20 Feb Books to Save Our Lives
I believe in the transformative alchemy of good writing. So periodically I assemble what I hope may serve as suggestions: a helpful, annotated short list of compelling books on a subject–in this case, following on last week’s blog, on racism. I’ve suggested some of these books before, and a few were published a while ago; but most are recent. In any event, reminders are always good. The list could run into the thousands, but we have to start somewhere. They are all non-fiction and, with a few exceptions, on, about, and/or by Black women.
Fortunately, we live at a time of great flowering in scholarship on and mostly by African American women, and these books—my personal choices—largely focus on the enslavement of Black people, particularly women, in the United States, and the subsequent consequences. This is a new, crucial unearthing of Black history and U.S. history that has been (indeed, is still being) flatly denied to Black Americans and about which White Americans have been kept ignorant. Almost all of these authors have been guests on my podcast; the episodes on which they appeared can be found indexed in the archives of “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” where each of these books has been discussed in detail, along with numerous others on this and related subjects.
All these authors share standards of excellence and a generous capacity for irony—as in dealing with the contradictions embodied in Washington, Jefferson, and Madison (“father of the Constitution”)—all revolutionaries, all slaveholders. These authors of these books are not interested in simplistic denunciations that will raise what they know is an already high defensiveness in many White readers. Actually, they’re understated. They’re interested in facts, and in how the compartmentalization actually worked. Which is precisely the lesson we need to learn today.
If you’re an African American reader or other reader of color who happens not to know some of these books, I’d wager that you will come more into your own power through them. If you’re a European American or other White reader, you may discover that this knowledge can free you from the “unbearable Whiteness of being,” and make you furious at having been denied what you had a right to know. Guilt is not the point. Guilt is counterproductive and most of all, boring.
Knowledge is the point, and is also power–the power to change things.
“Color Literate” Book Suggestions—RM personal list.
Black Women in White America,: A Documentary History, by Gerda Lerner. A classic, from the great historian who felt strongly that “women must place themselves at the absolute center of history, and perceive from that vantage point.” Here she has assembled from multiple sources historical quotes as well as written documents by Black women, in their own voices, about their own reality.
New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, by Wendy Warren. The institution of slavery wasn’t just a Southern phenomenon. This is a study of how slave trading contributed to the rapid growth and economic success of the Northern colonies. Did you know, for example, that it was not Virginia that first legalized slavery in the colonies, but Massachusetts, in 1641? By the middle of the century, more slaves inhabited the North than all of the Chesapeake; by the 1680s over half the ships plying waters along the Boston coast were tied to the commerce in Caribbean rum, sugar, and enslaved human beings.
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. When the brain balks—at the waves of statistics, the enormous scope—the heart needs a specific story. Dr. Dunbar, Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware, put a face on such a story. When George and Martha Washington moved from Mount Vernon in Virginia to Philadelphia (then the nation’s capitol), they brought nine enslaved people with them. But Philadelphia had a law requiring slaveholders to free their slaves after six months. So clever George decided to circumvent the law by sending his slaves back South every six months, resetting the clock. Martha’s chief attendant, Ona Judge, was an intelligent young woman who figured this out, and before she could be sent back to the plantation to be “reset,” she ran. This is the only book that examines the life of an 18th-century fugitive woman in detail—and lends us a shift in perception about the “father of our country.” At the end of her life, Judge granted interviews to two reporters for abolitionist newspapers: her voice comes alive in this true story of escape and pursuit.
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reade. This is from the Pulitzer Prize winning author who brought us the truth about Jefferson and Sallie Hemmings, complete with all the attendant ironies of Jefferson having been so committed to the rights of “mankind”–plus the complexities that Sallie, his enslaved de facto wife for 40 years, was the half-sister of his dead White wife, and the two women could have been twins. Gordon-Reade presents intimate, intricate, familial truths with a compassion balanced by the precise eye of a historian, one who can really write. A brilliant, heart-rending work. Also see Gordon-Reade’s earlier work, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.
Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America, by Catherine Kerrison. Perceptions of the new nation via the stories of three women, Harriet Hemings (Jefferson’s Black daughter with Sally Hemings), and Martha and Maria Jefferson, his White daughters with his deceased wife Martha Wales Jefferson. With the apparent assistance of Jefferson, Harriet escaped slavery, left Monticello, and probably “passed” into White society.
The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From the Womb to the Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry. This book delivers shock upon shock, even if you thought you knew something about the subject. Dr. Berry, Professor of History and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, has done research both stupendous and specific. In life and in death slaves were commodities, their monetary value assigned based on age, sex, health, and market demands. A pregnant woman cost more at market: two for the price of one, plus it meant she was fertile for the future including through rape, because the law sanctioned slavery through a woman’s womb. A man could rape, impregnate, and increase his wealth in slaves all at the same time. So careful attention was paid to female slaves’ gynecological health. The “father of gynecology,” Dr. James Marion Simms, conducted his research on enslaved women—sometimes performing experiments without anesthesia because it was expensive and they were “merely slaves.” Every aspect of an enslaved person’s life was commodified. Corpses were “harvested and anatomized” because the “products” had to make it to their destinations well-preserved in cadaver bags. Physicians at Southern and Northern medical schools participated in this booming business. Although slavery supposedly ended in 1865, the Black cadaver trade—what Dr. Barry terms “the ghost value” of deceased African Americans, many formally enslaved–continued until the 1880s.
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet A. Washington, a “fellow” (sic) in ethics at Harvard Medical School, and at the Harvard School of Public Health. Prodigious research went into this National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, and it is worth it.
Celia, A Slave, by Melton A. McLaurin. The story of a woman who dared to fight back against a rapist master in 1850s Missouri, and was tried for killing him.
Fatal Self-Deception: Slave-Holding Paternalism in the Old South. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese coauthored this work of historical scholarship on just why and how slaveholders had trouble “getting their stories straight,” since those stories were contradictory, hypocritical, and ideologically empty.
The Second Coming of the KKK: the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, by Linda Gordon. No, it didn’t just happen once. Yes, it has come in waves again and again, and continues. An eye-opener.
White Rage, by Carol Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University, gives us this National Book Critics Circle Award winner. It delineates how, ever since 1865 and the passage of the 13th Amendment, every single time African-Americans have made advances toward full participation in our democracy, White reactive backlash has fueled deliberate, relentless rollbacks of any gains. From the Black Codes to hostility to President Obama, this brings it all back home and up to date.
The 1619 Project, devised and coordinated by Pulitzer Prize winning Nikole Hannah Jones and The New York Times. It is now a book, a documentary series, a curriculum, and, fortunately, other iterations of consciousness — all of which have been mercilessly attacked by the right wing, and by book haters and science deniers. It is a chorus of authors, and of truth telling, and a vital source that simply cannot be ignored and should be celebrated, as indeed it has been. You can find its various forms easily online.
And: The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, by Spencer Wells. The book that proves the utter falsity of “Whiteness” and, in fact, of race itself.
You will weep, you will laugh, you will recognize, you will rage–and you will never be the same again.
[This blog will be on hiatus next week but will return the week after.]