit-ins, from Little Rock to Selma, from the pulpit to the marches.

American Book Award winning author Herb Boyd tells the dramatic stories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Ella Baker and activist groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Black Panthers.

Billington, Monroe Lee and Roger D. Hardaway, eds. African Americans on the Western Frontier. University Press of Colorado, 1998/ Paperback 2001. Read more and Order at

This book of 14 essays conveys various aspects of the African American experience in the West from 1850 until the end of the Frontier Era, approximately 1912. The topics include slavery in the West, Reconstruction on the frontier, all-black towns, women, Buffalo Soldiers, black miners, cowboys, newspapers and more. In addition to numerous illustrations, the book includes a bibliographic essay detailing the numerous books and articles written in recent years, and the Appendix has the African American population by state for the period covered.

Payne, Charles M. and Adam Green, Editors. Time Longer Than A Rope: A Century of African American Activism, 1850-1950. NYU Press, 2003. Order at

As every American learns in elementary school, after having been rescued from slavery by the Union Army during the Civil War, Black people waited nearly a decade before starting to fight for their civil rights under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. This book of 16 outstanding essays (which ends where most people think the Civil Rights movement began!) goes a long way towards correcting this horrendous error in our national "remembering," demonstrating that Blacks began their struggle for freedom and human dignity the moment the first slaves arrived here in bondage.

Some authors deal specifically with the process of creating (and sanitizing) collective memory, our experience of the past (memory) vs how we organize it (history.) For example, the mere title of Peter Wood's "Slave Labor Camps in Early America" puts a new spin on our romanticised image of the genteel Plantation. Scott Sandage's "A Marble House Divided" explores the political life of the Lincoln Memorial as a "memory site." Other essays focus a critical lens on specific episodes, such as the rise of Black radicalism in the South immediately following the Civil War, the voter registration movement in Florida 1919-1920, or intellectual pan-African feminism embodied by the first and second wives of Marcus Garvey. A thought provoking and much needed collection.

Jones, Edward P. The Known World. New York: HarperCollins, 2003 (Fiction) Order at

Set mostly in the period of 1830-50, this rich and impressively researched novel revolves around the death of a black Virginia farmer and slaveholder Henry Townsend, himself a former slave. (While many blacks owned slaves in name only, eg. when a free man bought his wife out of slavery, there were instances of affluent free blacks with rather large economic stakes in the system. For example, John C. Stanly of New Bern, North Carolina owned 163 slaves.) The book is written in a non-linear style which is challenging at first...imagine yourself as a leaf tumbling down a stream, sometimes hurtling forward, yet frequently caught in little swirling eddies along the edges. If you relax and "go with the flow" rather than expecting this book to read as you would wish, you will find it to be an astounding and seductive experience on several levels.

The viewpoint of this book is equally fluid; through some magic, Jones has you viewing life through the eyes of whichever character he's currently focused upon. There are terrible, ugly, beautiful, sad, heartwarming things that happen constantly throughout this book and somehow, you are always identifying through the protagonist of the moment, whether this be a slave or a slave patroller, frightening as that might be. There is no melodrama here. Somehow, everything is just taken for granted, is, after all, their known world. And, for a brief time, ours as well. We can look back today with the smugness of time and condemn slavery and its consequential perverse social structurings. Yet a book like this makes one question our own "known world," the social structures and cultural practices we take for granted and assume we are powerless to change.

Hagedorn, Ann. Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Order at

As a child growing up in Cincinnati, I often heard vague stories about the Underground Railroad, about houses along the Ohio River's edge which had secret cellars and tunnels, about some of the men and women who worked to set the slaves free. In photographs, the freedom fighters appeared old and desiccated to my child's eye, making it difficult to imagine the heroic and dangerous lives they led. This book vividly brings those heroes to life in this "War Before the War" by focusing primarily on a tiny corner of the world (Ripley, Ohio) and an abolitionist leader, John Rankin. The research is so extensive that at times, one might feel bogged down by details but then again, it was those details (especially some of the cold, hard economic ones) which made the story so real and immediate, and demonstrated the power and control the Southern states had over the nation. For example, a major concern for slavers was the fact that every escaped slave represented a loss of "capital" and they wanted somebody to pay for that. So, when the Suspension Bridge was proposed across the Ohio River between Covington and Cincinnati, it was stipulated that the bridge's owners would be financially liable for any slaves using it as a means of escape. Cincinnati is the home of the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.


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When the Church Becomes Your Party. Deborah Smith Pollard. Wayne State University Press, 2008. Read more and Order at

From its birth, gospel music has occupied a unique realm straddling the sacred and the secular. While it is God's word expressed in song, no other genre of sacred music reaches out to - and is enjoyed by - millions of people who may not even be believers. Perhaps it is because gospel music has been inextricably tied to media since the early days of radio, since both were born at about the same time. It can be an uneasy realm in which to dwell. Just as early 20th Century church goers heard the "devil's music" in the blues influenced works of Thomas A. Dorsey, many today are disconcerted by the concept of "Holy Hip Hop" and rapping preachers.

Pollard covers a lot of ground in under 200 pages, including among other things a history of gospel music, the influence and activism of female gospel announcers (who, to my surprise, have been around since the 1940's), the gospel musical stage play, the rise of praise and worship music, debates concerning what rightly belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and emerging trends like those rapping preachers.

This is unlike any other book about gospel music I've read. The fact that it is so readable and fascinating is probably due the background of author Deborah Smith Pollard. As an associate professor of English literature and humanities, she brings the requisite academic credentials. But she's not a scholar looking in from the outside; she also has a deep personal knowledge of the subject as a long time gospel announcer, church goer, choir member, concert producer and fan.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in music, religion, or African American culture.

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art. Edited by Angela D. Mack and Stephen G. Hoffius. University of South Carolina Press, 2008. Read more and Order at

As is my habit with art books, I leafed through to view the images before reading the text. The bucolic scenes transported me back to a genteel time, when American was young and rich and full of promise. Which is precisely the dilemma of plantation art. Typically hung in the landscape section of galleries, it reinforces the seductive myth of the Antebellum South as paradise lost. But in reality plantations were slave labor camps, and mostly absent from the paintings are the slaves upon whose labor the plantation rested and who, when depicted at all, are merely quaint accents or contented pets of benevolent masters.

LANDSCAPE OF SLAVERY serves as a companion to a traveling exhibit of the same name organized by the Gibbes Museum of Art and the Carolina Art Association. It explores the complex and incompatible experiences of plantation life represented in works by diverse artists, from picturesque painters such as Thomas Coram through Winslow Homer (who, as Michael D. Harris writes, appears to have been "more sensitive to different notions evoked by the word `plantation'") to Hale Woodruff whose work is full of rage.

All of the essays provide thought-provoking commentary on this complex dynamic. "Picturing the Plantation" provides an overview of the landscape tradition and the idealizing vocabulary, while "Identifying Spaces of Blackness" explores the African aesthetic found in rituals, ceremonies, dance, music and art created by slaves as a means of resistance and survival. "The Most Famous Plantation of All" about the politics and painting of Mount Vernon sent me to the internet where the web site of the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens offers this rationale for why the Father of Our Country owned human beings: "George Washington was born into a world in which slavery was accepted."

Of course, the "acceptance" of slavery depended upon ones vantage point. Ditto "nostalgia." I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in American art in general, and Southern history and culture in particular. It will definitely enrich your next visit to the landscape gallery.

Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory. Kirschke, Amy Helene. Indiana University Press, 2007. Read more and Order at

The Crisis magazine debuted in 1910 as the official voice of the NAACP. As editor for 24 years, W.E.B. Du Bois not only used words to address important issues facing African Americans, he used art to create a “visual vocabulary” to define a new collective memory and historical identity for African Americans. This book explores not only how this evolved within the pages of The Crisis, but also how Du Bois’ own complex theories about art as a tool for empowerment evolved from 1910 to 1934.

For example, the prevailing notion at the time was that civilization emanated from Greece. Images of Africa (particularly Egypt) provided insight into the African origins of Western civilization, in no small part sparked by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. But the flip side to that was primitivism, manifested in the sensual covers (with titles like “A Moorish Maid” and “A Jungle Nymph”) reflecting the romantic notion that Africa was more sexually free and, as the author puts it, that “modern sex appeal, under the guise of the primitive, was permissible.”

Du Bois believed he was “training the audience” to understand and appreciate creative work in literature and art, and used The Crisis to showcase black talent. As such, he also became a gatekeeper to the artistic world of the African American community. As the author says, “Du Bois wanted only the best and the brightest to represent the race, and he felt confident that he could judge who was ‘the best’...” Unfortunately, one wonders if he suffered a gender bias because some women artists - such as the renowned Augusta Savage - were found wanting.

The book also explores the history of black political cartoons, and an entire chapter is devoted to lynching imagery. Amply illustrated with 104 images, this is a timely book, since the centenary of The Crisis is rapidly approaching. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in African American Studies or graphic arts.

Laughing Mad: The black comic persona in Post-soul America. Bambi Haggins. Rutgers University Press, 2007 Read more and Order at

Before the modern Civil Rights era, black comedians primarily performed for black audiences, and white comedians performed for whites. But over the last 45 years - the "Post-Soul" era -black comedians have moved into the mainstream culture, and this book explores this integration process by examining the comic televisual and cinematic personae of Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg and Dave Chappelle. The chapter on Goldberg, which explores her persona through the lens of gender and crossover, also touches briefly upon the careers of Moms Mabley, Pearl Bailey and Wanda Sykes.

