The best books for white people to learn (just a little) about Black people

Lawrence Goldstone Author Of On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights
By Lawrence Goldstone

Who am I?

When I was eight, my mother was called in to see the principal…yet again. He pulled me out of class, stood me in the hall for maximum intimidation value, then said to my mom, “Your son has no respect for authority.” Mom asked, “What about that, Larry?” My reply—and this is totally true—was, “He doesn’t mean respect. He means courtesy. You can demand courtesy, but you have to earn respect.” Those sentiments have not changed, which is why, I suppose, I have an extremely critical eye for history, especially American history, that deifies the winners. I don’t think we make ourselves stronger as a nation by pretending our leaders were somehow not as human in their flaws as the rest of us.  I prefer to look under what is called “conventional wisdom,” because that’s where the real story often lies.

I wrote...

On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights

By Lawrence Goldstone,

Book cover of On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights

What is my book about?

On Account of Race details how white supremacists in the post-Civil War South succeeded in undoing all the advances of Reconstruction, reclaiming total political power, and establishing a Jim Crow society, slavery in all but name. None of this could have succeeded unless voting rights for African Americans, guaranteed by two Constitutional amendments, could be denied. And so they were, with the full approval and even sponsorship of the Supreme Court.

On Account of Race, winner of the 2021 Lillian Smith Book Award, tells the story of an American tragedy, the only occasion in United States history—to date—in which a group of citizens who had been granted the right to vote then had it stripped away. We as a nation will be forced to decide whether we are willing to have it happen again.

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The books I picked & why

Colored People: A Memoir

By Henry Louis Gates,

Book cover of Colored People: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a renowned Harvard professor and author of a series of deeply insightful books on African American history. He has also become one of the most recognizable public figures in the nation, from the PBS series Finding Your Roots and Reconstruction to a cameo in Watchmen in which he played the United States Treasury Secretary. It can be easy to forget that “Skip” Gates was raised in the hills of West Virginia, part of a tight-knit, quirky, distinctly African American community. In Gates’ affectionate memoir detailing his growing up, a series of fascinating characters leap from the page—some Churchgoing, some anything but; some strait-laced; some definitely not; some ambitious, some content to do as little as possible to get by.  Everyone we meet in Colored People is both recognizable and a revelation, and Gates has created a moving and nostalgic look at African American culture that is at once unique yet universal. 

By Henry Louis Gates,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A re-creation of what it was like to grow up in the hill town of Piedmont, West Virginia, in the 1950s and 1960s. Recalling an age at which the town and people represented his known universe, Gates describes the clannish pride of the family and the sense of place that characterized Piedmont, with its beautiful countryside, its paper mill, whose sulphurous fumes permeated the air but brought the town its prosperity, and the social event of the year, the annual mill picnic. The young Gates's consciousness takes in "colored people" in a time when segregation was still influential. He tells…

Book cover of The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches

Why did I love this book?

It is rare for a book published more than a century ago to seem as if it had just come off the presses, but W. E. B. Du Bois succeeded in producing a work so profound that it might well be equally relevant one hundred years from now. Du Bois was a luminescent scholar, a passionate advocate, and a graceful and accessible writer. His essays range from observations on the arduous lives of Black people living under Jim Crow to a celebration of their indomitable spirit in the face of institutional racism to a ferocious condemnation of the “accommodationist” philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Du Bois was never afraid to advance what was then—and still are now—points of view that would upset not only whites, but many of his own people as well. Whether to work within existing political institutions to effect change or to try to overturn those institutions because they are hopelessly inadequate to meet the needs of those who do not hold power is a conundrum that still impacts many political activists of all colors. Du Bois simply understood the stakes before almost anyone else.

By W.E. Burghardt Du Bois,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches is a 1903 work of American literature by W. E. B. Du Bois. It is a seminal work in the history of sociology and a cornerstone of African-American literature.

The book contains several essays on race, some of which had been published earlier in The Atlantic Monthly. To develop this work, Du Bois drew from his own experiences as an African American in American society. Outside of its notable relevance in African-American history, The Souls of Black Folk also holds an important place in social science as one of the early works…

Book cover of I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey

Why did I love this book?

