This is a a series of posts that were featured on our Instagram account over the course of the first week of February.
Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926. Rather than marking the triumph of racial equality and the closure of an ugly chapter in US history, this national celebration was conceived by Carter Woodson to contest a rising white supremacist movement that parallels the one we face today. Woodson believed that the production and distribution of Black histories could counter the burgeoning ideology of "The Lost Cause," which was spreading aggressively through novels and films.
Because The Lost Cause sought to rehabilitate the practice of slavery and defame the emancipatory political alliances of the Reconstruction Era, it seems fitting to start Black History Month with a post featuring three titles that attack these false histories: W. E. B. Du Bois' essential Black Reconstruction in America, Zora Neale Hurston's posthumously published Barracoon: The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo', and Kelly Carter Jackson's magnificent Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.
As in Woodson's time, Black history remains essential to the defeat of white supremacy and the liberation of all peoples!
Black History Month Biographies
When folks tell us they don't think they like history books, we recommend biographies! A good biography (especially an autobiography) presents the dates, events, and people of the past in a format that conveys ephemeral details often missing from more detached approaches. These personal histories can offer an impactful view of social, political, and artistic movements, with the allure of a riveting novel.
Today for Black History Month we're posting some of our favorite biographies of visionary Black activists and artists.
Image one, from left to right: Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical (a fantastic read despite the biographer's apparent lack of affection for Parson's revolutionary politics), Assata by Assata Shakur (a powerful and essential book by the freedom fighter whose activism and decades evading the FBI made her a folk hero), The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis (available in adult and YA editions), and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (a source of endlessly quotable inspiration by one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century).
Image two, from left to right: Big Black by Frank Smith and Jared Reinmuth (a gripping story in comic form from a man at the center of the Attica Prison Uprising), Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (a hugely influential "biomythography" by the warrior-poet who dedicated her life to confronting oppression), and Toni Morrison: The Last Interview (a collection of interviews, many exploring family and biography, with the celebrated novelist and essayist).
Civil Rights History
Today for #BlackHistoryMonth we're recommending three books that offer correctives to the national mythology of the Civil Rights Movement. These titles reveal the expansive vision and militancy of the Black Freedom Struggle that began with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and grew to include lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and mass demonstrations.
Rather than being a straightforward continuation of the national campaign for civil rights, this Southern movement was decentralized, youth-led, and radical in its aspirations. Nevertheless, and despite being quite recent, this history is often whitewashed and misused as a validation of U.S. democratic institutions and a rebuke to impatience, disruption, and revolutionary ambition. We're grateful for movement elders like Charles E. Cobb Jr. (who has spoken at our bookstore) and Cornel West for their tireless fight to set the record straight!
A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis reckons with the fact that far from being acceptable, passive or unified, the civil rights movement was unpopular, disruptive, and courageously persevering.
This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible by Charles E. Cobb Jr. explodes the myth of passivity in documenting the vital role that armed self-defense has played in the survival and liberation of Black communities.
The Radical King by Cornel West presents Martin Luther King, Jr. in his own words to reclaim his legacy as a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle and against global imperialism.
Black History for Kids
From its inception, #BlackHistoryMonth has always centered the cultural and political development of young people. Today we're sharing some of our favorite titles for kids that explore, explain, and exalt Black history!
Image one features middle grade books. From the top left, clockwise: March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine by Melba Pattillo Beals (a childhood memoir by a legendary civil rights activist), Becoming Muhammad Ali by Kwame Alexander and James Patterson (a biographical novel about a cultural icon before he was famous), Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground by T. R. Simon (a fictionalized account of Zora Neale Hurston's childhood adventures), and Harlem Stomp! by Laban Carrick Hill (a cultural history of the Harlem Renaissance).
Image two features picture books. From the top left, clockwise: Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson (a story that pays tribute to generations of Black mothers and the traditions they passed on), Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson (combines an intimate history with stunning illustrations), The ABCs of Black History by Rio Cortez (a rhyming alphabet book that celebrates African diasporic history and culture).
A lot of times when we talk about science fiction, folks are thinking only about the future. And that's really rooted in this western colonial white supremacist ideology of history as this linear progression towards greatness, right?... [M]any societies, historically, you know, brown cultures have recognized that time is not linear, it's circular, it's spherical, it exists in multiple places at once, that we live in the past, the present, and the future altogether... [W]e need that past to move forward into the future. We need these visions of liberation that existed before, we need to be able to study them, we need to be able to explore them, we need to be able to say 'What is the wisdom and knowledge that exists in the past that will help us build the future.'
Today for #BlackHistoryMonth, we're dreaming about Black futures! Pictured here, from the top down: How Long 'til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin (short speculative fictions), Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (a primer on afrofuturism), A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope edited by Patrice Caldwell (sci-fi, fantasy, and folkfloric short stories), and "Black Futures by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (a showcase of contemporary Black artists).
Black History by Saidiya Hartman
Every generation confronts the task of choosing its past.
Today for #BlackHistoryMonth we're recommending the work of scholar Saidiya Hartman, whose brilliant and accessible writing explores the lives of enslaved people and their descendants. Hartman uses a method she calls "critical fabulation" to develop powerful counternarratives giving voice to those whose stories were never written down. Navigating the space between history and imagination, her books are beautiful, intimate, and devastating to read—I can't recommend them enough!
Pictured here are Hartman's second and third books: Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route retraces the history of the Atlantic slave trade through the author's travels in Ghana and her own unsettled relationship to Africa and America. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals draws on archival research to explore the revolutionary lives of young Black women at the beginning of the twentieth century, working-class women who evaded state and institutional control in pursuit of the freedom to love and live as they pleased.