A couple years ago I committed to reading primarily books by people of color, particularly prioritizing books by Black women. I made this commitment because I figured my attention is one of the resources I have control over.
There are lots of different ways to have impact. I can donate money, and of course I have all the decisions that I make with Peak Support. But my “learning time” is also a resource I can direct.
For most of my life, that time has primarily been used to read books by white people. In fact, I realized as I started this journey, even the books I’ve read about race and racism have mostly been written by white people. Now I’m committed to changing that.
I owe this insight to DiDi Delgado and a Facebook group she started called the White Labor Collective. The White Labor Collective is “a community led by Black women and MaGes (Marginalized Genders) to educate y’all on racism and all the other ‘’isms’.” This group is an incredible online community, and has provided another way for me to focus my time and attention on learning from Black women, as well as transgender/non-binary people. I highly recommend checking it out.
I’m a history buff, so in honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d share some of the history books I’ve read, with lessons I’ve learned from each one. I’ve also included links to where you can buy each book from a Black-owned book store.
The list includes memoirs, some of which are modern — but contemporary stories are part of history, too. I’ve included my takeaways from each one, so you can hopefully learn some Black history just by reading this article (but don’t just read this article! That would defeat the whole purpose!).
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed
What an incredible work of history. Annette Gordon-Reed uses meticulous historical research to tell the story of the Hemings family, including of course Sally Hemings, who had six children with Thomas Jefferson (and was also the half-sister of his wife). She treats the Hemingses as individuals of historical significance and agency. The book also provides a detailed portrait of Thomas Jefferson as a slaveholder. Despite calling slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” Jefferson enslaved over 600 people in his lifetime, condoned great violence against them, and separated 400 of them from family members.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi
This book has reshaped my thinking about racism in so many ways. One core insight: We have been taught that ignorance and fear lead to racist ideas, which lead to racist policies. In fact, he says, it is the other way around. Racist policies drive racist ideas which drive ignorance and fear: “Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people” (emphasis added).
Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter
Sojourner Truth is one of the few Black women in history that most white people have heard about … yet I realized I knew nothing about her. I had no idea that she came to fame as a traveling preacher. That alone reframed my view of what is possible for women of any race to achieve. I also learned the truth about northern states and their “abolition” of slavery. New York State passed a law in 1799 which would end slavery, but not until 1827. Enslaved people born after 1799 would remain indentured servants until age 28 for men, age 25 for women. That meant Sojourner Truth’s children could have remained enslaved until as late as 1851. Furthermore, many slaveowners in New York sold enslaved people into Southern slavery so they could profit from them before emancipation, though this was illegal. This happened to Peter, one of Sojourner Truth’s children, and she had to go to court with the help of white allies to get him back.
Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, By Martha S. Jones
This book is filled with stories of women I should have known about: Jarena Lee, one of the earliest female religious leaders, who fought for the right of women to preach. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who published and edited a newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, in the 1850s, recruited Black troops during the Civil War, and fought for Black women’s rights as an activist, teacher, and writer. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded the National Council for Negro Women, an organization that still exists today. The list goes on — I couldn’t possibly name everyone. Just read the book.
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock
A powerful and beautiful read, just buy it and read it. Janet Mock is a transgender woman, an author, director, and producer, who in 2019 became the first transgender person to sign a production deal with a major studio (Netflix). She experienced a tremendous amount of trauma in her childhood and had parents who in many ways could not support or protect her. But her relationship with her parents was the most powerful part of the book to me. I will always remember this line, from a letter her father wrote after she came out to him: “I’m the parent and you’re the child and it is not your job to love me the way I love you.”
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
Tiffany Haddish has recently become successful and famous but she spent much of her childhood in foster care and there was a time when she was living in her car even as she hobnobbed with Kevin Hart (When Hart learned this, he helped find her an apartment). The book is honest and raw, funny and touching, especially the story of her relationship with her mother, who suffered a brain injury and was unable to care for her. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it.
Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, by Kim McLarin
A novelist and Emerson professor, McLarin writes thoughtful essays that blend the personal and political. The story of her nephew’s trial and incarceration was the most powerful part of the book for me. After a trial that bears no resemblance to justice, that may as well have been a kangaroo court, “it is as if my nephew’s life has ended, as if they’ve put him down like a dog.”
Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography, by Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley was an attorney and civil rights leader who worked closely with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, pursuing the anti-segregation litigation that eventually led to Brown vs. Board of Education. She became the first Black female state senator, the first Black woman to serve as Manhattan borough president (an elected office) and the first woman appointed as a federal judge. I’ve just started the book but I love how she chronicles the many people who influenced her, even in small ways — people like the Phillips sisters, Mabel and Josie, who were poor, wore old fashioned clothes because they couldn’t afford newer ones, and were fiercely proud of their father’s service in the Civil War.