Hughes, whose poetry is standard fare in many American high schools, led an amazing, globetrotting life in the 1930s, which he details with a poet’s eye in this fascinating memoir.  Whether in Stalinist Russia with the famed novelist Arthur Koestler or in Madrid during the height of the Spanish Civil War, Hughes recounts his wanderings part wide-eyed, part coldly rational, but always with wit and panache. What makes this book so compelling is the casual acceptance of Hughes across Europe and West Asia, where the color of his skin rarely makes the slightest difference to those he encounters. Equally, Hughes recounts his adventures with minimal reference to race, although the lack of bigotry he encounters abroad always lurks in the background. 

I Wonder as I Wander is the sort of book that becomes a page-turner without trying—deceptively gentle, deeply penetrating, and fun.

By Langston Hughes,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In I Wonder as I Wander, Langston Hughes vividly recalls the most dramatic and intimate moments of his life in the turbulent 1930s.

His wanderlust leads him to Cuba, Haiti, Russia, Soviet Central Asia, Japan, Spain (during its Civil War), through dictatorships, wars, revolutions. He meets and brings to life the famous and the humble, from Arthur Koestler to Emma, the Black Mammy of Moscow. It is the continuously amusing, wise revelation of an American writer journeying around the often strange and always exciting world he loves.

I Can't Wait on God

By Albert French,

Book cover of I Can't Wait on God

Why did I love this book?

A brilliant hypnotic novel that almost no one read. Albert French was the victim of a publishing nightmare—his editor and his publisher, both of whom had primed his novel for a major publicity push, left for new jobs before the pub date, after which his book was orphaned and abandoned. For anyone not in the book business, it might seem hard to believe that a terrific novel would be left to languish, but, sadly, such an event is not uncommon in American publishing.

Set in an African American section of Pittsburgh in 1950, I Can’t Wait on God evokes both the day-to-day lives of ordinary people and the striving and hopelessness of African Americans trying to escape the doomed existence to which so many are condemned.  French weaves a tale that is starkly realistic, yet with a mystical overtone that creates a sort of intoxicating haze. The narrative seems straightforward, even predictable—until it isn’t. I was sent a galley of this book to review more than twenty years ago and have never forgotten it.

By Albert French,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Can't Wait on God as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The crowded joys and familiar despair of poor, back-alley life in 1950 Pittsburgh have a hold on most people there, but there are those who need to escape. Jeremiah Henderson and his woman, Willet Mercer, set their sights on New York City - but making good is easier said than done. Left with no choice but to give in to the pimp who'd like to try Willet on for size before selling her to his clientele, Jeremiah and Willet try to focus on the future. But just before the pimp has his way with her, Willet balks, stabbing him to…

Book cover of Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer

Why did I love this book?

Kenneth Mack, a professor at Harvard Law School, has chronicled the lives and careers of a series of African American lawyers, most totally unknown to white America, who, although forced to ply their trade in a legal system that was totally white and aggressively unwelcoming, managed to permanently impact American jurisprudence. Some, like Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall’s mentor, and the founder of the prestigious Howard University Law School, saw their impact ripple out nationally; others, merely by demonstrating competence and dedication, fought bigotry on a more local scale. Each of these men and women was forced to navigate between loyalty to their cause and a willingness to adopt the demeanor and professional skills of their adversaries in order to succeed, leaving them distrusted on both sides of the racial divide. Their willingness to cut themselves adrift, however, set the stage for the great civil rights battles of the second half of the twentieth century, and their impact on American history should not be overlooked.

By Kenneth W. Mack,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"A wonderful excavation of the first era of civil rights lawyering."-Randall L. Kennedy, author of The Persistence of the Color Line

"Ken Mack brings to this monumental work not only a profound understanding of law, biography, history and racial relations but also an engaging narrative style that brings each of his subjects dynamically alive."-Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals

Representing the Race tells the story of an enduring paradox of American race relations through the prism of a collective biography of African American lawyers who worked in the era of segregation. Practicing the law and seeking justice for…

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