Black comedians are in an untenable position. Unlike white performers, who can play a buffoon without fear of being criticized for perpetuating minstrelsy, black performers "represent" so every joke, every career choice, even personal relationships are scrutinized by both supporters and detractors and usually found wanting: too black or not black enough, Keepin' It Real or not. As Chris Rock stated in a New York Times interview, "... journalists start analyzing it and talking to me like I'm Kwesi Mfume. I don't need that gig. All I care about is being funny."

And a problem arises when attempting to mainstream material developed for black audiences, material which is often self deprecating and which, when removed from the privacy and security of the black enclave and put on display for the entertainment of whites, can be received and enjoyed in a racist way, or criticized as "airing dirty laundry." When discussing why he terminated his show, Dave Chappelle summed it up to Oprah as discomfort over "the white guy laughing" a little too loudly at, rather than with, humorous aspects of black culture.

Such struggles are at the heart of this study; in fact, the author says the question which inspired it arose at the late show of "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" when she contemplated some frat boys in the audience and wondered " I know what I'm laughing at, but what are you laughing at?"

As the author states, "Comedy is a powerful discoursive tool" and this study provides many thought provoking insights and raises even more questions. The book is written primarily for academics, and lay readers might find the jargon challenging at times but I still recommend it to them. It prompted me to make several trips to the video store in order to view some unfamiliar material but more importantly, to view some familiar material again in a new light. Recommended for anyone interested in media, African American or American Studies.

Allmendinger, Blake. Imagining the African American West. University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

Unlike previous studies which documented the roles played by African Americans in the preindustrial "sepia-tinged" frontier West (Cowboys, Buffalo Soldiers, Exodusters, etc.) this is the first comprehensive study of the literature created by African Americans reflecting experiences in the modern, urban, multicultural West as well. Consequently, it covers a lot of territory and genres: Black westerns, melodramas, autobiographies, science fiction, detective fiction, experimental theater and even rap.

The study is limited to "works by African Americans who represent the experience of living in the American West" as opposed to those who were simply born or raised there. Even that boundary is by necessity rather fluid, which is exactly what makes the premise of this book so interesting. In addition to turning over new ground, Allmendinger helps readers view old ground through a new lens. The key word in the title is "Imagining" and I think the author himself has taken an imaginative approach which will appeal particularly to students of American culture.

Holloway, Joseph E. ed. Africanisms in American Culture, Second Edition. Indiana University Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

The first edition of this book (published in 1990) has stood as an important work in the field of diaspora studies for the past decade, and now the revised, expanded edition reflects the considerable changes in the field, exploring both West and Central African carryovers in America.

"Africanisms" are elements of culture in the New World which can be traced to an African origin. The study of Africanisms is not without controversy, and editor Holloway details its historiography in his introduction.

Fourteen essays by eleven contributors explore African elements in African American language, names, religious practices, music, artistic culture and folklore. Two essays focus specifically on the Gullah, and several others reference them. "The African Heritage of White America" by John Edward Philips (revised for this edition) discusses ways African culture has influenced whites, especially in Southern culture. What I found particularly intriguing was the idea that the basic elements of some "white Africanisms" have pretty much vanished from black culture. For example, though the banjo is of African origin, it is associated today almost entirely with white performers, specifically Appalachian.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in American culture, though I think it will appeal more to academic readers than general ones.

Rainbow Round My Shoulder: The Blue Trail of Black Ulysses by Howard W. Odum and Steven C. Tracy. Indiana University Press, 2006. Read more and Order at

Howard W. Odum was a pioneering sociologist and folklorist who, as Steven C. Tracy states in his introduction, "...served as a starting point and impetus for studies of African American folklore since the time of his earliest folklore publications in 1909..." RAINBOW ROUND MY SHOULDER: The Blue Trail of the Black Ulysses is the first novel of a trilogy which mines African American folklore to create the narrative of a marginalized folk hero John Wesley "Left Wing" Gordon as he travels the country, fights in WWI, and eventually returns to the South. As such, it's a document of a time and place and perhaps even a state of mind in American history, an interracial exchange between African American folk culture, a white scholar and the classics. First published in 1928, RAINBOW is well worth reexamining today.

This reexamination is greatly aided by Tracy's fine introduction (nearly one quarter of this edition), which discusses the trilogy in particular and Odum's work in general, including reviews from contemporary authors and scholars. He includes an Odum chronology, bibliograpy, and in the notes for the introduction, a discography for many of the songs referenced in the novel, which will prove an asset for instructors using an interdisciplinary approach.

Nicholls, David G. ed. Harlem Calling: The collected stories of George Wylie Henderson. University of Michigan Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

George Wylie Henderson (1904-1965) is best known as the author of OLLIE MISS. Though both a critical and popular success during his lifetime, he has languished among academics as a "minor novelist." Editor Nicholls speculates that "Henderson's individualist ethos and his debt to Booker T. Washington" would not have appealed to the black aesthetic and feminist movements of the 1960's and '70's when the canon of the Harlem Renaissance was being solidified. A migrant to Harlem from Alabama with a Tuskegee education, he also arrived on the scene a bit late.

Collected here for the first time are sixteen stories which originally appeared in mainstream publications: nine from the Daily News, and seven published in Redbook. The editorial parameters of each publication make the two sets of stories quite different in terms of length, style, and to some extent, subject matter. But all of the stories - whether set in the rural South or in Harlem - are compelling, simple and well-crafted, bringing characters to life in a way which reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston.

Which is not to say these are simple characters, caught as some are in the social upheaval of the Great Migration. For example, in the title story, Henderson tangibly, poignantly captures the ambivalence of the young bride Obelia, who has one foot planted in the "new world" and the other equally rooted in the old.

This brief collection left me wanting more. According to a catalog found in Henderson's papers, there were at least fifteen additional stories but sadly, they're unpublished and lost. Which makes this collection even more of a treasure!

Ward, Brian. Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South. University Press of Florida, 2004. Read more and Order at

Much has been said and written about how television raised the veil on Jim Crow - for example, the fact that stark images of police brutality against African Americans were broadcast into homes around the nation. But before television, Americans connected with the world via radio, and Jim Crow lacked the power to segregate what came over the airwaves.

Ward explores the myriad ways network and local radio were used to advance the cause of Civil Rights and racial uplift, from obvious uses such as announcements of protests and rallies, to more subtle image enhancing programs such as “homemaker shows” (which might have served double duty by helping to create the collective female consciousness so crucial to the movement.)

Ward neither presents nor defends a monolithic image of black vs white radio owners, producers, on-air personalities or even consumers. Throughout the book, in various towns and sometimes even at the same station, we meet some professionals of both races dedicated to the cause, and others dedicated to the bottom line. We meet listeners who are tuning in for news of the struggle and others who just want to be entertained. Sometimes they got both at the same time.

It’s rare to find a book which is both exhaustively researched AND enjoyable to read. I can obviously recommend it to anyone interested in African American Studies but I go a step further and recommend it to “old time radio” buffs as well. As one with an interest in both areas, I feel like I got 2 books for the price of one!

Elam, Harry J. Jr & Kennell Jackson. Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in global performance and popular culture. University of Michigan Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

This is not a collection of essays celebrating the tremendous influence of black culture around the world.

Instead, as Tricia Rose states in the Foreword, "The traffic in black culture to which this volume is dedicated is tethered to the trafficking in black bodies on which these cultural exchanges are based. They share several disheartening characteristics: similar trade routes, unequal forms of exchange, and often, a soulless focus on capital gain." But she adds, "Despite the troubled ground on which these traffic patterns are set, a good deal of black culture emphasizes sacrifice for the larger good and a steadfast commitment to affirmation and confirmation against relentlessly long odds."

I suspect that if the 26 contributors - an international and interdisciplinary mix of scholars, critics, and practicing artists - met together in a room, they would not reach consensus on exactly what constitutes "black culture" or "appropriation" or "authenticity." But therein lies the book's strength; there is no "company line" here, but rather a dynamic, thought-provoking discussion.

Racial "hybridization" and public perceptions are a common thread, as in Caroline Streeter's "Faking the Funk? Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and (Hybrid) Black Celebrity."

Others explore the commodification - or "trafficking" - of black culture. It is not addressed as a simple matter of whites exploiting blacks. As Kennell Jackson notes in "The Shadows of Texts: Will Black Music and Singers Sell Everything on Television?" the sort of collaboration taking place between black artists and television ad creators "reminds us that in late capitalism black cultural material often travels in commercial contexts with collusion of the makers of cultural products."

It's impossible to sum up this diverse collection in a few paragraphs. Suffice to say I think it provides much food for thought to anyone interested in cultural studies, African American Studies, vernacular culture or the arts in general.

The book came out too early to address Dave Chapelle's rationale for terminating his show, which he summed up to Oprah as discomfort over "the white guy laughing." Here's hoping the second edition includes something by or about him, since it would be a perfect fit.

Stewart, Jacqueline Najuma. Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. University of California Press, 2005. Read more and Order at

This book differs from most studies of African Americans and cinema because it ends where others usually begin: with the prolific Oscar Micheaux, who made more than 40 "race" films between 1917 and 1948. Exploring cinema during the "preclassical" era (ie before it became codified and centralized in Hollywood) the author argues that the Great Migration and cinema shaped each other in powerful ways. The study focuses on Chicago's "Black Belt," the birthplace of African American cinema and at the time, a center of thriving black entrepreneurship, entertainment culture and political activism as well as home to country's most widely-regarded race newspaper, The Chicago Defender.

The first section of the book considers how the Great Migration was registered and reflected in dominant cinema, including educational films and travelogues. The second section describes African Americans as spectators and critics. The third section explores how African American filmmakers attempted to comment on cinema and to build and profit from developing black consumer cultures.

