Eight Books That Reevaluate American History
In these recent works, Black innovations and labor receive the prominence they deserve in popular narratives.
Zora Neale Hurston once observed that America’s most prominent historical narratives prioritize “all these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.” Much of American life is built on the knowledge and labor of Black people, especially those who were once enslaved. But the origins of, for example, the country’s cuisine or its music are commonly underreported, under-credited, or intentionally obfuscated—whether via the repetition of falsehoods or by keeping books that plainly document America’s past away from children.
I’ve often wondered how we might all actively seek out information about the people and stories that have already been scrubbed from official records. That’s been one of the joys of reading (and contributing to) The Atlantic’s “Inheritance” project. Alongside it, a number of recent books, including one that compiles Hurston’s essays, have taken up the tremendous task of reframing our understanding such that buried figures speak, too. Writers at The Atlantic, such as Adam Harris, Adam Serwer, and Clint Smith, all published nonfiction last year that joins this body of work challenging deeply entrenched national mythologies.
These ventures can require far more research material than existing—or easily accessible—archives can provide. Surfacing certain parts of Black history is a fundamentally investigative pursuit. Taken together, these books present alternative readings of familiar-seeming subjects. They offer not just information, but also new ways of evaluating old truths. What follows is a small compilation of recent literature that endeavors to shift the focus onto those who tend to be absent from the stories many of us have heard.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, by Saidiya Hartman
Hartman is known for transcending the limits of form in deliciously challenging ways. Like her previous work, Wayward Lives, her most recent release, resists categorization as it chronicles the complexity of Black life. The book melds historical records with fiction to sketch vibrant portraits of young Black women pushed to the margins in the early 20th century. Hartman’s subjects engaged in free love, queer relationships, and sex work in New York and Philadelphia, and their daring transformed society. There are few legible uprisings in Hartman’s retelling; instead, it’s a powerful document of how change is nurtured in intimate spaces not governed by standards of respectability. “Despite the efforts of the state to contain it as pathology and as crime,” she writes, “it proved impossible to stave the tide of desires not bound by law … and the ardent longing to live as one wanted.” That’s rebellion enough.
Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop, by Danyel Smith
Smith’s forthcoming book joins several new releases that critically examine Black women’s contributions to American music, which have frequently been dismissed. Shine Bright pays homage to artists beginning with the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley, who was “a singer, with all that title conjures.” Smith, a former editor at Billboard and Vibe magazine, conveys the urgency of rectifying sustained cultural erasure. In a chapter about the Sweet Inspirations, the 1960s R&B girl group, Smith points out that Janis Joplin’s characterization of soul music stuck “while women like Mahalia Jackson and Dionne Warwick and Cissy Houston were struggling to get booked in integrated settings, and rarely being asked by mainstream newspapers and magazines to define for fans what they were creating.” Smith weaves her own experiences into her research, resulting in a hybrid memoir that follows her from her “ashy-knees era” as a child in 1970s Oakland, California, to her years editing music magazines in New York. Those interludes help clarify the personal stakes of Shine Bright, making it as much an exercise in communion as a correction to incomplete musical histories.
Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking, by Toni Tipton-Martin
Jubilee was one of our picks for the best cookbooks of 2019, when Corby Kummer wrote that it “has something most lavish recipe books do not: a backbone of deep scholarship and a field of reference that spans regions and centuries.” Indeed, Jubilee is a stunningly photographed, beautifully written guide to making recipes that include gumbos, rice dishes, meat pies, and sweet potato–mango cake. But it’s also a phenomenal source of knowledge about Black foodways and the people who shaped the American palate—an invitation to learn as you prepare your meals. Tipton-Martin, an accomplished journalist and historian, folds in insights about Black culinary history and social life with a warmth that recalls the specific joy of cooking for those closest to you.
Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, by Marcia Chatelain
I sometimes feel as if I’ve had the McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” jingle—the “soulful” version—stuck in my head for decades. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, the historian Chatelain tells the story of that little ditty and the conglomerate behind it, but she goes much deeper than the tune. Chatelain traces the outsize role that McDonald’s has played in Black life for decades, focusing in particular on the company’s bid to attract Black franchisees and what that has meant for Black financial power. Her exploration of the uneven dynamics among corporate headquarters, franchises, and the communities that patronize them reveals the limits of depending on the much-touted “Black-owned business” as a vehicle for sustained economic uplift. It’s the most satisfying kind of history: an account that demystifies the forces responsible for the chain’s omnipresence.
Laughing to Keep From Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century, by Danielle Fuentes Morgan
In this historical survey, Fuentes Morgan, an English professor at Santa Clara University, offers a sharp analysis of satire as a comedic corollary to the blues. Her book charts African American comedy from minstrel shows to modern sketch series, describing the ways that, like the blues, it offers an “in-group understanding of dynamic Black selfhood,” operating in stealth mode in the presence of those from outside the community. Laughing to Keep From Dying is an academic text, but it emphasizes the revelatory potential of popular culture. That appreciation for all types of performance—whether subtle, uncomfortable, or less “respectable”—makes it a satisfying read for anyone with an interest in how entertainment responds to a shifting social landscape.
Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought, edited by Briona Simone Jones
Mouths of Rain compiles the work of Black lesbian writers and thinkers primarily across the 20th and 21st centuries; the result is enlightening and deeply communal. A companion to the 1995 Black feminist anthology Words of Fire, Mouths of Rain explores the love shared between Black women. In its introduction, the editor, Jones, writes that she’s “come to recognize that our love stories have been buried underneath our activism. But our love, too, is both personal and political.” Fittingly, Mouths of Rain is not just a theoretical text; it’s a lush exploration of sensuality, which Audre Lorde called “an assertion of the lifeforce of women” in her 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In the anthology, that essay is followed by poems from Pat Parker, Lorde’s close friend and collaborator, a juxtaposition that speaks to the wealth of love in the volume.
Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, by Howard W. French
French’s sweeping but eminently readable narrative rejects one common framing of modernity—the claim that it stemmed from the accomplishments of European figures, including those like Christopher Columbus, whose arrival in the so-called New World supposedly set North America on a course to civilization. Instead, French meticulously documents and sets out to amend ”a centuries-long process of diminishment, trivialization, and erasure of Africans and of people of African descent from the story of the modern world.” French’s essays and reporting at publications such as the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and The New York Times have long elucidated conflicts in Africa and the Caribbean, often by showing how the history of Western colonialism informs geopolitical shifts. Born in Blackness expands on his prior work by piecing together accounts over hundreds of years and persuasively making the case for pulling those at the margins of history to its center.
You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays, by Zora Neale Hurston
Literary beefs are among the best historical rabbit holes to fall into. And few have drawn me in as much as the thorny friendship between the Harlem Renaissance titans Hurston and Langston Hughes, who once bitingly called her a “perfect ‘darkie’” in the eyes of her white friends. Hurston often ran afoul of her contemporaries because of her indecorous proclamations. She once wrote, for example, that many Black colleges were “begging joints” designed to enrich their founders, accusing them of extorting well-meaning people who are led to believe that the shuttering of such institutions would lead to “never another Negro girl or boy learning her or his ABC’s.” As The New Yorker’s Lauren Michele Jackson notes, Hurston is a figure far more complex than her reputation suggests—and this posthumous collection “requires letting go of the agonizing business of saving Hurston from her politics.” Edited by Genevieve West and Henry Louis Gates Jr., You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays showcases the author’s breadth in a thrilling, if also uncomfortable, journey.
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