This is a list and like any other list it is representative of what I believe to be of worth and consideration. Others may find avenues of disagreement, but they’ll travel that road by themselves. I do not know what African Americans should read. All I know is that there have been books that marked a significant change in my understanding of myself and the world. Many of the most influential texts I’ve read were during my undergraduate years. These are the titles I will briefly introduce to some and review for others. My personal experience with literature has always been one of illumination, imagination, safety, and comfort. James Baldwin’s sobering declaration that “you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.
It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive,” applies here. I do believe a person that has not cultivated an appreciation for reading (self-learning) is doomed to be constantly read to, stuck in a world discerned by others. Which is a perfect segue to the first book in my list.
1. The Mis-Education of the Negro by Dr. Carter G. Woodson
My high school principal called me into his office one day and tossed me this book. He said, “You need to read this before you go to college.” At the time, a book recommendation from my hard-nosed principal meant something, so I eagerly consumed this short piece of work. At only 108 pages, The Mis-Education of the Negro accomplishes what the best of academic writing wishes it could in a clear, concise sweep. His central argument was that African Americans were being mis-educated via lack of positive Negro historical narratives coupled with promotion of a “superior” Eurocentric history in the American education system. The system inundates Negroes with false perceptions of themselves that permeate through thought into action, reconstituting this demoralized mindset in the black community. Woodson’s most famous quote in the book lays it out bare, “If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action.
When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.” This book opened my eyes to the hypocrisy of the American education system. It serves as a reminder that individuals and groups must take control of their own education lest they be erroneously convinced against themselves
2. Black Skin, White Masks by Franz Fanon
The psychological effects of colonialism are well documented though most salient in Black Skin, White Masks. In my Introduction to Philosophy class, where we read excerpts from this book, I was able to connect my personal experiences as a black man in America to that of other colonized people. This book particularly opened my eyes to the realities of American cultural aspirations in the black community. Fanon chronicles his own life experiences while addressing the history and psychology of those who have been colonized. Black people trying to live in postcolonial nations inevitably strive to attain the cultural markers of status and achievement. The sinister side effect of this seemingly innocuous endeavor is that the colonized people sacrifice their indigenous culture to acquire that of the colonizer.
The twist comes in the colonized never fully being accepted into the dominant culture, while now being distinctly removed from their indigenous culture. They are trapped between two worlds essentially. This interplay of experiences reveals itself in our conceptions of language, mate, and place as we work to be accepted in a dominant culture. Fanon helps clarify the cultural disillusion that many black people feel after acquiescing into the dominant culture. In our contemporary society, a collegiate education is one of the main gateways by which colonized people vie for access to the sociopolitical accouterments of the colonizer. Fanon leaves upwardly mobile black people to reckon with his claim that “What matters is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.”
3. Words of Fire by Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall
During my senior year of undergrad, I enrolled in Feminist Theory at Spelman College. This was not the first course where I was introduced to the idea of feminism. It was, however, the course that solidified my commitment to feminist principles. The class was led by Dr. Sheftall herself. Afterwards, I realized that all men can benefit from feminist theory in ways they may not initially understand. As men, it can be hard stepping back and acknowledging the power and privilege we wield. As an anthology of African American feminist thought Words of Fire allows readers to see the scope of a lesser known intellectual tradition. It tells a tale of black women who have been fighting for equal rights since the antislavery movements of the 1830s, well before the black women’s liberation movement of the 60’s. Black women often face what Guy-Sheftall calls a “triple threat” of racism, sexism, and classism.
It is through their lived experience that they combat this axis of oppression and where the black feminist tradition finds its culmination. Reading this anthology gave me a deeper and broader appreciation for the history of black women and their struggle. Black women’s voices are often lost in the milieu of our world. Words of Fire brings those voices to the forefront of today’s sociopolitical discussions. As a man, I had never taken the time to just sit, listen, and learn from black women. Without that class, I cannot say that I would have ever picked up this book on my own, but I’m eternally thankful that I did.
4. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
If there was ever an author that I could read countless times and always glean new insights it would be James Baldwin. I would recommend reading as much Baldwin as possible. You can find a collection of his written work in The Price of The Ticket. Within that volume of work, I want to draw your attention to The Fire Next Time. It is composed of two essays, typically sold as a single book. Baldwin writes to his younger nephew in the essay “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” He asks his nephew to reconsider the problem of race in America, essentially pushing him to look beyond his anger and see how American racism is embedded in our society and how one can move beyond it.
The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, deals with Baldwin’s understanding of race and religion in America. He recalls his early life in a Christian church as well as his encounter with a growing Islamic community in New York during his time there. Baldwin’s poetic language is surprisingly clear and does not betray the profundity of his words. This book pushes both blacks and whites to look beyond their narrow perceptions and embrace a broader understanding of American life. He says “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.” His works are the kind that leaves you believing that you understand, only to realize you’ve just scratched the surface.
5. Black Sexual Politics by Patricia Hill Collins
Intersectionality is something black people should become increasingly familiar with. Kimberle Crenshaw was the first to highlight how intersections of identity can cause the same oppression to affect us in varying degrees. Collins follows up and pushes us to have an intersectional lens when we consider the effect of racism, sexism, and classism on black bodies. She argues that our understanding of the issues that affect black people cannot be understood through a monolithic lens. Black Sexual Politics is a call for black people to combat the oppressions they face in new and innovative ways, one of which is self-expression. Black people must find ways to tell their own stories. She also argues that black people must reorient their perceptions on sexuality and those who are LGBT(QIA). The taboo of sexuality in the black community only serves to repress and divide an already fractured community. Internal divisiveness does not lead to liberation. Collins wants us to examine how we create community, support one another, and engage honesty while we work to address specific issues that may affect a particular subset of the larger black community. This work of black liberation can only be done together.
6. Race: A Philosophical Introduction by Paul C. Taylor
If you want a thorough overview of contemporary U.S. views surrounding race this is the book for you. As an African American, I felt that it was appropriate to expand my thinking on what race means and this was the recommendation I was given. Race is relatively short, finishing at a little over 200 pages. In five chapters, Taylor attempts to address questions such as “what is race-thinking”, “is colorblindness useful”, and “why do we constantly talk about race?” For Taylor, race is something we all deal with. Whether it affects us personally, someone we know, or is just something that sparks our curiosity this book will have an answer or two for you.
It is important for anyone that wants to talk about race to have an in-depth understanding of the term and all the baggage that comes with it. Many people approach race in very simple terms, when the reality of the word is much more complex and nuanced. Without understanding the different conceptions of race that people bring to the table in discussion only helps us continue to talk past one another. Conversations about race existed before this country, at its seminal foundation, and today in our contemporary limelight. The ability to move past talking about race requires us to start on the same page to understand what it means when we say we want to address the race issues today.
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7. Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Neihbur
I found this book in an abandoned classroom one day. It had an interesting title so I decided to add it to my collection. Though it is not specifically about race, Moral Man and Immoral Society pushes us to question what we believe we can do to solve complex issues amongst groups. Neihbur’s thesis is that there is a distinction between the morality of individuals and groups (nations, economic classes, races, etc.) The morality that serves individuals is not suited for groups because where the individual can move beyond their egotistic self-interest and consider others, groups cannot. Groups themselves as a collective ego of sorts have their own self-interests.
The way past individual self-interest according to Neihbur is traditionally through rationality or reason. He believes that those who think that groups can surpass their own self-interests and work together through these mechanisms are mistaken. This is a philosophically rich book that seems timeless considering today’s current sociopolitical affairs. Groups are more pronounced and antagonized on all sides than ever before. Calls for individuals to be less self-interested so that the groups they’re apart of will eventually change as well are myopic. For Neihbur, groups will inevitably be selfish and only through acts of power can their egotism be checked, usually occurring politically. The individual should still strive to be less egotistic and self-interested because this will ultimately help the problem at large but it is far from the solution
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Justin Jones is a scholar currently based in Brooklyn, New York.