Recent events in the United States have been the stimulus for Black Lives Matter protests around the world — but the issue of systemic racism has long been entrenched in American society.
Books are a powerful education tool, and we are exploring the most celebrated works of five Black authors — books that provide an insight into the ongoing racial tensions in America.
Michelle Alexander is a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar who has appeared on various radio and television programs.
Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argues that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” — due to the legality of discriminating against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.
The book was first published in 2010, spent nearly 250 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and won numerous awards, including the 2011 NAACP Image Award for best nonfiction.
Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises — the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole .
Maya Angelou had a diverse career as a singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first female Black director, but found fame as a writer. As a civil rights activist, Angelou worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya and her brother, Bailey, are sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, where they endure abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old, and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age — and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime.
As I’d watched Momma put ruffles on the hem and cute little tucks around the waist, I knew that once I put it on I’d look like a movie star. (It was silk and that made up for the awful color.) I was going to look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody’s dream of what was right with the world. Hanging softly over the black Singer sewing machine, it looked like magic, and when people saw me wearing it they were going to run up to me and say, “Marguerite [sometimes it was ‘dear Marguerite’], forgive us, please, we didn’t know who you were,” and I would answer generously, “No, you couldn’t have known. Of course I forgive you.”
Tressie McMillan Cottom earned her doctorate in sociology from Emory University’s Laney Graduate School and is now an award-winning Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty affiliate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.
In Thick — her collection of eight essays on topics such as beauty, media, and money — McMillan Cottom is able to “transform narrative moments into analyses of whiteness, Black misogyny, and status-signaling as means of survival for Black women.”
The assumption of Black women’s incompetence — we cannot know ourselves or express ourselves in a way that prompts people with power to respond to us as agentic beings — supersedes even the most powerful status cultures in all of neoliberal capitalism: wealth and fame. In a 2017 interview, Serena Williams describes how she had to bring to bear the full force of her authority as a global superstar to convince a nurse that she needed a treatment after the birth of her daughter. The treatment likely saved Serena’s life.
In the wealthiest nation in the world, b\Black women are dying in childbirth at rates comparable to those in poorer, colonized nations. The CDC says that Black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than are white women. Medical doctors surely know about these disparities, right? Why, then, would a global superstar have to intervene so directly in her own postnatal care, and what does that say about how poorer, average Black women are treated when they give birth?
Ta-Nehisi Coates gained a wide readership during his time as a national correspondent at The Atlantic and is now a writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the current author of the Marvel comics The Black Panther and Captain America.
Between The World And Me explores how Americans have built an empire on the idea of race. What is it like to inhabit a Black body and find a way to live within it? How can this fraught history be reckoned with? This book is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer such questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Between The World And Me is a #1 New York Times bestseller, National Book Award winner, and Pulitzer finalist.
I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable.
James Forman Jr. is a professor of law at Yale Law School. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, numerous law reviews, and other publications. A former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, he spent six years as a public defender in Washington, DC, where he co-founded the Maya Angelou Public Charter School.
In Locking Up Our Own, Forman Jr. seeks to understand the war on crime that began in the 1970s and why it was supported by many African American leaders in the nation’s urban centers. Locking Up Our Own won the Pulitzer Prize for General NonFiction, and was longlisted for the National Book Award. It has been named a best book of the year by numerous publications, including the New York Times, The Marshall Project, Publisher’s Weekly, and GQ Magazine.
“Mr Forman says you need another chance. But let me ask you, do you even realize how many chances you’ve already had? You might think you have it hard. But let me tell you, it was harder once. Black boys picked cotton once upon a time. Sat in the back of the bus — those who were lucky enough to even be on the bus, and not walking. “
Judge Walker was getting into this rhythm now. He wasn’t a preacher, but he sounded like somebody who has spend more than a few Sundays in the pews.
Browse our reading list on injustice, inequality, and being Black in America.