It is said that history is written by the victors, or as Mark Twain put it: “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Historical accounts are certainly dominated by those privileged to be heard, history’s own masters and oppressors and their heirs. For this reason, attending to history as viewed and voiced by Black women presents us with fresh insights, helping us learn from the past and better understand the present.
Whatever history books you read in school, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross’ engaging “A Black Women’s History of the United States” is certain to reveal new chapters for you. Artfully moving between particular lives and broader thematic surveys, the book organizes itself chronologically around 12 individuals, ranging from Isabel de Olvera — a woman of African descent petitioning for her rights on an expedition at the dawn of 17th-century New Spain — to civil rights activist Patricia Okoumou, who scaled the base of the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 2018, in an act of protest against the inhumane treatment of migrant children. The depth of Black women’s role in shaping our nation explored here is matched only by the intersectional breadth of their experience, as witnessed by the stories of conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy, 19th-century trans woman activist Frances Thompson, and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. Narrator Janina Edwards’ authoritative, empathetic delivery deftly navigates a wealth of information and scenes harrowing and inspiring, supported with sensitively voiced quotations from the vernacular. Compare this with Edwards’ more intimate and introspective narration of Claudia Rankine’s poetic meditation on race and privilege in America, “Just Us: An American Conversation,” to hear how a performer’s expressive range can embody and convey diverse styles.
Some audiobooks simply outshine their print sources, and Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain’s “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619 – 2019” is a perfect example. Of the 90 authors contributing to this vibrant, kaleidoscopic journey across four centuries of Black history, 49 are women of color. These are voiced by an equally stunning array of 87 readers and performers that includes Angela Davis, Soledad O’Brien, Phylicia Rashad, Bahni Turpin and Alicia Garza, together with an all-star lineup of seasoned audiobook narrators. Vivid pocket histories describe distressing but inspirational episodes and significant eras in Black history, picking apart the threads of institutional racism. These are interspersed with distinctly voiced essays and poems to form a moving choral polyphony. This is the must-listen history book of the year.
In “Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots,” Morgan Jerkins explores Black history through a deeply personal odyssey to resurrect her lost heritage, retracing the footsteps of her family as they migrated northward along with millions of other Black Americans. Making her way from the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina, where her maternal grandfather struggled for survival amid the brutal white supremacist backlash against Reconstruction, to Louisiana’s Natchitoches Parish, where she confronts the unsettling reality of Black slaveholders, to Oklahoma, where she delves into the complicated relationship between Black and Indigenous people. She arrives at last in the promised land of California, where migrants faced a different style of racism, no less corrosive for its relative subtlety. Jerkins relates her discoveries in a voice imbued with curiosity, wonder and emotion, her candor and vulnerability inviting the listener in without compromising her own point of view and lived experience. The result is the most immediate yet profound kind of history, in which we experience the past living through the present.
Emily Bernard’s “Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine” gathers 12 brilliant essays that explore the complexities and interstices of navigating white spaces as a Black woman. From her family’s roots in Mississippi and her own Nashville childhood to her experiences in a multiracial household, teaching African American studies to white Vermont college students, Bernard is well situated to tease out a conflicted racial discourse, narrated in fittingly ambivalent tones. The book opens with a galvanizing account of her victimization in a mass stabbing when she was a graduate student at Yale, a trauma which helped inspire her commitment to fearlessly speak her own truths, which she does here with thoughtful empathy and resounding eloquence.