The best books about social consciousness in historical contexts: gender, race/whiteness, class, sexuality

Why am I passionate about this?

I was an angry girl, railing against the difference between the expectations and restrictions on me and my younger brother. I was also the child of survivors and victims of the Armenian genocide, and I grew up in 1950 when my immigrant family didn’t fit the representations of “Americans” as they were then depicted. And I was white. I wanted to change myself, the world and learn why there was so much injustice in the U.S. I went back to school at UMass, got connected to faculty in the Afro-American Studies Department, and joined the group that was creating the Women’s Studies Program. I am still learning and trying to change the world.  


I wrote...

Lion Woman's Legacy: An Armenian-American Memoir

By Arlene Voski Avakian,

Book cover of Lion Woman's Legacy: An Armenian-American Memoir

What is my book about?

No one in her maternal family talked about what they had experienced in Turkey, but when Avakian was a young teen, her grandmother told her how her husband had been taken away and never heard from again. She and her three young children along with other relatives were forced from their homes in Kastemonu. She managed to get the family back to their homes and finally to the U.S. Initially running from this knowledge, Avakian eventually accepted this history of oppression and resistance which was instrumental in her becoming an activist for progressive social change with particular emphasis on white supremacy and patriarchy.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of On Call: Political Essays

Arlene Voski Avakian Why did I love this book?

A poet, playwright, essayist, teacher, and activist, Jordan had more than 25 published works, including seven books of essays. 

As a feminist and women’s studies teacher and scholar who was focused on bringing race into the center of my activism and analysis, I learned so much from June Jordan. 
On Call, includes essays that explored intersectionality years before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term and theorized the overlapping social constructions of race, class, and gender. 

The topics of the 18 essays are wide-ranging, from patriarchy, to Black English, to the enslaved 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley, and a hilarious short essay on the election of Ronald Reagan written in Black English.  I taught “Report from the Bahamas” in almost all of my courses. 

Like all of her essays, it is written with a poet’s sensibility. Every word matters.  

By June Jordan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Book of political essays by a great Feminist.


Book cover of The Wall Between

Arlene Voski Avakian Why did I love this book?

I met Anne Braden at an anti-racism conference in the 80s. 

When I heard this older white woman with a thick Southern accent began to speak about the Civil Rights Movement as the second American revolution, I began to cry. 

I was feeling very alone as a white woman in Women’s Studies trying to bring race to the center of the discipline as well as my activism. I was both relieved to know that Braden existed and pained that I had never heard of her.

The book is a memoir of what happened to Anne and her husband Carl when they agreed to Andrew Wade’s request to buy a house and sell it to him, not as a political act but because he and his wife wanted a house in a new development that was segregated and the Wades were Black. 

The Bradens were indicted by the state of Kentucky for sedition. This book is a gripping account those events and though it was published in 1958, it is one of the best analysis of the construction and maintenance of whiteness I have read.  

By Anne Braden,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"The Wall Between is a chilling depiction of a pattern repeated over and over again across the South as brave Blacks and whites tried to breach the barrier between the races. . . . We need to know Anne Braden's story, perhaps even more in 1999 than when she wrote it in 1957." -from the foreword by Julian Bond

In 1954, Anne and Carl Braden bought a house in an all-white neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, on behalf of a black couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade. The Wall Between is Anne Braden's account of what resulted from this act of friendship:…


Book cover of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

Arlene Voski Avakian Why did I love this book?

Anderson’s book is based on prodigious research, but is written for a general audience. 

She argues that when Black people make any gains, whites respond by working, mostly successfully, to deny those advances through local, state, and federal legislation and violence. 

The book begins by documenting the thorough destruction of the rights Black people gained through the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and brings her analysis forward to the present. This book gives you the historical background to understand what is happening now.

After reading it you will no longer be surprised by what the right wing has been doing since the gains of the civil rights movement to undo those rights won through struggle and incredible courage, the rights every American deserves. 

By Carol Anderson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of the Year
A Boston Globe Best Book of 2016
A Chicago Review of Books Best Nonfiction Book of 2016

From the Civil War to our combustible present, White Rage reframes our continuing conversation about race, chronicling the powerful forces opposed to black progress in America--now in paperback with a new afterword by the author, acclaimed historian Carol Anderson.

As Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in August 2014, and media commentators across the ideological spectrum referred to…


Book cover of Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma

Arlene Voski Avakian Why did I love this book?

This book is hard to read, but its rewards are great. 

I was literally shaking when reading it because it described my life as a child of survivors and victims of the Armenian genocide in a way that I had not experienced before, illuminating new aspects of the genocide story I have been excavating for most of my adult life.  

Focusing on mass murder, colonialism, South African Apartheid, and U.S. slavery and white supremacy, Schwab addresses the trauma of the generation experiencing these atrocities as well as the way it is passed through to their progeny. 

She also explores the damage done to the perpetrators of violence into her analysis, weaving her own experience as a German growing up in the wake of WW II and the holocaust and as a white person living in the U.S. Schwab also goes beyond exploring trauma to address the necessity of perpetrators’ taking responsibility and making reparation to the victims and survivors.  

By Gabriele Schwab,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From mass murder to genocide, slavery to colonial suppression, acts of atrocity have lives that extend far beyond the horrific moment. They engender trauma that echoes for generations, in the experiences of those on both sides of the act. Gabriele Schwab reads these legacies in a number of narratives, primarily through the writing of postwar Germans and the descendents of Holocaust survivors. She connects their work to earlier histories of slavery and colonialism and to more recent events, such as South African Apartheid, the practice of torture after 9/11, and the "disappearances" that occurred during South American dictatorships. Schwab's texts…


Book cover of "Exterminate All the Brutes": One Man's Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide

Arlene Voski Avakian Why did I love this book?

A mere 172 pages, this book examines the brutality of European colonialism in the 19th century, uncovering genocides I had never heard of that were perpetrated by so-called “civilized people” on so-called “primitive people.” 

The justification for this barbarism was that they for the benefit of the people annihilated because they could not live in the modern world. 

That justification is the same one often used on this side of the ocean for the genocide or “removal” of Indigenous people from their ancient lands and for the enslavement of African people who were “improved” by being around white people. 

Part travelogue, part history, part literary analysis – Lindqvist focuses on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness – the book cannot be easily categorized and when reading it I often wondered what he was doing. 

But my understanding of both colonialism and what the Europeans did when they came to the “new world” has been immeasurably deepened by reading this book.  Take a chance!

By Sven Lindqvist, Joan Tate (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked "Exterminate All the Brutes" as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Exterminate All the Brutes" is a searching examination of Europe's dark history in Africa and the origins of genocide. Using Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as his point of departure, Sven Lindqvist takes us on a haunting tour through the colonial past, interwoven with a modern-day travelogue. Retracing the steps of European explorers, missionaries, politicians, and historians in Africa from the late eighteenth century onward, the author exposes the roots of genocide in Africa via his own journey through the Saharan desert. As Lindqvist shows, fantasies not merely of white superiority but of actual extermination "cleansing" the earth of the…


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Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS

By Amy Carney,

Book cover of Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS

Amy Carney Author Of Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Historian Professor Curl up with a good book reader Traveler – Berlin is my happy place!

Amy's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When I was writing this book, several of my friends jokingly called it the Nazi baby book, with one insisting it would make a great title. Nazi Babies – admittedly, that is a catchy title, but that’s not exactly what my book is about. SS babies would be slightly more on topic, but it would be more accurate to say that I wrote a book about SS men as husbands and fathers.

From 1931 to 1945, leaders of the SS, a paramilitary group under the Nazi party, sought to transform their organization into a racially-elite family community that would serve…

Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS

By Amy Carney,

What is this book about?

From 1931 to 1945, leaders of the SS, a paramilitary group under the Nazi party, sought to transform their organization into a racially-elite family community that would serve as the Third Reich's new aristocracy. They utilized the science of eugenics to convince SS men to marry suitable wives and have many children.

Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS by Amy Carney is the first work to significantly assess the role of SS men as husbands and fathers during the Third Reich. The family community, and the place of men in this community, started with one simple order issued by…


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