I found the first chapter of the book, which establishes the theoretical framework, rather daunting...the author herself calls it "discursive" in the first sentence of the next chapter. But after that point, academics and general readers alike will find this to be a fascinating exploration of early cinema and race relations, with implications still reverberating today. For example, while discussing images of blackness and stereotypes, she notes that when white filmgoers saw a black person carrying a chicken or a watermelon, they knew without further explanation that the item had been stolen. This instantly called to mind media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, when photo captions portrayed black people as "looting" whereas white people were "finding supplies."

The book is generously illustrated with 56 rare film images. I recommend it to anyone interested in film or ethnic studies, but also to anyone interested in Chicago's historic Black Belt.

Ringgold, Faith. We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold. Duke University Press, 2005. (This is a 10th Anniversary edition, in paperback. The 1995 hardcover edition features "The French Collection Part 1: #6" on the cover. The Paperback cover features part of "Tar Beach" ) Read more and Order at

Faith Ringgold began her artistic career in the 1960’s as a painter, but is best known for her painted story quilts and her children’s books such as the award-winning TAR BEACH. Her memoirs, first published in 1995 and reprinted in this 10th Anniversary Edition, were actually begun in the late 1970’s after she returned from a trip to West Africa, a time when she herself was still very much a “work in progress” personally and professionally. Then again, Faith Ringgold will always be evolving; this is not a woman content to rest on her many laurels.

A memoir is revealing on two levels: since it’s selective remembering, what the author chooses to tell us about herself ends up telling us something additional. WE FLEW OVER THE BRIDGE is candid, sometimes humorous, sometimes bordering on bitter, and almost quilt-like as she pieces together a wide range of topics, from the intensely personal to political and professional. Harlem at the close of the Renaissance, the art world’s resistance to nonwhite artists, Black Power’s resistance to feminism, combining marital life and parenthood with a career - all are viewed through her unique lens. For example, raised in a solidly middle-class environment by a mother who was a fashion designer and who inspired her interests in fabric art (and even collaborated at times), Ringgold seems to have felt overdressed at the revolution. She doesn’t quite “fit in” but then again, I’m not sure she wanted to; she creates her own routes of activism. To any aspiring artist, I’d especially recommend Part III: Making Art, Making Waves, and Making Money.

In addition to 40 beautiful color plates illustrating her work (mostly the story quilts), the book has numerous black and white photos of her family, associates, performance art and early paintings. You can keep up with her current work at

Quinn, Eithne. Nuthin' But a G Thang: The culture and commerce of gangsta rap. Columbia University Press, 2005 Read more and Order at

The author explores the genesis and maturation of Los Angeles-based gangsta music and culture during the post-Civil Rights era. She ties the genesis of gangsta to the time when the U.S. manufacturing economy shifted to a service based economy, urban areas were neglected and the neoconservative policies of the Reagan/Bush era redistributed the nation's wealth to a small group at the top. Theoretically this wealth would then "trickle down" and I suppose it did, though in the form of low paying, dead end service jobs for those who used to be skilled and semiskilled laborers. Her study ends in 1996, where the centrist policies of the Clinton administration did little to ameliorate the problems of which gangstas rap, and classic gangsta artists are mellowing. (And not coincidentally, the year Tupac Shakur, a child of Black Power parents, died in a drive-by shooting.)

The generation of young black men coming of age in places like Compton during this time saw only social immobility in the Land of Opportunity, so they created their own opportunities on their own terms. The irony, as she points out, is that gangsta is both a commentary on and child of the rampant free-market 1980's and `90s: ruthless, exploitative, unabashedly commercial, individualistic, hustling. (So is it really any surprise that here in the 21st century, Lee Iacocca gets jiggy with Snoop Dog for Chrysler commercials?)

This is an interesting interdisciplinary study of gangsta's texts and contexts, its academic commentators and its diverse opponents. While neither defending nor dismissing gangsta as the latest incarnation of the minstrel show stereotypes (like Stanley Crouch and others ) she demonstrates that it is rife with black archetypes which participate in some very old expressive repertoires. And she looks forward beyond 1996 by mentioning "Barbershop" in which Ice Cube's character has learned the value of community and non-materialism.

Those unfamiliar with the jargon of cultural studies might find themselves confused on occasion (I admit I did) but will also find that things clarify themselves with further reading. I recommend this for anyone interested in African American music and cultural studies.

Smith, Chuck, ed. Seven Black Plays: The Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwriting. Northwestern University Press, 2004. Read more and Order at

Since the early part of the 20th century, Chicago has been a national leader in the production of black theater. There are currently six black companies, and black productions are regularly featured at the three Tony Award-winning regional theater companies.

Theodore Ward (1902 - 1983) mentored and encouraged many aspiring dramatists in Chicago from 1968 until his death. To honor Ward, and to aid black playwrights in the development and production of scripts, in 1985 Columbia College Chicago established the Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwriting. Only full-length plays addressing the African American are considered, and the entrant must be of African American descent. Since one of the goals is to uncover and identify new works, scripts which have received professional production are not eligible.

This anthology of prize-winning plays is the first in a series to be published every three years. Compiled and edited by Chuck Smith (currently Resident Director at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, and affiliated with the prize for fifteen years) it presents seven plays spanning nearly two decades, with diverse subject matter and treatments. Christopher Moore’s “The Last Season” (First Prize 1987-88) immerses us in the final days of the Negro Leagues. The most recent offering, Shepsu Aakhu’s “Kiwi Black” ( First Prize 2001-02) tells the story of adolescent son coming of age under the watchful eye of a tough-love father.

But my synopses can’t possibly do these scripts justice. Highly recommended for any theater library!

Fine, Ruth E. The Art of Romare Bearden . Abrams, 2003. Read more and Order at

This book was published on the occasion of a major retrospective of Romare Bearden's work at the National Gallery of Art. The lead essay by curator Ruth Fine deftly navigates Bearden's multifaceted artistic and personal life, a collage inspired by a world of cultural influences from the rural lore of North Carolina to Buddhism.

The breadth of the exhibition is exhaustive and stunning. Much of the art was loaned by private collections, and has rarely been viewed by the public. In addition to reproducing examples of his well-known collages, photostats and watercolors, it includes book illustrations, program covers, paintings in oil and gouache, murals, costume designs, and his only known sculpture. It also compares Bearden's work with some of its possible influences; for example, Bearden's collage "Down Home, Also" (1971) and Picasso's "Sleeping Peasants" (1919) though of course, Bearden always makes the image his own.

In addition to Fine's essay, 244 color plates and 86 black-and-white illustrations, the book offers five additional essays which place Bearden's life and work in the wider history of American society and art. For example, Jacqueline Francis' "Reading Bearden" explores what he read as well as what he wrote.

An indispensable book that finally puts all the pieces together.

Brooks, Tim. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919. University of Illinois Press, 2004. Read more and Order at

A few pages into this book, one realizes the title is a double entendre. The recorded sounds documented here - which include popular music, ragtime, jazz, cabaret, classical, spoken word, politics, poetry, and more - are not merely "lost" in the sense that their existence has been uncelebrated. They are also in danger of being lost to us forever if immediate steps are not taken to preserve the fragile materials upon which they live.

Additionally, U.S. copyright laws have made it nearly impossible for anyone to reissue them as CDs. According to the author, there were approximately 800 recordings made by African Americans prior to 1920, the majority of which are still intact but half of which are owned by successor corporations like Sony and BMG who will neither reissue them nor allow anyone else to do so. Which explains why the majority of this material ends up being released overseas.

The book documents more than 40 artists chronologically, assessing their work and skillfully placing their biographies within the context of a complex and tumultuous era. It covers the famous (Bert Williams, Eubie Blake, Fisk Jubilee Singers) and a host of lesser-knows. The Discography provides a listing of CD reissues (if available) for each chapter, plus web sites where you'll most likely find them.

While seemingly an exhaustive tome, the author himself reminds us it's intended to stimulate preservation and future research: the final chapter "Miscellaneous Recordings" examines unissued recordings, "custom" noncommercial recordings, rumored but unconfirmed recordings, records by artists sometimes misidentified as black and more, in the hopes that future research will turn up more information.

Though massive at 656 pages, the book is highly readable and entertaining, very well organized and indexed making it easy to zoom in on particular aspects of interest. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the era of early recording in general, or African American studies in particular, and feel no library shelf should be without it. It's a wonderful resource for interdisciplinary studies.

Looker, Benjamin. BAG: "Point from which creation begins": The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis. Missouri Historical Society Press, 2004. Read more and Order at

The Civil Rights Movement (and urban crisis) inspired African American artists to explore political and cultural issues through various experimental media including theater, visual arts, dance, poetry and jazz. As artists created collectives in major urban centers like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and New York, this "Black Arts Movement" (BAM) flourished from the mid-1960's through the 1970's.

St. Louis was home to one such collective, the Black Artists' Group (BAG) from 1968 to 1972. BAG was not the best-known BAM collective, nor the longest lived. But a close examination of its intensely productive life is instructive as it uncovers the impact of racial dynamics, debates over civil rights, black nationalism, and the role of the arts in political and cultural struggles found any time social concern meets artistic innovation.

As the author states, "Although the critics' gaze has focused mostly on the coasts, a richer, more complex, and more problematic vision of the Black Arts Movement emerges when regional cooperatives such as BAG are brought back into the light." Consequently, the book is more than simply a role call of famous innovative artists nurtured by BAG (Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Emilio Cruz, to name but a few) as the author explores issues of controversy such as the recruitment of funding from white liberal sources...crucial to both BAG's founding and ultimately, its dissolution. But dissolution was simply another beginning as members moved on to play dominant roles in other spaces, both in the US and abroad.

