The Books Briefing: Looking Back on Moving Forward

A San Antonio, Texas, preacher reads the Bible to another man in this 1939 Farm Security Administration photo, by Russell Lee.New York Public Library

When W. E. B. Du Bois devised the idea of “double-consciousness” in his 1897 Atlantic article “Strivings of the Negro People,” which he later included in his book The Souls of Black Folk, he set a new language for meditating on black progress in the United States. He’s one of many thinkers who devoted his life to analyzing and ruminating on the overwhelming effects of slavery, which still reverberate throughout American culture.

The black suffragist Anna Julia Cooper outlined the need for better domestic spaces and opportunities for black citizens in her book A Voice From the South, which emphasized the importance of education in achieving those advancements. Decades after the debut of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America, predicting that African Americans would remain a lower class until a radical series of reforms restored their resources and civil rights.

In his book about Thomas Jefferson, Alan Taylor details the Founding Father’s belief that a new university in the South could help bring about the cultural change needed to end slavery, while also acknowledging the contradiction of Jefferson’s status as a slaveholder. Nicholas Buccola devotes the entirety of his book The Fire Is Upon Us to a famous 1965 debate on racial politics between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr.—looking to their backgrounds to further understand the men’s opposing views on racial injustice.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The famous Baldwin-Buckley debate still matters today
“Though he makes it clear by the end that his own ideological sympathies lie with [James] Baldwin’s calls for racial justice, [Nicholas] Buccola gives ample room to examining both men’s ideologies, without—and this is crucial—suggesting that [William F. Buckley Jr.’s] racist views were somehow acceptable.”

Recommended Reading

📚 The Fire Is Upon Us, by Nicholas Buccola

Jefferson’s doomed educational experiment
“What [Thomas Jefferson] believed, one day every enlightened person would believe: that republicanism was inherently good, that organized religion should be viewed with skepticism, that Jesus was not divine, that slavery was wrong. Given access to education, people could learn to embrace all these views, thanks to their powers of rationality and openness to new discoveries.”

📚Thomas Jefferson’s Education, by Alan Taylor

How black suffragettes subverted the domestic sphere
“[Anna Julia] Cooper’s seminal text, A Voice From the South: By a Black Woman of the South, addressed issues including educational disparities, women’s suffrage, representations of black women in literature, and the pernicious effects of segregation.”

📚 A Voice From the South: By a Black Woman of the South, by Anna Julia Cooper

The “double-consciousness” of black identity
“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.”

📚 An essay from The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois

Balancing the ledger of reparations
“For [W. E. B.] Du Bois, the path to a full liberation included restitution, land redistribution, the guarantee of a quality education, and positive and proactive protections for civil rights for the formerly enslaved and their descendants. Until those goals were achieved, he predicted, black Americans would be consigned to an unsteady state of second-class citizenship that would always tend toward oblivion.”

📚 Black Reconstruction in America, by W. E .B. Du Bois

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

This week’s question comes from Alison: “I am traveling to Taiwan next spring and would appreciate book recommendations to acquaint myself with the country.”

The Stolen Bicycle, by the Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi, is a novel about a writer on a journey to find his father’s lost bike, which leads him to wider discoveries about the history of Southeast Asia. Mei-Ling Hopgood’s memoir, Lucky Girl, follows her experience of going back to Taiwan from America to meet her birth parents after they gave her up for adoption when she was a baby. Leona Chen’s poetry collection Book of Cord experiments with form to explore how history and migration shape her Taiwanese American identity.

Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s
rereading is Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.

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