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

The Books I Picked & Why

Colored People: A Memoir

By Henry Louis Gates

Book cover of Colored People: A Memoir

Why 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. 

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The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches

By W.E. Burghardt Du Bois

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

Why 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.

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I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey

By Langston Hughes

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

Why 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.

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I Can't Wait on God

By Albert French

Book cover of I Can't Wait on God

Why 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.

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Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer

By Kenneth W. Mack

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

Why 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.

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