Black History Month: Books You Should Read

February 23, 2011

Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation

Author: Rawn James

The Supreme Court 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education is widely considered one of the milestones of the civil rights movement. James Rawn explores the two men,  Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, and the institutions they built- Howard University School of Law and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, as well as the legal strategies they developed, to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This is a must and inspirational read. You will have a deeper appreciation for the dedication, commitment, and intellectual and legal brilliance of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.

Motown In Love: Lyrics From the Golden Era

Author: Herb Jordan

Detroit in the 1960s was an unlikely stage for a production that featured some of the most inspirational love songs ever written. It may seem equally unlikely, given today’s portrayal of black men that most of those songs were written by young black men. Default notions of romance are an awkward overlay to the reality of today’s popular music with its devaluation and degradation of women and love.

Herb Jordan catalogues the love songs of Motown which were the soundtrack of a generation and America’s Great Songbook. In this songbook, black men unashamedly declare their love for their women with a delicacy of surgeon.  Poet laureate, Smokey Robinson, wrote of love for a woman as “a rosebud blooming in the warmth of the summer sun.” Besides the delight of the Motown love lyrics, Jordan reminds of soft and sensitive side of black men who found meaning in love (not guns and gangs) and identity in their relationships with their women- their other half.

The Sea is Wide and My Boat is so Small: Charting the Course for the Next Generation

Author: Marian Wright Edelman

Written in the form of letters, Marian Wright Edelman reflects on the state of children in America and what must be done to provide a caring and nurturing context for their growth and well-being. This meditative manifesto is a discourse on building the “village” we often talk about in raising children. On a Prayer For Twenty-First-Century Children, Edelman juxtaposes what is required with what is desired and embraced: “God help us to raise a new generation of children/With highly developed computer skills but poorly developed consciences…With a gigantic commitment to the big “I” but little sense of responsibility to the bigger “we”. She leaves no stone unturned in the service of building a better and more caring society for children. This should be required reading for adults.

The Warmth of Other Suns

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns is Wilkerson’s first book. (Its title is borrowed from the celebrated black writer Richard Wright, who fled Jim Crow Mississippi in the 1920s to feel the warmth of those other suns.) Based on more than a thousand interviews, written in broad imaginative strokes, this book, at 622 pages, is an epic narrative of one of the great migrations witnessed in America. The migration of black from the South to the North is often presented as a failed “social experiment.” These blacks are too frequently demeaned in literature as the wretched of the earth: thrown together in dead-end Northern slums, cast as poor illiterates who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness and welfare dependency wherever they went.

Yet, Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns tells another story. Today, these black migrants are viewed as a modern version of the Europeans who flooded America’s shores in the late 1800s and early 1900s. What linked them together, Wilkerson writes, was their heroic determination to roll the dice for a better future. This is a delightful read and a departure from negative narrative of black life which is so often presented as the quintessential fact of black in America.

The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations

Author: Ira Berlin

The Four Great Migrations frame the history of people of African descent in America, setting the paths by which Africans and then African Americans made and remade black and American life between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries. These four massive upheavals form the foundation of Ira Berlin’s sweeping new interpretation of the African American experience.

This book is certainly a companion read to The Warmth of Other Suns, and one that will not disappoint. Tracing the transit from Africa to America, Virginia to Alabama, Biloxi to Chicago, and Lagos to the Bronx, Berlin challenges the traditional presentation of a linear, progressive development of black America. The Making of African America speaks of the old giving way to the new, innovation dancing with tradition, change challenging stasis- a two beat theme that has a profound effect on African American communities, families and individual lives, continually remaking all aspects of black culture from language to working patterns, from religion to art.

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