The Books Briefing: Finding Place as a Black American

Carving out room for freedom and self-identification: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A boy sits near the Statue of Liberty.
Didier Ruef / LUZphoto / Redux

As this year’s Juneteenth celebrations begin—commemorating when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were told that the Civil War had ended and they were now technically free—thinking about place can be illuminating. America has a long history of denying and violating the basic rights of Black people, leading many of these citizens to carve out spaces that celebrate and recognize their full humanity. In a new essay as part of our project “Inheritance,” the historian Daina Ramey Berry argues that Juneteenth should also be a celebration of the ways Black people created and found freedom on their own terms, including through networks, events, and spaces that extolled the values of abolition, self-liberation, and defiance.

In an article adapted from her book On Juneteenth, the Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed examines the history of Black people in the United States before 1619, focusing on the story of Estebanico, one of the first people of African descent to enter the historical record in the Americas. Estebanico has been sidelined in histories for years, but Gordon-Reed proposes that he is integral to African Americans’ origin story. And in an essay adapted from his book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, The Alantic’s Clint Smith grapples with Americans’ beliefs about the Confederacy by exploring locations and attending events tied to the Civil War and slavery.

Thinking of place as a more figurative concept, the author Sasha Banks, in her essay “The Problem With Patriotism,” contends with her role in the United States, which she felt alienated from as a girl and young adult. Instead of conforming to a national identity, she journeys to define herself, eventually identifying as a “confessor” who names the ways the country has failed Black Americans. And in “The Coal Cellar,” the poet Nikki Giovanni transports readers to a tender moment with her grandmother in which the interplay of place and history leads to the inheritance of knowledge.

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.

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What We’re Reading

A Kerry James Marshall painting

Kerry James Marshall, Our Town, 1995 (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Vancouver Art Gallery. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, London.)

How we became free
“The truth is that Juneteenth is a celebration of just one way that Black people either created freedom or found it, often on their own terms. What we acknowledge this Juneteenth must be about more than what was given. It must be about what had already been claimed.”

A black-and-white sketch of a man

Gordon C. James

Black America’s neglected origin stories
“Origin stories matter, for individuals, groups of people, and nations. They inform our sense of self, telling us what kind of people we believe we are, what kind of nation we believe we live in … But in the case of Black people, the limitations of the history and possibility of our origin stories have helped create and maintain an extremely narrow construction of Blackness.”

A window that features a Confederate flag and shattered glass

Paul Spella

Why Confederate lies live on
“For so many of them, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”

A Black Union soldier and his family

Courtesy of Library of Congress

The problem with patriotism
“The patriot identity limits our ability as citizens to collectively revolutionize the American infrastructure. It is a national identity that observes the flaws of the system and, instead of considering abolition to address the root of the problems, aims simply to reshape or reform.”

A railroad crossing and the reflection of curtains

Matt Eich

“The Coal Cellar”
“I’ll bet there are many precious
Things in the cellars
Of Appalachia
The most being the trust my grandmother
Had in me to keep the silver polished
And not discussed with anyone”

📚  “The Coal Cellar,” by Nikki Giovanni
📚 Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose, by Nikki Giovanni

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Tori Latham. The book she can’t wait to read at the beach is One Last Stop, by Casey McQuiston.

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