The best books about Black culture and history in the Civil Rights era

Jonathan Shandell Author Of The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era
By Jonathan Shandell

Who am I?

I am a theater historian whose research focuses on African American theater of 1940s-50s. While other periods and movements—the Harlem Renaissance (1920s), the Federal Theatre Project (1930s), the Black Arts Movement (1960s), and contemporary theater—have been well studied and documented, I saw a gap of scholarship around the 1940s-50s; I wondered why those years had been largely overlooked. As I dived deeper, I saw how African American performance culture (ie. theater, film, television, music) of the later-20th Century had its roots in the history of those somewhat overlooked decades. I’m still investigating that story, and these books have helped me do it.

I wrote...

The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

By Jonathan Shandell,

Book cover of The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

What is my book about?

You may know of the American Negro Theatre (ANT), a neighborhood theater company in Harlem that lasted for about ten years. The writers this company produced—Abram Hill, Theodore Brown, Owen Dodson—are not household names. You may not recognize the title Anna Lucasta: a comedy about an African American family that the ANT turned into a runaway Broadway hit in the 1940s. But the legacy of this theater company—and the work of its writers, its actors, and its productions—was key for creating the popular African American culture we all do know.

To fully understand the emergence of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and The Cosby Show, you need to know about the American Negro Theatre and its transformative artistic legacy.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry

Why did I love this book?

I’ve taught Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun many times in my university courses. That play transformed African American theater in the Civil Rights era and marked a phenomenal debut for its 29-year-old writer. In her too-short life (she died a few years later from pancreatic cancer), Hansberry built an extraordinary life as a writer, intellectual, and political activist. This biography tells that rich, remarkable story.

By Soyica Diggs Colbert,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Radical Vision as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "loving, lavishly detailed" (New York Times) and captivating portrait of Lorraine Hansberry's life, art, and political activism-one of O Magazine's best books of April 2021

"A devoted and deeply felt account of the development of an artist's mind."-Dave Itzkoff, New York Times Book Review (2021 Summer Reading issue)

In this acclaimed biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Soyica Diggs Colbert narrates a life at the intersection of art and politics, arguing that for Hansberry the theater operated as a rehearsal room for her political and intellectual work. Celebrated for her play A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry was also the author…

Book cover of Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical

Why did I love this book?

As I was writing my book, I delved more into the professional singing career of Harry Belafonte. I knew him as the singer of familiar, toe-tapping, globally-inspired hits (i.e. “The Banana Boat Song,” “Jump In the Line,” “Matilda”). I didn’t know about the depth and breadth of his commitment to racial justice. Nor did I realize, more importantly, how his Civil Rights activism informed and shaped his artistic career as an actor and a musician. An eye-opening read about a cultural icon.

By Judith E. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Belafonte as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A son of poor Jamaican immigrants who grew up in Depression-era Harlem, Harry Belafonte became the first black performer to gain artistic control over the representation of African Americans in commercial television and film. Forging connections with an astonishing array of consequential players on the American scene in the decades following World War II-from Paul Robeson to Ed Sullivan, John Kennedy to Stokely Carmichael-Belafonte established his place in American culture as a hugely popular singer, matinee idol, internationalist, and champion of civil rights, black pride, and black power.

In Becoming Belafonte, Judith E. Smith presents the first full-length interpretive study…

Book cover of Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy

Why did I love this book?

We often learn about African American history in the 20th Century in terms of a conflict between nonviolent resistance vs. violent radicalism, integrationism vs. separatism, Martin vs. Malcolm. But this is an over-simplification of a complex and dynamic moment in the history of our nation. More than any other work, Black is a Country helped me think differently about the period that I study, and see African American history and culture of the mid-20th Century in a new way.

By Nikhil Pal Singh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Is a Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite black gains in modern America, the end of racism is not yet in sight. Nikhil Pal Singh asks what happened to the worldly and radical visions of equality that animated black intellectual activists from W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. In so doing, he constructs an alternative history of civil rights in the twentieth century, a long civil rights era, in which radical hopes and global dreams are recognized as central to the history of black struggle.

It is through the words and thought of key black intellectuals, like…

Book cover of Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson's Radical Legacy

Why did I love this book?

Perhaps no one is more readily identified with racial integration than Jackie Robinson. Our culture now lionizes Robinson for his accomplishments, but also for having “guts enough not to fight back” (as his general manager Branch Rickey reportedly said to him) against the bigotry and insults that surrounded him. In many ways, the story of Jackie Robinson as a quiet, passive figure who just let his playing do the talking is incomplete. This book reveals more of the story of Robinson’s historic and sometimes surprisingly “radical” work in breaking baseball’s color barrier.

By David Naze,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reclaiming 42 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reclaiming 42 centers on one of America's most respected cultural icons, Jackie Robinson, and the forgotten aspects of his cultural legacy. Since his retirement in 1956, and more strongly in the last twenty years, America has primarily remembered Robinson's legacy in an oversimplified way, as the pioneering first black baseball player to integrate the Major Leagues. The mainstream commemorative discourse regarding Robinson's career has been created and directed largely by Major League Baseball (MLB), which sanitized and oversimplified his legacy into narratives of racial reconciliation that celebrate his integrity, character, and courage while excluding other aspects of his life, such…

Book cover of Sistuhs in the Struggle: An Oral History of Black Arts Movement Theater and Performance

Why did I love this book?

We tend to think about the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s as dominated by militant male voices. This book explores the rich contributions of black women artists to the movement—by amplifying the voices of women artists in their own words. The book is a collection of oral histories, drawing on dozens of interviews with influential Black women artists. Some of them are recognizable, like playwrights/poets Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange. Others are less familiar names whose influence should be appreciated more fully. This is a rich celebration of the impact of women artists during a key period of African American cultural change.

By La Donna Forsgren,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sistuhs in the Struggle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first oral history to fully explore the contributions of black women intellectuals to the Black Arts Movement, Sistuhs in the Struggle reclaims a vital yet under-researched chapter in African American, women's, and theater history. This groundbreaking study documents how black women theater artists and activists-many of whom worked behind the scenes as directors, designers, producers, stage managers, and artistic directors-disseminated the black aesthetic and emboldened their communities.

Drawing on nearly thirty original interviews with well-known artists such as Ntozake Shange and Sonia Sanchez as well as less-studied figures including distinguished lighting designer Shirley Prendergast, dancer and choreographer Halifu Osumare,…

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