The book is thoroughly researched and documented; the author conducted over 50 interviews with BAG artists and others, transcripts of which now reside at the Missouri Historical Society (when permitted by the interviewee.) I appreciated Looker's clear and concise style - his prose flows naturally and is a joy to read. I would have liked more images of visual arts, but this is a minor criticism and perhaps not even a fair one, since I've no idea of what's available. Additional resources include a discography of recordings led by BAG performers, 1970-73.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in the Black Arts Movement.

Ailey Spirit: The Journey of an American Dance Company. Stewart, Taboir & Chang, 2004. Order at

Over the course of 45 years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has evolved from a small group of young dancers traveling the country in a station wagon to what is widely considered the premier modern dance company in the world. Ailey Spirit pauses to reflect on the company's incredible journey as it nears its mid-century mark. A breathtaking collection of photographs from the best dance photographers, along with behind-the-scenes and candid shots, illustrate every aspect of the company's history: the dancers and choreographers; the travels and challenges; even the creation of a new ballet. The text draws on previously unpublished interviews with more than 50 key individuals.

My only "complaint" with this book is that the compelling photography kept distracting me from the text! I finally gave up and leafed through all the photos first, then went back to read the text, which provides a good overview of the company's philosophy, founding spirits and various major dancers. Highly recommended for lovers of dance or photography.

Lewis, Samella. African American Art and Artists, Revised and Expanded Edition. University of California Press, 2004.

This book is a lavishly illustrated, indispensible guide to the art of African Americans. But it is much more than a picture book; or biographical listing; it is multidisciplinary, placing the artists in the context of history. And it doesn't avoid the thorny issues, such as, exactly who IS an "African American" and how and why is this art different from the mainstream?

The chapters are divided chronologically, starting with 1619-1865 "Cultural Deprivation and Slavery"and ending with 1990-2002 "From Painting to Technology: Art before and into the New Millenium." Within the chapters are topical sections, such as "Mural Art as Cultural and Social Commentary" and "The Diverse Quests for Professional Status."

There is probably no one better qualified to write this book than Samella Lewis, Professor Emerita of Art History at Scripps College, who has dedicated her life to revealing this rich legacy. This is a book that belongs on every bookshelf. (This book started life as Art: African American in 1978, was completely revised with its current title in 1994, and was revised again with this edition.)

Amaki, Amalia K. ed. A Century of African American Art: The Paul R. Jones Collection. Rutgers University Press, 2004. Read more and Order at

Paul R. Jones differs from the typical collector of world-class art in too many ways to enumerate. For one thing, he is not independently wealthy nor did he inherit a fortune - no, this son of a miner grew up in a work camp, and for most of his life, his "day job" has been public service. But he has brought to his collection - and therefore, to us - a personal passion, curiosity and creativity unsurpassed by the likes of Guggenheim or Getty.

The "dean of African American collectors," Jones avoided trend buying and operated outside the more traditional acquisition modes. He occasionally purchased work he "did not understand by artists he did not know" because, in his words, "something in it drew me in...and I trusted it to take me somewhere..." Buying from (at the time) relative unknowns, his purchase often paid the month's rent or put food on the table.

The result of this 40 year commitment to African American artists is a magnificent panorama encompassing 1500 works by the likes of Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Betye Saar and more than 60 others. This astounding collection has been donated to the University of Delaware's University Museum, and this book helps celebrate the first major exhibition of works drawn from it.

The book presents gorgeous reproductions of more than 100 works by 66 artists, with biographical information about them and also about Jones. But it's not a mere exhibition catalog; it also presents ten thought-provoking essays which intentionally strive to "de-race" African American art, placing it within the larger picture of the nation's history and cultural traditions. For example, Ikem Stanley Okoye's essay "Reign(ing) in Color: Toward a Wilder History of American Art" explores how the systematic use of color serves purposes other than surface appearance.

A magnificent book to celebrate a magnificent collection.

Smith, Katharine Capshaw. Children's Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press, 2004. Order at

This book surveys the literature and drama produced about and for children and their parents during the Harlem Renaissance, the period associated with the flowering of the arts not only in Harlem but in other urban centers as well. Believing that the "New Negro" would ultimately arise from black youth, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Langston Hughes, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and other major figures took an impassioned interest in the literary models offered to children.

Smith explores the period's vigorous exchange about the nature and identity of black childhood and uncovers the networks of African American philosophers, community activists, schoolteachers, and literary artists who worked together to transmit black history and culture to the next generation. She also explores how various leaders forged bonds of cultural, economic and aesthetic solidarity even though they often disagreed over popular vs. elite constructions. This process is fascinating to watch, and is amply documented throughout the book with images and excerpts.

The book is lively and readable...not words I frequently associate with such an exhaustive study. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Carter G. Woodson's publishing house, which issued a dozen children's texts during the 1930's and 1940's. I hope this book finds its way beyond the African American Studies bookshelves, as it deserves to be read by anyone interested in the evolution of American children's literature.

Gable, Craig, Editor. Ebony Rising: Short Fiction of the Greater Harlem Renaissance Era. Indiana University Press, 2004. Order at

I like everything about this collection: the fact that it encompasses 52 stories covering over 27 years and a wide variety of content and styles; is gender balanced; presents works by both the famous and the lesser knowns beyond the actual boundaries of New York (plus lesser-known stories by the famous); and its chronological arrangement that allows the era to "grow." With the help of the author's preface, I dove right into the stories not previously anthologized, like Mercedes Gilbert's hilarious "Why Adam Ate the Apple" (with the memorable line "He started to rave, and jes' raised Cain.") I was not disappointed. Additional useful resources include a history of the era and a checklist of common issues, topics and plot components. This indispensable resource for the study of American literature belongs on every library shelf.

Everett, Gwen. African American Masters. New York: Abrams, 2003 Order at

This vibrant catalog accompanies the Smithsonian touring exhibit of the same name, focusing on artists of the 20th century and featuring a diversity of ideas and media. There are 52 full-page illustrations, 38 of which are color. The book is organized alphabetically by artist, with an alphabetical index by titles. The narratives (usually a paragraph or two) tell something interesting about each piece, but provide very little in the way of biographical background, perhaps only a sentence at most and often not even that. So, this book is a wonderful supplement, but not a primer on African American art...then again, it's not intended to be. Instead, it is a celebration, a small taste of the masterworks owned by the American people...I feel it's significant these works are in a public collection for all to appreciate. You can also visit the exhibition online, or download an itinerary.

Patton, Sharon F. African American Art. Oxford University Press, April 1998. Order at

This is a comprehensive exploration of a wide range of African American art, from slave artisans and quilt makers to contemporary postmodernists, all of which is placed within historical context. Lavishly illustrated, the paperback version is a bargain at under $15.

Monroe, Gary. The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters. University Press of Florida, 2001. Read more and Order at

In 1994, art aficionado Jim Fitch assigned the name "The Highwaymen" to a loose association of young, mostly untrained black artists (including one woman) from the Fort Pierce area who created thousands of Florida landscapes and marketed them from the backs of their cars for about $25 in the 1960's and '70's. Theirs was an unabashedly commercial venture, and the artists collaborated to create works as quickly and cheaply as possible. Dismissed as "motel art" at the time, these intense, lush and at times otherworldly depictions of an idealized Florida have become a subject of renewed interest and critical attention in recent years. Consequently, many myths and vague tales have grown up around the group.

As part of his research, author Gary Monroe interviewed many of the remaining artists to bring the story to life, presented here in a 26-page annotated essay. In analyzing the art, he insists that the speed with which they worked was far from a detriment: "By unintentionally bastardizing the canonical pictorial strategies...they created a new form of fantasy landscape painting." The artists found their strength as colorists, and the emotional hues capture the essence of Florida (or at least, as we imagine it.) As a northerner who visited Florida twice as a child in the pre-Disney days, I must confess that the 63 glorious full-color reproductions here gave me goose bumps of fond memory, real or imagined.

A followup: This book launched an explosion of interest in The Highwaymen. Surviving members no longer need to travel, since collectors now come to them and new works sell for as much as $18,000. The were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd edition. New York: W.W. North, 1997. First written in 1971 and now in it's 3rd edition, this is a wonderful, readable textbook on all aspects of African American music. Order at

Caldwell, Hansonia L. African American Music: A Chronology 1619-1995. Culver City, CA: IKORO Communications, 1995. Provides a good clear timeline, handy for finding a quick fact, but for the best in-depth study, use Eileen Southern's book. Order at

Jones, Arthur C. Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals. New York: Orbis Books, 1993. Order at
Dr. Jones is both a practicing psychologist and a musician who brings a Jungian interpretation to the spirituals as archetypes with transformative value for all of us today. This book got me thinking about the spirituals in a new light!

Songs of Zion, Edited by Verolga Nix and Jefferson Cleveland. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981. Order at
This hymnal of Black religious music was commissioned by the United Methodist Church. But it is much more than just a dry book of 250 songs. It includes keys to musical interpretation, historical accounts of the Black worship experience, from spirituals and hymns through contemporary gospel music. It's an indispensible resource!

Still, Judith Anne, Managing Editor. William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music. Master-Player Library; 2nd edition (November 1995) Order at

William Grant Still (1895 - 1978) is considered the "Dean of Afro-American Composers." (Though his daughter Judith Anne Still writes in another book, William Grant Still: A Voice High-Sounding p. 206, that he responded "Why, then, isn't Aaron Copeleand called the 'Dean of White Composers'?") This far-ranging collection of essays about Still's life, passions and works was originally published in 1972, six years before Still's death. It was reissued on the anniversary of his birth. Some of the essays I found most interesting discuss "black music" and the expectations placed upon a non-white composer to be "ethnic."

