Books Briefing: The Uncut History of Black Life

Remembering and celebrating black history: Your weekly guide to the best in books

The scholar Carter G. Woodson, who’s known as “the father of black history” and the creator of what would become Black History Month, dedicated his life’s work to promoting the study of black people and their accomplishments. In his seminal book The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson makes the argument that African Americans have to learn about their history in order to help heal their inherited trauma.

The visual artist Lorna Simpson’s work approaches black identity with an eye toward archival history and everyday life, such as in her collages that showcase the dynamism of black women’s hair. Kiley Reid captures a modern dilemma in her novel about a young black woman whose part-time babysitting gig turns awkward due to her white employer’s attempts to impress her with “wokeness.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 while he was being detained for leading a protest, is as relevant as ever when reflecting on black history and racial politics. The same is true of a poem Nikki Giovanni wrote after King was assassinated, imagining how black people could respond to such an overwhelming loss.

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

‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’
“[This] eloquent call for ‘constructive, nonviolent tension’ to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement.”

📚 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” by Martin Luther King Jr.

Nikki Giovanni on the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.
“Rather than memorialize King’s leadership, Giovanni turns to the people he seemed to be leading, and asks what they might do, in his absence, to subvert or fulfill his legacy.”

📚 “Reflections on April 4, 1968,” by Nikki Giovanni
📚 “In the Spirit of Martin,” by Nikki Giovanni
📚 “My Poem,” by Nikki Giovanni

Lorna Simpson maps the complex galaxies of black women’s hair
“Much of Simpson’s career has been dedicated to documenting the specificity and breadth of black womanhood, and this collection continues in that vein. Black women’s hair, that fraught matter, is not simply the inspiration for this set of collages; it is the subject.”

📚 Lorna Simpson Collages, by Lorna Simpson

Satirizing the white pursuit of wokeness
“The overarching joke of Such a Fun Age is that while the white characters fret over what black people think of them and their progressive values, the black characters are busy getting on with their lives and trying to keep up with one another.”

📚 Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

Why every writer needs two educations
“Philosophers have long conceded … that every man has two educations: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself. Of the two kinds the latter is by far the more desirable.”

📚The Mis-Education of the Negro, by Carter G. Woodson
📚Team Seven, by Marcus Burke

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

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About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s reading right now is Too Much and Not the Mood, by Durga Chew-Bose.

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