The Best Books On Race Before The Modern Era

By Geraldine Heng

The Books I Picked & Why

The Blacks of Premodern China

By Don J. Wyatt

The Blacks of Premodern China

Why this book?

Everyone knows about how the People’s Republic of China treats Tibetans and Uighurs today, but how many know about premodern China’s response to people it considered foreign, barbarian, or Black?  Don Wyatt’s book shows how people in Southeast Asia—Sumatra, Java, the Malay archipelago—were considered by China as Black, alongside actual Africans.  An excellent companion book to read together with this is Shao-yun Yang’s The Way of the Barbarians: Redrawing Ethnic Boundaries in Tang and Song China.  Many books on race before the modern era focus on the West, but how about race elsewhere? How about China, a country that’s fast becoming a world power? 


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The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art

By David Bindman, Suzanne Preston Blier, Henry Louis Gates

The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art

Why this book?

The Image of the Black in Western Art is a multi-volume series that extends from antiquity to the modern era, and it’s famous for its extraordinary images.  This series now has an excellent additional volume—on how Black peoples were portrayed in African, Middle Eastern, and Asian art.  The images from these non-Western regions of the world are incomparable, and the accompanying essays take us all the way from the beginnings to the present day. 


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Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy

By Denise Eileen McCoskey

Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy

Why this book?

If you’re curious about what the ancient Greeks and Romans thought about their neighbors—Persians, Egyptians, etc.— you’ll want to read this book from cover to cover.  It’s smart, learned, and doesn’t shy away from hard truths.  After you read it, you’ll also want to read Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, David M. Goldenberg’s The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and The Origins of Racism in the West, edited by Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler.


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Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity

By M. Lindsay Kaplan

Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity

Why this book?

In the European Middle Ages—the millennium-long era in the West after antiquity and before the modern period—Christianity was the first and last authority for all sources of knowledge and forms of reasoning.  This important book shows in great detail how medieval Christian theology produced arguments and rationales that enabled racism against Jews during the centuries of the long medieval period.


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The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

By Willie James Jennings

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

Why this book?

You’ll be dazzled by the brilliance of this author, and the beauty of his writing.  The book is impossible to summarize, but if you want to understand how the spread of a specifically Christian imagination around the world produces a racial grid, racial thinking, and racism, this book is indispensable.  Whether you’re interested in modern race, or race in all the long centuries before, you’ll come away with a better understanding of how the spread of the Christian religion has produced race and racisms.


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