The best history books on culture’s role in shaping race, class, and gender in modern America

Erica Ryan Author Of When the World Broke in Two: The Roaring Twenties and the Dawn of America's Culture Wars
By Erica Ryan

The Books I Picked & Why

Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

By Grace Elizabeth Hale

Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

Why this book?

This book, while pitched to an academic audience, blew me away when I first read it because Hale demonstrates with intricate precision that whiteness is not natural, but rather it is constructed. Southern Whites used culture to construct whiteness as a racial ideology after Reconstruction, framing the way they saw themselves and undergirding Jim Crow and the oppression of Blacks in America for decades to come. Examining the emergence of a multilayered national consumer market, and Black pushback against a modernizing version of white supremacy, Hale shows how racial identity is quite literally “made,” inviting modern readers to envision ways to unmake it. 


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Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

By Robin D. G. Kelley

Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

Why this book?

This book is a brilliant collection of essays highlighting “race rebels,” where Kelley looks outside of traditional politics and organized movements to find Black resistance to forces such as white supremacy, labor exploitation, and war. Kelley focuses in on the everyday lives of working-class Black men and women, highlighting a “hidden transcript” of expression and resistance in things like music, language, dance, and choice of dress.  He elevates the political potential found in these cultural elements, urging historians to see these “style politics” in the social and economic contexts which give rise to them, for they are powerful and worthy of our attention.


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Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917

By Gail Bederman

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917

Why this book?

Gail Bederman expertly weaves together an analysis of the discourses of manliness and civilization at the turn of the century, highlighting the way ideas about gender and power are constructed with and through ideas about race. Her case study approach really shows how this discourse functioned in multiple ways at the same time, covering Theodore Roosevelt’s hugely impactful connections between race and manliness right alongside Ida B. Wells’ campaign to use civilization discourse against white southerners in a bid to end lynching.  These, along with chapters on G Stanley Hall and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ably demonstrate the way discourses can be constructed, used, and resisted.  Readers come away understanding how widely accepted notions of progress and national strength hinge on exploitative and damaging ideas about race and gender in American culture.


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Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

By Elaine Tyler May

Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

Why this book?

I am recommending this book because Elaine Tyler May offered one of the earliest analyses of gender and sex tied directly to the dictates and needs of political culture. She insightfully delineates “domestic containment,” a component of Cold War culture which paralleled the foreign policy initiative to contain communism and nuclear arms throughout the world. But in this case the sphere of influence was the home. By excavating Cold War culture (for example, Life Magazine’s coverage of a couple honeymooning in a bomb shelter) and some fascinating longitudinal data May demonstrates the way domestic containment sought to keep women and men in their proscribed domestic roles, and she reveals the difficulty many families had living up to the ideal.  Her history illuminates our long-lasting nostalgia for the “traditional” family and remains so relevant today.


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Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

By Jefferson R. Cowie

Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

Why this book?

I chose this book for two reasons. First, Cowie masterfully documents the hugely significant political and social shift that took place in the 1970s, as America transitioned from the liberalism of the New Deal era to the conservatism of the Reagan revolution. And second, he assumes that culture is just as important as economics in the constructions of and understandings of social class.  Cowie engages the reader in a fascinating look at popular culture to reveal the ways in which a coherent white, working-class male identity fell apart, a process that contributed to the overall decline in organized labor’s power in this crucial decade.  As a bonus, the book is beautifully written. 


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