Clarke, George Elliott. Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature. University of Toronto Press, 2002. Read more at

The term "African American" doesn't usually invoke images north of the 49th parallel, but it should. Not only because Canada was the longed for "Canaan Land" of so many spirituals and therefore, the ultimate home of many escaped slaves, nor because Nova Scotia and New France also had slaves, but because black communities have been a part of what we now call "Canada" since the beginning. George Elliott Clarke , an award winning poet, playwright, critic and scholar , is very much part of the literary map of Canada; this book gathers together a representative selection of his essays and reviews published over a decade and demonstrates that African-Canadian literature is not a recent phenomenon. His map covers vast and diverse territory , including the status of African-American culture as a "model for blackness," black and white racial metaphors in Quebecois literature, black women's search for history and more. This is a great introduction for newcomers, and a foundation for students in the field.


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New! Frost, Karolyn Smardz. I've Got a Home in Glory Land: a lost tale of the Underground Railroad. Thomas Allen, 2007. Read more and Order at

One would have to read this book several times to completely absorb its multifarious layers, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

First and foremost, it is the compelling life story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn. They escaped from slavery boldly using forged documents to travel by steamboat to Cincinnati (appropriately arriving on July 4) then settled in Detroit and were subsequently incarcerated under the Fugitive Slave Law. The community (white and black) rose up in their defense, sparking what history records as “The Blackburn Riots of 1833.” After their hair raising escape to Canada and subsequent incarceration while appealing extradition under provisions of the Fugitive Offenders Act, they finally settled in Toronto, where Blackburn established the first cab company. The couple acquired affluence and influence - though they always lived modestly - and assisted many other refugees escaping slavery and intolerance before, during and after the Civil War.

Equally fascinating is the process by which their life story was reconstructed. Both Thornton and Lucie remained illiterate, and no one recorded their memoirs. This book is the result of over 20 years of painstaking research and - as the author states in the introduction - no small amount of “historical coalescence.” It perfectly illustrates the creative approach historians must take when attempting to break through what genealogists call “The Wall of Slavery.” The author relies on everything from Bibles to court documents to glean information and put all the pieces together, and her extensive bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.

While detailing the Blackburn’s encounters with the legal system of the time, the author explores the evolution of jurisprudence in both countries: to maintain the Peculiar Institution in the states, and to guarantee civil liberties (and in no small part, autonomy from the U.S.) in Canada. Some slave owners doggedly expended inordinate amounts of time and money to retrieve their “property” and to punish anyone who might have aided their escape. Consequently, there are voluminous court documents related to the Blackburns as their owners pursued them here and abroad, and legal precedents were set which still have impact today. For example, people are often surprised to learn the Ohio River is actually part of Kentucky - that boundary was established to ensure this particular “highway to freedom” remained “slave territory” and this decision was relevant in the lawsuit filed against the steamboat captain and his company.

For American readers, the fact that this book is written from a Canadian’s perspective adds yet another interesting layer. (Oh, to see ourselves as others see us!) Yet while pointing out the obviously hypocrisy inherent in U.S. “freedom,” Frost does not turn a blind eye to racism and hypocrisy among Canadians. She notes that while Toronto harbored fugitive slaves, it also welcomed slaveholders and Confederate soldiers seeking asylum during the Civil War. Doubly mind boggling is the fact that the Blackburns had personal connections with some of them...and a few of them probably rode in his cab.

In the standard American narrative, slaves escape to Canada and vanish from our story. While many - heartened by the promise of Reconstruction - returned to the United States to reunite with family after the war (only to migrate north again as Jim Crow and sharecropping reinstated the antebellum power structure) the Blackburns lived three-quarters of their highly productive lives as African-Canadians. This book and the work which went into creating it are welcome revelations. I hope they inspire further research into the lives of those who crossed over into Canaan Land.

NB The book describes the role played by the Blackburns in the development of the Elgin Settlement and Buxton Mission, a colony for fugitive slaves south of Chatham. The modern village of North Buxton is still home to about 200 descendants. Several years ago I visited the Buxton Historic Site and Museum and highly recommend it...plan to spend several hours! See my Travel Section for Canada

Burton, Art T. Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. University of Nebraska Press, 2006. Read more and Order at

Brief though the period of the Wild West was, the exploits of its villains and lawmen have fascinated people around the world, and been disproportionately represented in pop culture. But the multicultural nature of the Wild West has rarely been evidenced in the plethora of films, books and television shows. Which probably explains why the arrival of Sheriff Black Bart in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" (1974) elicited such a stunned response from the townspeople, and a riot of laughter from the audience. Imagine: a black lawman in the Old West!

Imagine no more. Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, a former slave, served for nearly 30 years in the Oklahoma and Indian Territories, the most deadly location for U.S. marshals. And according to glowing accounts of his bravery, skill and steadfast devotion to duty (found in white newspapers of the time, mind you) nobody was laughing when he rode into to town, especially not the bad guys. As this book amply illustrates, Reeves is remarkable not merely for being a black marshal (there were others) but for being one of the greatest U.S. Marshals, period.

But Reeves' story - with the exception of references published here and there - has been largely ignored by western historians. Though widely known and respected during his lifetime, he was illiterate and left behind no diaries or letters, so what little has come down has been in the form of oral history and legends. Art T. Burton has spent the better part of 20 years reclaiming the heritage of African Americans in the American West, and has scoured through a wide range of primary sources - including Reeves' federal criminal court cases available in the National Archives, and account books at Fort Smith Historic Site - to separate legend from fact and painstakingly piece together the story of this American hero.

The book is not a biography in the traditional sense, but as the subtitle states, a reader. It reproduces many of the court documents and contemporary newspaper articles with just enough narrative to put them into context. Not being a Wild West buff myself, I felt the author did an excellent job providing background to help me make sense of it all.

As the author recounts, one of the first responses he received from a local town historical society in Oklahoma when inquiring about Reeves was "I am sorry, we didn't keep black people's history." This book is the perfect example of the wealth of information which can be gleaned by a creative, dedicated historian who looks beyond the usual sources in order to root out the hidden history of multicultural America. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Western history and culture, law enforcement, American or African American Studies. And I hope this book inspires someone to finally bring the life and times of Bass Reeves to the big screen.

Franklin, John Hope. Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 2005. Read more and Order at

Back in the 1970's, when I worked as an education assistant at a small historical library in Ohio, John Hope Franklin spent several days in residence doing research. Having a man of such stature in our midst was a rare occurrence, and the head librarian had instructed us to walk on eggs so as not to disturb him; to her chagrin, I was scheduled to lead a group of eighth graders on a tour during his stay. Before my charges entered the building I explained who Dr. Franklin was and why it was very important we not disrupt his work. As we tiptoed silently through the reading room hoping to go unnoticed, Dr. Franklin looked up, smiled and asked me to bring them over. He inquired about their school, their studies, their interests in history, etc. before discussing his current research project with them. Their teacher told me they were still talking about him months later.

Each page of this astounding memoir reminded of that compassion, that ability to connect with people at all ages and levels of experience and sophistication. John Hope Franklin is more than a world-class scholar. Personally and professionally, he is the bridge connecting America to its African American history. At times I felt like I was rereading FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM, augmented by personal asides and inside stories.

Reviewers detail Franklin's numerous high profile accomplishments, but for me, smaller, more personal moments in the book stand out. For example, I gave little thought to the obstacles he would have encountered while trying to access archives in the Jim Crow South, despite his impeccable Harvard credentials. Even when librarians were supportive, they had to work around the absurdities of segregation, sometimes with ironic results. For example, at one library he was given his own key to the stacks because it was deemed improper that he be waited upon by white pages who typically fetched materials for researchers. This meant he had unlimited access to the stacks - every historian's dream. Soon the white researchers demanded equal access, which was impossible, so the white pages ended up serving him instead.

And I nearly cried when I read that even in his 80's, this internationally renowned scholar was mistaken for a porter in the coatroom of a Washington club where he was a member.

If you read nothing else this year, do yourself a favor and read this book. It is more than just a mirror - it is a gift.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003. Read more about it or order at

It's been 25 years since the last biography, and this complex portrait is well worth the wait. Boyd is an excellent storyteller, and her narrative seamlessly weaves together Hurston's personal and professional life and work. There are surprises and revelations around every corner...for example, the author says that according to Alan Lomax, the most famous picture of Hurston (big floppy hat, head tossed back in a toothy grin) is actually not her at all. But the book is also fascinating for what it reveals about the Harlem Renaissance in general. Highly recommended.

Three New Harriet Tubman Books! Several years back I was watching a documentary on Harriet Tubman in which one of her relatives was interviewed. I suddenly realized I had never thought of Tubman as a real person, with actual living relatives! Her legend looms so much larger than life that she hovers somewhere in the realm of Paul Bunyan. After a wait of nearly 60 years for an adult biography, 2004 brought us THREE:

Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York, NY: Ballatine Books 2004. Read more about it or order at

In her introduction, Larson says "We all believe we know Harriet Tubman" yet this knowledge is limited to the heroic myth of children's books. She does not seem real flesh and blood to us. Larson sets out to rectify this, and does so admirably. She spent years combing through primary sources such as court records and private letters to recreate for us a Harriet Tubman who lives and breathes. There's even a family tree. Along the way, some treasured myths are debunked. For example, there was never a $40,000 bounty on her head. Nor (as every school child can quote) did she make 19 trips and rescue 300 people; it's closer to 13 trips and 70 people, and she perhaps provided aid and instructions to another 50. None of which diminishes her heroism, of course. It simply makes her more accessible as a human being by setting the record straight. And what Larson adds to the record far outweighs what she takes away. 

This book can be challenging to read at times, because rather than stating her own conclusions as fact (e.g.Tubman's birth date, which she places in February or March of 1822) Larson sometimes presents several possibilities and provides evidence to support each; we are left to draw our own conclusions. But this provides groundwork for future researchers and, I feel, is a more honest than presuming finality where none is present. 

