The best books on Black popular culture

Who am I?

I am a scholar of African Diaspora cultural studies, which means I spend a lot of time analyzing texts in various forms: books, art, film, music, and even laws and legal documents. The cultural texts I study were produced by people. I am passionate about Black popular culture, because it dismantles some of the enduring divisions between academic institutions and the people who live beyond their walls. It is a field of study that is always in flux, especially now with twenty-first-century advances that position popular culture as almost always at our fingertips.


I edited...

Are You Entertained?: Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century

By Simone C. Drake (editor), Dwan K. Henderson (editor),

Book cover of Are You Entertained?: Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

The advent of the internet and the availability of social media and digital downloads have expanded the creation, distribution, and consumption of Black cultural production as never before. At the same time, a new generation of Black public intellectuals who speak to the relationship between race, politics, and popular culture has come into national prominence. The contributors to Are You Entertained? address these trends to consider what culture and blackness mean in the twenty-first century's digital consumer economy.

In this collection of essays, interviews, visual art, and an artist statement the contributors examine a range of topics and issues, from music, white consumerism, cartoons, and the rise of Black Twitter to the NBA's dress code, dance, and Moonlight. Analyzing the myriad ways in which people perform, avow, politicize, own, and love blackness, this volume charts the shifting debates in Black popular culture scholarship over the past quarter-century while offering new avenues for future scholarship.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Black Popular Culture

Simone C. Drake Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this book, because it is the first edited volume, and, really, the first academic book to directly engage black popular culture as a field of study. It was avant-garde. It gave a name to cultural productions that, at that time, during my first semester of graduate school in 1997, I had no idea had a collective name. I love this book, because I encountered it simultaneously to learning concepts like “high” and “low” art. The book, in my opinion, made a compelling argument for why the popular, the folk, the vernacular, and so-called “low” art matters.

By Michele Wallace,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Village Voice Best Book "spirited debate among African American artists and cultural critics about issues from essentialism to sexuality"


Book cover of Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film

Simone C. Drake Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this book because it is a foundational text in Black film studies. Guerrero focuses primarily on the 1970s-1990s, but he also articulates how early U.S. films like Birth of a Nation set the stage for how African Americans would be portrayed on screen from that point forward. I love this book, because it is one of the earliest studies that charted the emerging tropes, conventions, and challenges of representation as African Americans gained more opportunities on the screen and behind it.

By Ed Guerrero,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to Spike Lee's Malcolm X, Ed Guerrero argues, the commercial film industry reflects white domination of American society. Written with the energy and conviction generated by the new black film wave, Framing Blackness traces an ongoing epic-African Americans protesting screen images of blacks as criminals, servants, comics, athletes, and sidekicks.

These images persist despite blacks' irrepressible demands for emancipated images and a role in the industry. Although starkly racist portrayals of blacks in early films have gradually been replaced by more appealing characterizations, the legacy of the plantation genre lives on in…


Book cover of Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic

Simone C. Drake Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this book because it took me back to Wallace and Dent’s Black Popular Culture when I was struggling to understand why my doctoral program frowned upon interdisciplinarity. This book helped me understand why I was not interested in just writing literary criticism. It gave me methodological tools and language to articulate why the research I wanted to do matters. Importantly, it also gave me a definition of the term “post-soul” that during the early 2000s was bandied about but rarely defined. I love this book because Neal was the first scholar I encountered who unapologetically claimed to be a scholar of Black popular culture.

By Mark Anthony Neal,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Soul Babies, Mark Anthony Neal explains the complexities and contradictions of black life and culture after the end of the Civil Rights era. He traces the emergence of what he calls a "post-soul aesthetic," a transformation of values that marked a profound change in African American thought and experience. Lively and provocative, Soul Babies offers a valuable new way of thinking about black popular culture and the legacy of the sixties.


Book cover of Technicolored: Reflections on Race in the Time of TV

Simone C. Drake Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this book because I fell in love with the way duCille weaves cultural critique and personal experience in one of her earlier books, Skin Trade. The invention of streaming services has made televisual representation more accessible, which can be both good and bad. I love how this book demonstrates the way in which culture informs the lived experience and the way in which lived experiences can shape culture. And duCille is an excellent storyteller.

By Ann duCille,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From early sitcoms such as I Love Lucy to contemporary prime-time dramas like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, African Americans on television have too often been asked to portray tired stereotypes of blacks as villains, vixens, victims, and disposable minorities. In Technicolored black feminist critic Ann duCille combines cultural critique with personal reflections on growing up with the new medium of TV to examine how televisual representations of African Americans have changed over the last sixty years. Whether explaining how watching Shirley Temple led her to question her own self-worth or how televisual representation functions as a…


Book cover of The Black Interior: Essays

Simone C. Drake Why did I love this book?

This book focuses mostly on literary criticism, but I chose it because of the theoretical work Alexander does in defining “the black interior.” The concept of the black interior unpacks the ways in which Black bodies and blackness have been devalued and dehumanized. This book and its theoretical underpinnings insist upon recoupling the “human” with blackness. I love how the book challenges viewing and spectatorship and calls upon readers to recognize black life and creativity beyond stereotypes that guide the limited imaginations of the dominant culture that relentlessly misrepresents and maligns blackness.

By Elizabeth Alexander,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Legendary poet Elizabeth Alexander turns her finely-honed sensibilities to the subject of blackness and the interior world of the modern African-American. Intelligent, perceptive and keenly observed, this collection of essays traces a thoughtful path through music, poetry and the outstanding social issues of the last 200 years to synthesise a remarkable picture of the modern African-American psyche. From Langston Hughes to the Rodney King video, Alexander leads her reader effortlessly over the complex terrain of art and politics to a new vision of the black interior.


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Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

Book cover of Unsettled

Laurie Woodford

New book alert!

What is my book about?

At the age of forty-nine, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and leaves her life in upstate New York to relocate to Seoul, South Korea. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English in Asia evolves into a nomadic adventure.

Laurie spoon-feeds orphans in Ethiopia, performs 108 bows at a Buddhist mountain temple, walks shelter dogs in Peru, milks goats in Fuerteventura, and gets lost in Mexico, all the while navigating dating at midlife.

After four years of traveling, Laurie’s return “home” becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, and then struggles to reconcile her need for freedom with her longing to feel settled.

Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

What is this book about?

At the age of forty-nine, driven by an urgent restlessness, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and relocates to Asia. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English overseas, evolves into a nomadic adventure as Laurie works and volunteers in South Korea, Ethiopia, Peru, Spain, and Mexico. After four years of traveling, Laurie's return "home" to the U.S. becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, who challenges her to reconcile her life of fierce independence with her longing to feel…


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