Rediscovering Our Black Forerunners: A Black History Month Reading List
February 09, 2016
Black History Month is as much about rediscovery as it is about celebration and commemoration. At Beacon Press, the books we publish that cover black history reintroduce us to long-forgotten or hidden historical figures, unearth information previously unknown about prominent black leaders, bring us closer to the struggles and triumphs of African ancestors. In the current age of #BlackLivesMatter and other movements that compel us to evaluate our country’s progress in racial justice, it’s important to get reacquainted with the steps black forerunners have taken—and their history—so we can see how to step forward. For this year's Black History Month, we're recommending a list of new and older titles offering biographies, histories, memoir, and more.
The Long Walk to Freedom: edited by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise
Editors Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise collected twelve first-person narratives spanning eight decades, all told in the voices of the runaway slaves themselves, that reveal the extraordinary and innovative ways these men and women sought freedom and demanded citizenship. More than half of the inspiring narratives in this collection, the first book about the runaway slave phenomenon, had been long out of print. The Long Walk to Freedom also includes an essay by history professor Brenda Stevenson that gives a context for these narratives, a comprehensive brief history of slavery, and a look into the daily life of a slave.
Premilla Nadasen’s Household Workers Unite
Scholar and activist Premilla Nadasen’s Household Workers Unite gives voice to the African-American domestic workers involved in the little-known history of domestic-worker activism from the 1950s to the 1970s. Contrary to mainstream labor’s notion that household workers were “unorganizable,” these women were far from the stereotyped passive and powerless victims. They forged alliances with activists in the women’s rights and black freedom movements. Through the power of storytelling as a form of activism, they established a collective identity as workers worthy of dignity and respect. They organized tirelessly on buses and streets across the country to bring legal recognition to their profession. These were fierce women at the vanguard of the labor movement.
Jeanne Theoharis's The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks was so much more than the fable-like figure of the quiet and demure seamstress who refused to give her seat on the Montgomery bus we have been taught about in elementary school. In The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, professor of political science Jeanne Theoharis wants us to know that Parks was in fact primed for six decades of civil rights activism, not just the singled out historical day she is mostly known for. Through economic hardships and a constant barrage of death threats that took a toll on Parks and her family, she remained committed to calling out and eliminating racial inequality in jobs, schools, public services, and the criminal justice system. Up until the end of her political career, she was every bit as radical as Malcolm X.
Paul Robeson was quite the Renaissance man. Singer, actor, social activist, lawyer, and athlete, Robeson was one of most celebrated African Americans of his day. He was blacklisted after attracting the scrutiny of McCarthyism because of his outspoken criticism of American racism, his strong support for African independence, and his fascination with the Soviet Union. Part autobiography and part manifesto, Here I Stand brought his voice out of silence and still stands as a challenge to fear and racism.
Gayle Wald’s Shout, Sister, Shout!
Gospel’s first superstar Sister Rosetta Tharpe may have been buried in an unmarked grave, but the mark she left on black history and music history is indelible. Drawing on the memories of more than a hundred people who knew or worked with Tharpe, Gayle Wald’s biography Shout, Sister, Shout! introduces us to the trailblazing rock guitar diva who combined her foundation in gospel with blues, jazz, country, popular ballads, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Her crossover appeal drew in black and white audiences from the North and South in the US and from international crowds. Tharpe went electric early on and would influence the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Eric Clapton, and Etta James.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of renowned novelist and MacArthur fellow Octavia E. Butler, who drew the realities of slavery into striking, visceral focus through fiction with her classic novel Kindred. Dana, a modern black woman, is summoned repeatedly through time from her California home to the antebellum South to save Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner. Each visit grows longer and more perilous, endangering her life and her ability to return to the present, and forces Dana to confront her own ancestry. Written to honor the courage of people perceived as property, Kindred attests to Butler’s legacy as the first well-known African-American woman in the field of science fiction.
Alondra Nelson's The Social Life of DNA
Professor of sociology and gender studies Alondra Nelson’s new book, released just last month, shows that the billion-dollar industry of ancestry DNA testing is an active voice in our country’s ongoing and complex conversation about race. For many African Americans, genetic genealogy has become a new tool for addressing the unfinished business of slavery, establishing ties with African ancestral homelands, and making legal claims for slavery reparations based specifically on ancestry. The Social Life of DNA proposes that DNA, our portal to the past, could put us on the path of reconciliation, and that science could be the crucial ally to activism to transform the present and future of racial politics.