Humez, Jean M. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. Madison, WI: UW Press, 2004. Read more about it or order at

This book begins with a traditional biography, presenting the bare bones of Tubman's life. The section called 'Stories and Sayings' puts meat on those bones, breathing life into someone who has nearly been lost to us in legend. It's a fascinating concept, and I think it works. Equally amazing is the Documents section, reflecting 10 years of research and which will be required reading for any future Tubman scholars because, as Humez herself says, ' retelling of her life story cannot be definitive.' Highly recommended.

Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman - The Road to Freedom. New York, NY, Little Brown. Read more about it or order at

Clinton's style is highly readable, and she navigates smoothly through complex material. But she does not take advantage of the most current research in the field. For example, she recycles the myth about the $40,000 bounty. While I'd recommend this book for general readers, I feel academics and those with a deeper interest in the subject are better served by Kate Clifford Larson's Bound for the Promised Land or Jean Humez's Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories.

Parker John P. , Stuart Seely Sprague (Editor)His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker. NY: Norton, 1996. Order at

This is a riveting book by former slave who, having bought his way out of slavery, settled in Ripley Ohio and risked his life helping other slaves escape to freedom. But it's more than simply a story full of hair-breadth escapes and heart-rending failures; John Parker was also an entreprenuer and inventor who owned the Ripley Foundary and Machine Company, a middle-class African American like so many others we never hear about in the history books. I read this book in two sittings because I couldn't put it down. Parker had told his life story to a journalist in the early 1880's, but the manuscript was gathering dust in the Duke University Archives until recently. His former home in Ripley is now renovated and open to visitors.

Haley, Alex. Roots. NY: Doubleday, 1976. Order at

One of the many myths about African American history had been that blacks were unable to trace their roots; for example, though thousands of blacks fought in the American Revolution, the DAR didn't admit black members until one year after the nation's Bicentennial. Alex Haley exploded the myth by tracing his genealogy back to Kunta Kinte, an African slave brought here in the 18th century. The masterpiece of detective work and history follows seven generations.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harvard University Press, 2000. Edited with annotation and authentification by Jean Yellin. Order at

First published in 1861, this book is much more than a narrative about slavery; it addresses many issues of gender as well. To escape the philandering intentions of her master, and to try to win freedom for her children, Harriet Jacobs spent seven years hidden away in an uninsulated garret, three feet high at its tallest point with almost no air or light, with only glimpses of her children to sustain her courage. Until the 1980's, this book was presumed by most scholars to be a work of fiction created by a white abolitionist, but Jean Yellin's groundbreaking research brought the real Harriet Jacobs to life. The book has been published many times since the 1960's, often in inexpensive paperback versions that are much cheaper than the edition I've linked. However, I'd recommend either this edition (which includes the short slave narrative published by Harriet's brother John, A True Tale of Slavery) or an earlier edition edited by Yellin if you want the full historical background on the book itself.

Schafer, Daniel L. Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley: African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Owner. University Press of Florida, 2003. Read more and Order at

Anna Madgigine Jai was a teenager (and possibly a Senegalese princess) when she was captured in her homeland and sold into slavery during a civil war in 1806. She was later purchased in Cuba by Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., and taken to his St. Johns River plantation in northeast Florida where she became his household manager, his wife, and eventually the mother of four of his children. Her husband emancipated her in 1811, and she became the owner of her own farm and twelve slaves. The latter is not surprising since, under Spanish control, slavery was considered neither a permanent condition nor the God-given role of black people. Slaves had opportunities to buy their freedom, or owners could liberate them without penalty; free black persons were an accepted part of the caste system, able to acquire wealth and property and pass it along to their children.

While Florida was under Spanish control, Anna lived a relatively tranquil life for 25 years as a free black woman. But when Florida came under American control - which brought the racist demand that blacks should only be slaves, not free, and which outlawed interracial marriages - she and her children migrated to a colony in Haiti established by her husband as a refuge for free blacks. Despite spiraling racial tensions of the antebellum period, Anna returned to north Florida where she bought and sold land, sued white people in the courts, and became a central figure in a free black community. Kingsley Plantation at Fort George Island is now undergoing restoration by the National Park Service.

This fascinating history of one remarkable woman provides an eye-opening exploration of larger issues, in particular the complexities of slavery. To reconstruct her story - which meant deconstructing some legends, the author draws upon a wide variety of sources, both in Africa and the New World. This book will be of interest to Florida history buffs as well as African American studies.


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DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. Dover: 1994. Originally published in 1903 this book is as fresh and insightful as ever. Order at

Can We Talk About Race? And Other conversations in an era of school resegregation. Beverly Daniel Tatum. Beacon Press, 2007. Order at

I was halfway through this book when a family health crisis distracted me. A lot has happened since then, including the election of the first African American president. According to many white pundits, January 20 2009 marked the official end of racism in America...making this book all the more critical because now we’re even LESS likely to talk openly and honestly about race than we were before.

Each chapter in the book is based on a lecture in the “Race, Education and Democracy” series at Simmons College. In each, the author seamlessly weaves together personal experience, current events, factual data and policy analysis to help us not only understand where we are, but where we need to be and how we might get there.

The first chapter explains that school segregation (or as she puts it, “resegregation”) is still very much with us, and what needs to happen if we are to move beyond it. The second chapter examines why this even matters: because race in American classrooms is effecting achievement. The third chapter explores the thorny issue of cross-racial friendships, and questions whether we can have social change if we don’t have interpersonal social connection. The final chapter takes us in search of wisdom, providing examples of ways to cultivate leadership.

This book is more timely than ever. In a way, I'm glad I waited to finish it.

Austin, Algernon. Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, And Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century. NYU Press, 2006. Read more and Order at

Algernon Austin, founder and director of the Thora Institute, is a sociologist who goes after "common knowledge" about black Americans with the facts, the data, and the studies. In this thought-provoking work, he persuasively argues that "races are social creations," developed at particular times in history to address specific political and economic situations. He says once the idea of race exists - that is, once people believe in, and therefore see, racial differences - those differences become "a tool that can be used in new or redefined situations of conflict." One need only look at the changing definitions used by the US census to see how fluid definitions of "race" can be.

A good portion is devoted to establishing working definitions of terms like "ethnicity" and "cultural nationalism," all of which also seem to be rather fluid among scholars. Of course, the idea that race is socially constructed is not new. But he carries it a step further by examining how race is understood and plays out in social dynamics through an analysis of "blackness" in the Twentieth Century. He begins by exploring the Asiatic self-identity of the "first" Nation of Islam, then moves to the Black Power Era when "Negroes" were transformed into "Blacks," and informally enforced norms shamed "white" black people into acting more like "black" black people. The final case study is the Afrocentric Era of the 1980's-'90's, which drew upon a rather mythical version of Africa as a source of black self-esteem and which, he argues, reflected conservative American thought in that it blamed "a culture of poverty" rather than political/economic/social structures for the woes of the "black underclass." (Which, incidentally, he argues is overestimated.)

This book is engagingly written from start to finish, and, since he draws upon - and often debunks - views of other scholars, I felt like I was eavesdropping at a symposium which grew heated at times. My reading was enhanced by visiting The Thora Institute's website, which disseminates facts and analyses about black Americans and where Professor Austin publishes a new article every Monday. I must confess, his faith in "data" and "studies" is stronger than mine (as my grandpa used to say, "Figgers don't lie, but liars figger") but I also must confess this is the most compelling reading I've done this year. No brief review could do it justice, so I highly recommend you read the book and visit The Thora Institute.

Rooks, Noliwe M. White Money - Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education. Beacon, 2006. Read more and Order at

As Rooks relates, the "creation story" of Black Studies departments revolves around violence, upheaval, and successful demands by Black Power students. Yet even the ugly and protracted student strike which gave birth to the first Black Studies program at San Francisco State College in 1969 involved students of all races - 80% of the total student population, in fact. If we are to understand the state of Black Studies (morphing into African American and Diaspora Studies) today, she says it's time we honestly examined the racial diversity of the historical record - even if that makes us uncomfortable.

Over the years, Black Studies has meant different things to different people. To the black radicals, it meant separatism, empowerment, making education relevant to black students. To white administrators, it was a way to increase black enrollment or to address (or appear to address) a racial crisis. And to the Ford Foundation - whose money and vision are primarily responsible for the institutionalization of Black Studies as we know it today on many campuses - it was a means of integrating and diversifying higher education, but within the traditional model.

Though touching many of these bases, the book's central focus is the Ford Foundation's involvement because, as Rooks convincingly argues, their vision is largely responsible for the current legacy. And no small part of that legacy is the fact that the majority of enrollees in Black Studies classes on some campuses are white, and that in too many cases, Black Studies (indeed, blackness itself) has become "everything and nothing at all."

This is a complex and important story, told clearly, concisely and compellingly. I can't imagine anyone who cares about the future of Black Studies not reading this book and discussing it - perhaps even arguing about it - with their colleagues.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans. New York, NY: Warner Books, 2004. (Companion book to the PBS series of the same name.) Read more about it or order at

The media often tries to appear balanced and diverse by bringing on somebody to present the 'black point of view.' As this book of dialogues amply demonstrates, there is no such thing...there are only African Americans with opinions as diverse as the individuals themselves. Gates wondered 'how far have we come since the Civil Rights Movement.' To get some sense, he interviewed movers and shakers like Jesse Jackson and Vernon Jordan, but also those the Great Society left behind, like Kalais Chiron Hunt in the Cook County Jail and residents of Chicago's infamous Robert Taylor Homes . Familiar entertainment figures like Bernie Mac, Alicia Keys and Don Cheadle weigh in, with refreshingly candid interviews not commonly found in Hollywood hype. We meet activists on the front lines, like Lenora Fulani who uses theater to teach kids how to succeed in business. And we meet everyday people like Dierdre and Jerald Wolff who joined the new Southern Migration by moving to an affluent, predominantly black community in Atlanta, and Lura and Chris, a biracial couple living in Birmingham.. I'm always impressed with Gate's ability to capture his subject's words without imposing his personality...he shares his own story in the introduction. Each of the 39 stories is told with clarity and fluidity; you read one and can't resist moving right into the next. A thought provoking book and for many white readers, a glimpse of black America not represented elsewhere.

