In the wake of the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson last week, Off the Shelf put together a list of some of our favorite books that offer insight on the black experience and history of race relations. In the days after the announcement was made, we couldn’t help but notice and admire the Ferguson’s Library’s decision to stay open, amid area protests and riots, to serve its community. Knowledge is power, so we’re taking a page from the library’s book and encouraging everyone to read any/all of these important books on race in America.
Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.
A mid-century classic on race, Black Like Me is the true account of the authors' six-week experience travelling on Greyhound buses (occasionally hitchhiking) throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia passing as a black man. He trudged southern streets searching for a place where he could eat or rest, looking vainly for a job other than menial labor, feeling the "hate stare". Black Like Me is a groundbreaking and controversial book.
Once in a great while a book comes along that changes the way we see the world and helps to fuel a nationwide social movement. The New Jim Crow—which argues that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it”—is such a book. By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the US criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. This is a must-read for all people of conscience.
Telling perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, illuminating not only the invention of race but also the frequent praise of “whiteness” for economic, scientific, and political ends. A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People closes a huge gap in literature that has long focused on the non-white and forcefully reminds us that the concept of “race” is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed as it has been driven by a long and rich history of events.
A milestone in American literature, this novel has continued to engage readers since its appearance in 1952. A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. Ralph Ellison was awarded in 1969.