Reading List About Our Racial History

As noted in this post about our need for truth, reconciliation, and justice about past injustices, Washington Post journalist James Hohmann compiled the following list of readings for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to learn about our racial history based on suggestions of preeminent historians.  This is a good reading list for all of us to learn more about our tragic past in the way we have dealt with African Americans.

We Face the Dawn,” by Margaret Edds, which tells the story of two Virginia lawyers who were involved in Brown v. Board of Education.

Edward Ayers, who won the 2004 Bancroft Prize for “In the Presence of Mine Enemies,” an extraordinary narrative of the Civil War, recommends that Northam begin with Edmund Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.”

If Northam wants to learn about how slavery evolved during the 17th century on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where he grew up, Ayers thinks the governor should look to “Myne Owne Ground,” by Timothy Breen and Stephen Innes.

“Reading firsthand testimony from the narrative of Oloudah Equiano, an African man enslaved in Virginia, and from Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia,’ where he tries to explain away racial subjugation through the language of science, would be eye-opening,” Ayers added.

For a glimpse at the slave trade that ravaged families only a few hundred yards from the Virginia State Capitol, Ayers suggests “Slaves Waiting for Sale,” by Maurie McInnis.  For an understanding of Richmond itself, the professor floats Gregg Kimball’s “American City, Southern Place: A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond.”

During the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, Virginia became the largest slave state and the state that saw the largest numbers of families devastated by the domestic slave trade.  To understand that awful chapter, Ayers recommends Northam looks at “Life in Black and White,” which focuses on Northern Virginia, by Brenda Stevenson.  He also suggests “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” by Annette Gordon-Reed.

Gordon-Reed, a Harvard historian who earned the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for “The Hemingses,” suggests a book by Philip Morgan that might appeal to Northam: “Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry.”  She also recommends “The Captive’s Quest for Freedom” about the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, by Richard Blackett, and “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832,” by Alan Taylor.

Taylor, a historian at the University of Virginia who received the 2014 Pulitzer for “The Internal Enemy,” recommends that Northam read Coates’s full-length book “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” in addition to his magazine piece [“The Case for Reparations”].  Taylor also offered Edmund Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom” and “White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812,” by Winthrop Jordan.

“He has to start with W.E.B. DuBois’s ‘The Souls of Black Folk,’” said Columbia University historian Eric Foner, who received the Pulitzer in 2011 for “The Fiery Trial,” which tracks Abraham Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery.  Foner also suggested Michael Honey’s recent book on Martin Luther King Jr., which “gives us a much better picture of the man and his ideas than the sanitized King trotted out on MLK Day,” and David Blight’s “Prophet of Freedom,” a biography of Frederick Douglass published last fall.

New York University professor Steven Hahn, who won the 2004 Pulitzer for “A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration,” named an older book by Blight, “Race and Reunion,” which explored the Civil War in America’s collective memory.  He also suggested “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” the C. Vann Woodward classic.  “If anyone doubts how deep racism is in the country’s DNA,” Hahn said, “Northam, Herring and [Eastern Virginia Medical School] have shown us.”

Caroline Janney, who runs the University of Virginia’s Center for Civil War History, recommends Northam begin with Robert Penn Warren’s “Legacy of the Civil War.”  “It was written for the centennial of the war amid the civil rights movement,” she said.  “It is an excellent, short place to start to understand the long arm of not only the war, but the tangled and complicated history of race and memory of slavery in the United States.”  She also suggested “Making Whiteness,” by Grace Hale, a colleague at U-Va.

“The first Africans brought to Virginia were captured in Angola and brought in a slave ship, but Virginia did not have a formal legal system for slavery in 1619,” Fenit Nirappil explains.  “There appears to be some ambiguity over their legal status, with some still forced to work for life while others had a path to freedom, according to the National Park Service.  Asked to clarify Northam’s remarks, a spokeswoman for the governor pointed to news accounts that said Africans were treated as indentured servants before slave laws were written.”

After watching Northam’s interview, U-Va. historian Sarah Milov said two books came to mind that might help set him straight.  In “Saltwater Slavery,” Stephanie Smallwood writes about the physical processes of enslavement — and the social dislocation it caused — from the Middle Passage to the Americas.  “Gov. Northam would be unlikely to mistake slavery for indentured servitude after reading this book, which notes how Virginia decisively turned away from English indentured servants toward African captives in the late 17th century,” she emailed.

Milov was also struck by Northam’s rationale for refusing to resign.  The governor emphasized that he was a doctor in the Army and a pediatric neurologist in Norfolk as a civilian.  “Right now, Virginia needs someone that can heal,” Northam said on CBS.  “There’s no better person to do that than a doctor.”  She thinks Northam ought to read “Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of Gynecology,” by Deirdre Cooper Owens.  “This book might help Dr. Northam better understand the history of medical experimentation on enslaved black women, including by the ‘father of modern gynecology,’” she said.  “Perhaps the governor might see the irony in his claim … that ‘nobody better than a doctor to heal the wound.’”

Justene Hill Edwards, another historian at U-Va., suggests “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class,” by David Roediger, and “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life,” by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields.

“It’s shocking to me that a white Democratic politician from a Southern state in the year 2019 — one who depends on massive turnout and political organization from black Virginians — was so in need of remedial education that he didn’t know what Roots was all about,” said Cornell University’s Ed Baptist, the author of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.”  Baptist’s book focuses more on the internal slave trade than the importation of slaves from Africa, and he shows how the transportation of enslaved people from Virginia and Maryland fueled the cotton plantation economy of the Deep South.  Baptist, who grew up in North Carolina, recommended three readable books by academic historians so he could understand how slavery shaped the United States, whites’ dependence on it and black resistance to it: “They Were Her Property,” by Stephanie Jones-Rogers; “Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance,” by Stephanie Camp; and “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh,” by Daina Ramey Berry.

Baptist also suggested three other non-historical accounts: Jesmyn Ward’s novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing”; Kiese Laymon’s memoir “Heavy”; and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Thick,” a new book of essays published last month about the impact of racism on black women’s bodies in contemporary America.  Cottom is a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Former Spelman University president Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote the classic “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” which poignantly explores the psychology of racism.  She recommends “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo, which Tatum said “addresses why it is so hard for white adults to recognize their own complicity in the perpetuation of racism.”  To better understand racial history as it relates to the current political moment, she also thinks Northam needs to read “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” by Carol Anderson, and “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America,” by Jim Wallis.  Tatum also suggests “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” by Ibram X. Kendi, who directs American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center.  “So many to choose from,” said Tatum. “I hope he does read some of these!”

If you have other things to add to this list, please include them in a comment.

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