New! Cosby, Camille O. and Renee Poussaint. A Wealth of Wisdom: Legendary African American Elders Speak. New York, NY: Atria Books 2004. Read more about it or order at

This is one of those rare books I simply could not stop reading! I highly recommend it. The interviews and photographs are intimate and illuminating, and I think young adults in particular will be inspired, though middle- aged ones like myself can take heart in how much these folks are STILL achieving well after 70. While I enjoyed getting to know some of the famous people in a new way, I was especially impressed by stories of 'unfamous' elders like the educators Jayme Coleman Williams and McDonald Williams, people who have had tremendous, sustained impact in their communities. The best part is, you can access even more of the work of the National Visionary Leadership Project at their web site,

Perry, Theresa and Lisa Delpit, editors. The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children. Boston: Beacon, 1998. (High-School - Adult) Read more at

This collection is a common-sense look at the the issue of Ebonics, and a must-read for any teacher of African-American children or for anyone who loves language.

Contrary to media frenzy and popular belief, the Oakland school board did not pass a resolution in 1996 requiring that Ebonics, or Black English, be taught in place of Standard English. It did, however, pass a resolution recognizing what linguists had known for years: that Ebonics, like Spanish or German, is not defective English but a valid linguistic system following precise rules of grammar. It also recognized that while students speaking Ebonics need to learn Standard English to attain success in mainstream American society, to do so they must be treated with the same respect as any student who enters the classroom speaking a different language or dialect. Instead, they are often dismissed as lazy or stupid.

Rickford, John Russell. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. NY: Wiley, 2000. (High School - Adult) Read more at

The subject of Ebonics generally sparks a knee-jerk reaction. This books attempts to lift the subject out of the political realm and into the more appropriate realms of literature, language and culture. It provides a well-researched and detailed account of how "Black English" evolved from African languages, and dispels the myth that it is simply "substandard English."


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On The Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail. Charles E. Cobb Jr. Algonquin Books, NC. 2008 Order at

I became interested in this book when I heard the author, Charles Cobb Jr. interviewed on NPR’s Tell Me More with Michel Martin. Cobb is a veteran of the civil rights movement and a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists. He spoke about sitting on the steps of a middle school in Medgar Evers’ old neighborhood, across from the Fannie Lou Hamer Library, trying to engage some kids in conversation about the movement in Mississippi. When he told them he’d known Mrs. Hamer, a little boy said in amazement “YOU were alive back then?!”

That’s when he realized the era was fading into ancient history, viewed as a mass movement led by a few charismatic and long dead leaders. This book - part memoir, part travel guide, part history book - is intended to capture the deeper meaning of the fight for civil rights, community grassroots organizing and thousands of independent acts of courage reaching further back than the 1960’ fact, he said, the movement probably began as soon as the first African stepped off the ship in chains and began thinking of how to escape.

With Cobb as our personal guide we travel through Washington D.C. and eight Southern states. But this is so much more than just a visitor’s guide to historic sites, museums and plaques. Nearly every page is graced with photos, quotes from interviews, songs, letters, or key documents. We get to know the men and women not mentioned in the “Civil Rights Canon,” the everyday yet heroic people fighting for justice and equality in their own back yards.

Academicians will be happy with the careful citing of sources in end notes; general readers will be delighted with the compelling narrative flow. It’s the sort of book I find myself reading twice: first skimming through to read all the fascinating sidebars, then reading through state by state. If I had a “favorite book of the year” this would be it for 2008. It belongs on the shelf of every school and community library. The only thing lacking is contact information for the many museums and cultural centers mentioned, but of course, such information quickly becomes outdated in a print format, so I’d suggest using the book in conjunction with my frequently updated website

Eichstedt, Jennifer L. and Stephen Small. Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. Order at

African American history in general, and slavery in particular, should be an integral part of the story told at any plantation museum. After all, not a single plantation would have or could have existed without the complex institution slavery. Yet as the authors ably demonstrate, that story is not being presented by the vast majority of plantation museums.

Focusing on museums in Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia, the authors create a useful framework to categorize the nature of interpretation. "Symbolic Annihilation" occurs when the presence of African Americans is not acknowledged at all. "Trivialization and deflection" might actually be more insidious, because it presents slavery as benign, with happy "darkies" gratefully serving a beneficent Massa. "Segregation or marginalization" is at least a step in a better direction; here museums offer interpretative programs relating to the black experience, but in separate and less frequent programming. "Relative incorporation" occurs when the story of the plantation's black inhabitants is told at least alongside that of its white inhabitants...though as they point out, this is being done only marginally, and usually at publically financed sites or Afrocentric ones.

Don't head out to a plantation tour without reading this book!

Bush, Melanie E. L. Breaking the Code of Good Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Read more and Order at

This book caught my attention because I have several near and dear “Angry White Males” in my life that I just don’t understand. To my way of thinking, life has given them everything - good educations, good jobs, nice homes, nice families, nice prospects - yet they invest an inordinate amount of energy being angry at and fearful of THEM. (“THEM” being pretty much anyone who is not white.) Why, I’ve wondered, are my near and dear so aggravated by THEM when in truth, the enemy more likely to undermine their peace and prosperity is a white CEO? Why do right-wing talk show hosts wax rabid on the topic of “welfare queens” yet turn a blind eye to (or worse, make excuses for) corporate looters?

Of course, the answer if far too complex to address here, but Melanie Bush provides interesting insights, not the least of which is the basic presumption of “white goodness.” Bush spent five years collecting and documenting perspectives of white students on inequality and found their perceptions of and rationalizations about equality have little basis in reality. Simply put: despite indisputable evidence to the contrary, most white students believe that not only have other races achieved equality, they are now privileged at the expense of white people. (aka “reverse discrimination.”)

The first part of the book analyses the ethnographical data collected through interviews and surveys with students at the City University of New York (CUNY) probing attitudes and perspectives about race and class. The final chapter explores “Cracks in the Wall of Whiteness” and presents some consciousness raising activities...a hopeful chapter without which the book would not be complete. The Afterword provides a post 9/11 perspective on notions of race, and had me vigorously nodding in agreement at every page.

This book is clearly written and enlightening.

A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement. Jim Carrier. Harcourt Books, 2004. Order at

This book is fascinating even if you never leave home. It's both a travel guide and a reference for anyone wanting to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. But it's not limited to modern times; like many historians, the author takes the view that the struggle for civil rights began the moment the first enslaved African set foot on these shores and tried to break free. And it continued anywhere that people fought for dignity and equality. Consequently, the sites described here include sites of slave rebellions, legal battles, Underground Railroad safe houses, historically black colleges, churches, museums...even the minor league stadium in Florida where Jackie Robinson broke through the color line.

I particularly enjoyed the author's honest and opinionated style. Black history has been overshadowed by white interpretation for a very long time, even in locations where the majority population was black. Visit a Southern plantation and you will learn about the lifestyle of the owners, but very little about the slaves who made that lifestyle possible. You may ogle the beautiful handcrafted furniture, yet never be told that a black artisan created it. He notes that much depends on which particular docent you end up with. Regarding Monticello, he says '...some guides more comfortable with the old Jefferson story of his inventions and quirks acknowledge the Hemings affair in clipped tones. Others discuss it volubly.'

Women are equally represented here. For example, he notes that the Montgomery bus boycott was Jo Ann Robinson's brainchild and that a 'reluctant' Martin Luther King Jr. was brought in to head the movement the day after the Women's Political Caucus had distributed leaflets to every business and church in town. He also notes that despite black women's long history of struggle for civil rights, the male leadership refused to allow any to speak at the 1963 March on fact, Coretta King and other wives weren't wasn't even allowed to march with their husbands. '...after all their work and sacrifice, deliberate rebuff by male activists was unforgivable' he says. A book that belongs in every high school library!

African American Historic Places. Savage, Beth L. Wiley, 2005 Order at

Features 800 sites on the National Historic Register which relate to African American History. Organized by 41 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Because it is designed as an identification tool rather than as a trip planner, African American Historic Places lists only addresses and does not note telephone numbers, access policies, or admission charges. The introduction, however, notes that approximately three-fourths of the properties are privately owned and not open to the public. Black-and-white photographs are provided for some of the sites, and eight introductory essays provide context for understanding the historical significance of the sites.

Historic Landmarks of Black America. Canter, George. Gale Group, 1991. Order at

Describes over 300 sites across the US and Canada, with entries ranging from a paragraph to several pages, with lots of illustrations. Each includes a historical sketch detailing the site's significance and practical information such as directions, hours, fees, and related sites....which of course you'd want to doublecheck before traveling! This book is out of print but still available through used booksellers at

In Their Footsteps: The American Visions Guide to African-American Historical Sites. Chase, Henry. Owlet, 1994. Order at

Similar to Canter's Historic Landmarks, but more comprehensive covering 46 states, Ontario and Nova Scotia. This book is out of print but still available through used booksellers at

White, Jame E. and Jean-Gontran Quenum. Roots Recovered! The How To Guide for Tracing African-American and West Indian Roots Back to Africa and Going There. 2004 Order at

The narrative style of this book is very personal...I got the sense that the author was talking to me directly in a casual conversation. It's obvious that he has traveled to the places about which he writes, and his experience is invaluable. The travel section of this book is the strongest and most complete; the part about tracking roots is really more of an introduction, and you'll need to supplement this book with others he recommends to do any serious geneology. But still, it will definitely spark your interest!

