The Books Briefing: Overlooked Stories of Black American Life

American history, Black life, and the resilience of memory: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Charlotte Forten
Fotosearch / Getty / The Atlantic

In Black Genealogy, the historian Charles L. Blockson tells the story of Edward “Ned” Hector, a Black soldier who fought in the American Revolution. Several years ago, a man named Noah Lewis came across Hector’s story and decided that children needed to hear it. So, as the Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith reports, Lewis began acting as Hector in presentations for children and schools. He is now a full-time reenactor, highlighting the history of Black people’s contributions to the American project.

Earlier this week, The Atlantic launched “Inheritance,” a project about American history, Black life, and the resilience of memory. Inspired in part by the work of Charlotte Forten, the first Black woman to be published in this magazine, the project is filled with the stories of people like Hector and Lewis—stories about overlooked portions of Black history and the efforts to bring them to light. Danielle Allen revisits the work of Prince Hall, a Black Revolutionary-era abolitionist and American Founder who is the central figure of a book in progress by the historian Chernoh M. Sesay Jr. Anna Holmes writes about The Brownies’ Book, a 1920s magazine for Black children and the subject of the forthcoming essay collection A Centennial Celebration of The Brownies’ Book Magazine. And Smith shares reflections on the oral histories that the Federal Writers’ Project gathered from formerly enslaved people.

These efforts to record Black history have been ongoing for centuries, which Cynthia Greenlee highlights in a story about William Henry Dorsey, who used hundreds of scrapbooks to create an archive of Black life in 19th-century Philadelphia. Dorsey’s scrapbooks influenced the work of scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who drew from the collection when writing The Philadelphia Negro, and they continue to serve as an important archive today.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

What We’re Reading

photo from the Federal Writers Project archive of a woman sitting outside a wooden house
Photograph by Aaron Turner; archival image from Library of Congress

Stories of slavery, from those who survived it

“So much of Black history is underreported, misrepresented, or simply lost … So many stories that would give us a fuller picture of America are known by so few Americans.”

Photograph of several women holding children

Life on the sea islands

“I never before saw children so eager to learn, although I had had several years’ experience in New-England schools. Coming to school is a constant delight and recreation to them. They come here as other children go to play.”

📚 “Life on the Sea Islands,” by Charlotte Forten

watercolor of Prince Hall
Matt Williams

A forgotten Black Founding Father

“I am deeply aware of how much historical treasure about Black America is hidden, and have been actively trying to seek it out.”

📚 Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry, a book in progress by Chernoh M. Sesay Jr.

Courtesy of Library of Congress / The Atlantic

The magazine that helped 1920s kids navigate racism

The Brownies’ Book’s greatest power lay not in what it said but in what it showed. Its images celebrated Black beauty while telling a story of Black childhood as something ordinary and American.”

📚 The Brownies’ Book, edited by W. E. B. Du Bois
📚 A Centennial Celebration of The Brownies’ Book Magazine, forthcoming

photo of a scrapbook

A priceless archive of ordinary life

“To preserve Black history, a 19th-century Philadelphian filled hundreds of scrapbooks with newspaper clippings and other materials. But now underfunding and physical decay are putting archives like this one at risk.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Deacon King Kong, by James McBride.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.