In February, someone always asks me to recommend a good book on African-American history, and as I try to pick one or two I’m always reminded how many good books there are, and how little exposure most Americans have to the information in them.
I could say the same thing about Native-American history or women’s history or the history of folks who weren’t politicians or generals or industrialists. History is deeper and wider than what most Americans get without a little extracurricular reading.
The thing about American history, or any history, is that you can’t really understand the whole without learning about the parts beyond the surface. And history is essential for understanding the present and navigating toward the future intelligently.
At a Black History Month event recently, someone suggested I just mention a few books in a column, so I’ve made a list. It is not comprehensive by a longshot and on another day, I might have thought of different offerings, but I like the list because it’s made up of books that stuck in my head because they had some impact on my understanding of both the past and the present.
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The first book that came to mind is “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” the 1997 book by Jared Diamond. It’s on the list because so many decisions in America’s past and present hinge on our understanding of broader human history and judgments about people based on the origins of their ancestors.
It gives the reader a way to understand differences that too often are used to justify a belief in hierarchies of human worth and ability. It’s an antidote to notions of Eurasian superiority, a corrective like Charles Mann’s “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.”
“An Imperfect God, George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America,” by Henry Wiencek, which wrestles with the coexistence of slavery and a quest for liberty and justice for all (i.e. white male landowners). We are still a nation adept at embracing ideals that conflict with reality because we are well practiced at explaining away inconvenient truths.
There are a number of books on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and on the operation of slavery in the Americas, and on how the American version changed over time, including “Africans in America,” the companion to the PBS series of the same name.
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” by Frederick Douglass, is worth rereading even if you read it in school.
There are classics, such as Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Ralph Ellison’s, “Invisible Man,” and “The Souls of Black Folk,” by W.E.B. Du Bois.
Du Bois wrote about the idea of double consciousness, looking at yourself through the eyes of someone else. That made me think of the late Ronald Takaki and his books, “A Different Mirror for Young People,” and “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II” which help paint race in America, not in black and white, but in full color, examining how the United States is experienced by people of multiple ethnicities and races.
Isabel Wilkerson’s wonderful book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” tells the little-known story of African Americans leaving servitude in the South in search of better lives in the North and West.
You can get an idea of what all those people were running from in “Slavery by Another Name,” by Douglas Blackmon, about the continuation of slavery in all but name after the Civil War.
Some of those folks made their way to Washington state. Seattle author Esther Mumford (Ananse Press) has written several books about black folk here.
Quintard Taylor, a University of Washington history professor, has written extensively about black Americans in the West, and he created a website that offers access to a broad range of information, Blackpast.org. You can find longer lists there.
I know I’ve left out a lot, but believe a little more history is better than none at all.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @jerrylarge