National Council of Negro Women, creators. The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro. Reprinted by Beacon Press, 2000. Read more at

This is a real gem back in print! First published in 1958, this book includes contributions from NCNW members in thirty-six states and offers exceptional insight into American history and the African American community at the time of its publication. It's arranged according to the calendar year, and even includes a recipe for Harriet Tubman's favorite dish.

Turner, Patricia A. I Heard it Through The Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. University of CA Press, 1994. Order at

Did you know that "Tropical Fantasy" is owned by the KKK and contains an ingredient to make black men sterile? Or that Liz Claiborn claimed (on "Oprah" no less) that she won't design clothes for black women? This book not only debunks some of the most popular Black Urban Myths, it also explores how the realities of race relations in this country lead to the formation and acceptance of such myths.

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Children and Young Adult Readers:
See many more books by subject area in the Toolkit for Grades K-12

Obie, Christopher R. Dumisai and the Covenent of the Ancestors, Ancestral Light Publishing, 2012.

"Dumisai, a first-generation American child born of African immigrants, discovers that he has been chosen to wield an awesome power. He soon realizes however, that with his new-found power comes a tremendous responsibility." The Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English include this book on their Recommended Reading for the annual African American Read-in

African-American Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 22. Edited by Tom Pomplun and Lance Tooks. Eureka Productions, 2011. Read more and Order at

African-American Classics presents comics adaptations of great stories and poems by America's earliest black authors, illustrated by contemporary black artists. There are 24 works in all, plus biographical descriptions for authors and artists. This was my first introduction to graphic novels, and I loved it!

The selection is outstanding. You'd think the wonderful cover by Afua Richardson (featuring W.E.B. du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes together on a bench at the train station) says it all, but that's just a tease. This book introduces authors whose names are not quite as familiar, such as Leila Amos Pendleton, whose "Sanctum 777 N.S.D.C.O.U. Meets Cleopatra" (adapted by Tom Pomplun and illustrated by Kevin J. Taylor) was among my favorites in the book. It is the perfect marriage of text and illustration.

And the artwork...WOW! Such depth and range is on display here, from fine art to more traditional cartooning. There is something and someone new to discover here as each page is eagerly turned.

The recommended age is 12 to adult, but I think the racial subject matter of the some of the stories would benefit from adult guidance. Then again, kids today are probably a lot more savvy about such things than an old-timer like me gives them credit for. There is something here for everybody, and I think it will grab the attention even of the most reluctant reader. Highly recommended!

Rhynes, Martha E. Ralph Ellison, Author of Invisible Man. Morgan Reynolds, 2006. Young Adult. Read more and Order at

Raised in Oklahoma City, Ralph Ellison studied classical music but was also immersed in jazz. He dropped out of Tuskegee Institute for lack of funds, and moved north to Harlem in 1936, where he was nudged toward writing by friends like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Infusing both his love of music and his voracious reading habit into his writing, Ellison created a uniquely American kind of prose in his seminal novel, INVISIBLE MAN. This is the newest offering in Morgan Reynolds' "World Writers" series, and as always, the author treats young adults with respect and assumes they're capable of comprehending complex topics and times.

Hart, Joyce. Native Son: the Story of Richard Wright. Morgan Reynolds, 2005. Young Adult. Read more and Order at

This is a clear and compelling biography that explores the many aspects of Wright's complex life and times. I liked the fact that it didn't try to "dumb down" or simplify the controversial aspects, instead placing them within the context of the times and struggles. The stated reading level is ages 9-12, but I think the content (which primarily references Native Son and Black Boy) is going to be better managed by readers age 12 and up.

Bohannon, Lisa Frederiksen. Freedom Cannot Rest: Ella Baker and the Civil Rights Movement. Morgan Reynolds, 2005. Young Adult. Read more and Order at

As with most women in the Civil Right's Movement, the work of Ella Baker has been largely overlooked. Yet she worked tirelessly behind the scenes organizing, raising money, and raising awareness. She often traveled alone, which was dangerous for any woman in the early part of the 20th Century, and especially so for a black woman. She worked closely with mainstream organizations such as NAACP and the SCLC, but distrusted their topdown leadership style and often clashed with that leadership. She believed in group-centered leadership, and cultivated that approach as an advisor to youth organizations such as SNCC.

This book is clearly written and amply illustrated with period photos and artwork. In addition to being a compelling biography of Ella Baker, it also provides a concise overview of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly with regard to the various approaches and factions within the movement. It's about time that the women's voices of that era are heard, and this latest title from Morgan Reynolds' "Portraits of Black Americans" series is a great place to begin.

Bolden, Tonya. Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl. Abrams, 2005. Ages 9-12. Read more and Order at

Maritcha Remond Lyon was one of the lucky few black children born not into slavery but as a free citizen. Her parents were educated, well-respected and hardworking people who, in addition to creating a comfortable life for their children, quietly assisted in the efforts of the Underground Railroad. Maritcha overcame illness, segregation and the New York Draft Riots of 1863 to continue her education, becoming the first black woman ever to graduate high school in Rhode Island. She become an educator herself, teaching for nearly 50 years.

This book about her childhood is based upon her unpublished memoir completed shortly before her death in 1929. Delving further into that memoir, other family archives and documents of the time, author Tonya Bolden has recreated the era in which Maritcha lived and thrived. The book is filled with period photographs, maps, illustrations and even documents which bring Maritcha to life: for example, her father's handwritten inventory of property the family lost during the Draft Riots.

This is a marvelous book, thoroughly researched, engagingly written and lavishly illustrated. Though the reading level is for ages 9-12, I think older students would benefit greatly from reading this book to younger children because it offers an exciting window into a period of U.S. history rarely covered: What was it like to be a free black person during the era of slavery?

Hinman, Bonnie. A Stranger in my Own House: the story of W.E.B. Du Bois. Morgan Reynolds, 2005. Young Adult. Read more and Order at

W.E.B. DuBois - pioneering sociologist, historian, professor, writer, editor, speaker, social activist, founding member of the NAACP and world traveler - has become an icon, and as such, rather unapproachable. Bonnie Hinman brings his work, passions and even his doubts to life, making him real.

She also navigates deftly through the complex social history of the era, which during DuBois lifetime ranges from Reconstruction to the early 1960's. This is particularly commendable, as too often the Civil Rights Movement is simplistically portrayed as all black people joining hands and marching forth as one unified voice. Without wandering off into confusing tangents, the book manages to capture the fact that "what was becoming the civil rights movement was born in fits and starts and changed along the way."

Well illustrated with period paintings, photos and documents, the book includes a time line, source notes, bibliography, and selected web resources. Highly recommended for young adults and actually, even for adults who would like to get to know this great and complex man.

Miller, Calvin Craig. A Philip Randolph and the African-American Labor Movement. Morgan Reynolds, 2005. Young Adult. Read more and Order at

This book is more than simply a compelling biography of A. Philip Randolph. It clearly and concisely traces the evolution of the African-American Labor Movement and the fight against segregation in all aspects of American life, starting years before what most people think of as the "Civil Rights Movement." (In fact, Randolph was negotiating with Presidents when Martin Luther King Jr. was still a child.) His long, unrelenting struggle is well documented here in both words and images, making this a most valuable addition to any library. Highly recommended.

Miller, Calvin Craig. No Easy Anwers: Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. Morgan Reynolds, 2005. Young Adult. Order at

I admire the gumption of Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Each year, as other publishers are ginning out yet another book about some popular hero, Morgan Reynolds is tackling the unsung heroes with grace and clarity. This new book about Bayard Rustin is a perfect example.

"Bayard who?" you're probably saying. point exactly. Rustin - grandson of a former slave - was a talented musician, writer, and committed activist and organizer who worked closely with such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph. He is responsible for introducing Gandhi's principles of nonviolent protest to many in the Civil Rights Movement, and was a backbone of the historic 1963 March on Washington. At the President's request, he counseled Lyndon Johnson on how best to handle the aftermath of King's assassination in 1968. In the 1980's, he counseled Lech Walesa on the use of nonviolent resistance.

The reason you've probably never heard of him is because he was also gay. After being prosecuted for a homosexual encounter, he was deserted by many of the movement leaders. But he continued to work tirelessly and bravely behind the scenes, choosing obscurity for the sake of the movement.

Obviously, Rustin is a complex biographical topic for the young adult audience, but Miller respects their intelligence and handles his material deftly. The book includes a timeline, citations of sources, a bibliography, and related web sites.

Brennan, Linda Crotta. The Black Regiment of the American Revolution. Moon Mountain Publishing, 2004. Grades 2-6 Read more or purchase at

Rhode Island's "Black Regiment" was made up primarily of slaves who had been promised freedom in return for fighting. This is a fascinating story, thoroughly told and amply illustrated with original watercolors, maps, historic images and documents, with sidebars for clarifications. Though designed for Grades 2-6, I feel the reading level and type size are really more suitable for 4-6, though younger grades will definitely enjoy it as a book talk.

Greenberg, Jan. Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories. Abrams, 2003. Grade 5-8. Order at

This is not a standard biography, but what a perfect tribute to Romare Bearden! This lavishly illustrated book is a biographical collage capturing various personal and professional aspects of Bearden's life as reflected in his artwork. I've read through it several times now, and I see discover something new each time.

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