The best books about race

5 authors have picked their favorite books about race and why they recommend each book.

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Playing in the Dark

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

This slim volume by Toni Morrison is a spare, elegant meditation on how what is absent – from view, from awareness, from narrative (in this case, what she calls the “Africanist presence” in the literary imagination) – exerts a structuring influence on what is present. The prose is characteristically beautiful, but what keeps me coming back to this book is the luminous tenor of Morrison’s engagement with literature that many people find objectionable and even racist. Rather than dismiss, condemn, and cancel, Morrison wants to understand, engage, and gain insight. “My project arises from delight, not disappointment”, she says, and that truly shows.

Playing in the Dark

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison brings the genius of a master writer to this personal inquiry into the significance of African-Americans in the American literary imagination. Her goal, she states at the outset, is to "put forth an argument for extending the study of American literature...draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World-without the mandate for conquest."

Author of Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and other vivid portrayals of black American…


Who am I?

I am an anthropologist who has written or edited more than a dozen books on topics that range from the lives of trans sex workers, to the anthropology of fat. I have conducted extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and Scandinavia. I work at Uppsala University in Sweden, where I am a Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology, and where I direct a research program titled Engaging Vulnerability.


I wrote...

A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea

By Don Kulick,

Book cover of A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea

What is my book about?

As a young anthropologist thirty years ago, I traveled to a remote village in Papua New Guinea to try to understand why a language dies. I went to Papua New Guinea because, with over 800 different languages, that little country is the most linguistically diverse place on the planet. The people in the village I ended up living in spoke a language unrelated to any other; one that had only ever been spoken by about 100 people.

This is the story of my life in that village, called Gapun. It is a story of how I kept returning, and over the years became inextricably implicated in the villagers’ destiny. It is the story of the impact that Western culture has had on the farthest reaches of the globe, and how I came to realize that the death of a language is about a great deal more than language.

Becoming Belafonte

By Judith E. Smith,

Book cover of Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical

As I was writing my book, I delved more into the professional singing career of Harry Belafonte. I knew him as the singer of familiar, toe-tapping, globally-inspired hits (i.e. “The Banana Boat Song,” “Jump In the Line,” “Matilda”). I didn’t know about the depth and breadth of his commitment to racial justice. Nor did I realize, more importantly, how his Civil Rights activism informed and shaped his artistic career as an actor and a musician. An eye-opening read about a cultural icon.

Becoming Belafonte

By Judith E. Smith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A son of poor Jamaican immigrants who grew up in Depression-era Harlem, Harry Belafonte became the first black performer to gain artistic control over the representation of African Americans in commercial television and film. Forging connections with an astonishing array of consequential players on the American scene in the decades following World War II-from Paul Robeson to Ed Sullivan, John Kennedy to Stokely Carmichael-Belafonte established his place in American culture as a hugely popular singer, matinee idol, internationalist, and champion of civil rights, black pride, and black power.

In Becoming Belafonte, Judith E. Smith presents the first full-length interpretive study…


Who am I?

I am a theater historian whose research focuses on African American theater of 1940s-50s. While other periods and movements—the Harlem Renaissance (1920s), the Federal Theatre Project (1930s), the Black Arts Movement (1960s), and contemporary theater—have been well studied and documented, I saw a gap of scholarship around the 1940s-50s; I wondered why those years had been largely overlooked. As I dived deeper, I saw how African American performance culture (ie. theater, film, television, music) of the later-20th Century had its roots in the history of those somewhat overlooked decades. I’m still investigating that story, and these books have helped me do it.


I wrote...

The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

By Jonathan Shandell,

Book cover of The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

What is my book about?

You may know of the American Negro Theatre (ANT), a neighborhood theater company in Harlem that lasted for about ten years. The writers this company produced—Abram Hill, Theodore Brown, Owen Dodson—are not household names. You may not recognize the title Anna Lucasta: a comedy about an African American family that the ANT turned into a runaway Broadway hit in the 1940s. But the legacy of this theater company—and the work of its writers, its actors, and its productions—was key for creating the popular African American culture we all do know.

To fully understand the emergence of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and The Cosby Show, you need to know about the American Negro Theatre and its transformative artistic legacy.

The Sonic Color Line

By Jennifer Lynn Stoever,

Book cover of The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening

The author points to the ways American media designated sound as “black” or “white” even as “colorblindness” became the dominant paradigm for liberal attitudes towards race. While Americans claimed that they didn’t “see race”, they were exposed to an increasingly segregated soundscape and media environment. Stoever opens up new ways for us to listen to familiar voices, such as those of WEB du Bois, Lena Horne, Lead Belly, Richard Wright, and many more.

The Sonic Color Line

By Jennifer Lynn Stoever,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The unheard history of how race and racism are constructed from sound and maintained through the listening ear.
Race is a visual phenomenon, the ability to see "difference." At least that is what conventional wisdom has lead us to believe. Yet, The Sonic Color Line argues that American ideologies of white supremacy are just as dependent on what we hear-voices, musical taste, volume-as they are on skin color or hair texture. Reinforcing compelling new ideas about the relationship between race and sound with meticulous historical research, Jennifer Lynn Stoever helps us to better understand how sound and listening not only…


Who am I?

I have been doing research in the Caribbean for twenty-five years. The region is diverse and magnificent. Caribbean people have sought creative solutions for racial inequality, climate and sustainability, media literacy and information, women’s and family issues. The transnational connections with the US are complex and wide-ranging, and knowing more about this region is an urgent matter. I work to understand how sound and media work because they structure our reality in important ways. Listening as a way of approaching relationships in work and play is key to our survival. So is understanding how media works, where we get our information from, and how to tell what’s relevant, significant, and true, and what is not. 


I wrote...

Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

By Alejandra Bronfman,

Book cover of Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

What is my book about?

The Caribbean has always been a site of explorations of modernity and technology, and this book makes that case through a history of broadcasting and media. With a peripatetic approach, the book scans the emergence of broadcasting as the central medium in the region with attention to Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. While in Haiti the US military occupation brought radio as a disciplining and governing tool, in Cuba it was US commercial interests that supported the radio boom. In Jamaica, by contrast, local radio was limited by the colonial government until an explosive anti-colonial rebellion changed everything. The book tracks radio’s significance in politics, racial dynamics, and cultures of belonging. 

The Complexion of Race

By Roxann Wheeler,

Book cover of The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture

Roxanne Wheeler’s The Complexion of Race occupies an important place in both our libraries. Rare are the books that deal with the complexities of human complexions with such subtlety. Wheeler does not start off by assuming the existence of a monological or commonly shared understanding of race; she charts the numerous causal flows that produced the early-modern discussion of the human, including the “empire of climate,” natural history (physiology and anatomy), and the fact that the British (Protestant) way of life became the benchmark for measuring all things foreign. 

The Complexion of Race

By Roxann Wheeler,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the 1723 Journal of a Voyage up the Gambia, an English narrator describes the native translators vital to the expedition's success as being "Black as Coal." Such a description of dark skin color was not unusual for eighteenth-century Britons-but neither was the statement that followed: "here, thro' Custom, (being Christians) they account themselves White Men." The Complexion of Race asks how such categories would have been possible, when and how such statements came to seem illogical, and how our understanding of the eighteenth century has been distorted by the imposition of nineteenth and twentieth century notions of race on…

Who are we?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is an award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, and has authored or co-authored twenty-two books; he's also the host of PBS’s Finding Your Roots. Andrew Curran is a writer and the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities at Wesleyan University. His writing on the Enlightenment and race has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, and more. Curran is also the author of the award-winning Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely and The Anatomy of Blackness.


We wrote...

Who's Black and Why? A Forgotten Chapter in the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. (editor), Andrew S. Curran (editor),

Book cover of Who's Black and Why? A Forgotten Chapter in the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race

What is my book about?

Who’s Black and Why? recounts the birth of the concept of race and anti-black racism during the Enlightenment era. We tell this story by looking back to 1739, the year when the Royal Academy of Sciences in Bordeaux announced that it would give a gold medal to the author of the best essay on the sources of “blackness.” Sixteen essays were ultimately dispatched to the Academy from all over Europe. Some of the contestants affirmed that Africans had fallen from God’s grace; others that blackness had resulted from a brutal climate; still others emphasized the anatomical specificity of Africans. This book, in short, is designed to be a compelling, albeit distressing, gateway to the origins of race and racism – as well as their inextricable links to African chattel slavery.

Anti-Racist Ally

By Sophie Williams,

Book cover of Anti-Racist Ally: An Introduction to Activism and Action

There are a bunch of great anti-racism books out there, but few are all about taking action, as Sophie’s book is. Because I’m guessing if you’ve made it this far into my recommendation list, you are already familiar with anti-racism and many of the systemic problems we must address, and just want someone to point you in the right direction to do the work. This is a great book for that! It’s short but packed with practical tips.

Anti-Racist Ally

By Sophie Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Anti-Racist Ally as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Gives you the information you need to begin, or continue, your understanding of what it means to be a true anti-racist ally' Pippa Vosper

Do you want to be an anti-racist ally?

This punchy, pocket-sized guide shows you how, whether you're using your voice for the first time, or are looking for ways to keep the momentum and make long lasting change.

Sophie Williams' no-holds-barred posts about racism and Black Lives Matter on @officialmillennialblack have taken the online world by storm. Sharp, simple and insightful, they get to the heart of anti-racist principles and show us all how to truly…


Who am I?

I have spent 20+ years working on the question of how social and environmental change happens, from my long-time career in progressive politics to my current work writing about the most pressing issues of our time through an economic lens, and occasionally talking about them on my podcast, also called Wallet Activism. So I know well how intimidating it can feel to get involved, whether it’s worrying your voice isn’t needed (trust me, it is!) or not knowing the nuts and bolts of where to start. But we have so much power when we act collectively, and I want you to feel personally invited to take action.


I wrote...

Book cover of Wallet Activism: How to Use Every Dollar You Spend, Earn, and Save as a Force for Change

What is my book about?

Wallet Activism is about using your financial power in all its forms to address the climate crisis and the inequality crisis. You have so much more power than you think! Corporations and leaders want you to feel powerless so you’ll go along with the status quo, but Wallet Activism debunks that myth and shows you how to see through marketing lies and use your financial power to address the climate crisis and social injustice when choosing what you buy, who to work for, where to live, how to give money away, where to save and invest your money, and so much more. It equips you with the best questions to ask to make choices that have real impact and don’t just make you feel better.

Spheres of Influence

By Douglas S. Massey, Stefanie Brodmann,

Book cover of Spheres of Influence: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality

In addition to neighborhoods, Americans also experience rampant inequalities across other social settings such as families, schools, and peer networks. These settings define the ecological context within which humans develop and each “sphere of influence” determines the development trajectories of people as the move from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. This book examines how each of these spheres affects human development at different stages of the life course among White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian young people in the United States to produce the racial and class inequalities that characterize contemporary American society.

Spheres of Influence

By Douglas S. Massey, Stefanie Brodmann,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

My mother was the child of immigrants from Finland with grade-school educations who grew up in a small Alaskan town with no roads in or out. She came down to the “lower 48” during the Second World War to work her way through the University of Washington, where she met my father. He was a multigenerational American with two college-educated parents. His mother graduated from Whitman College in 1919 and looked down on my mother as a child of poorly educated immigrants. She was also openly hostile toward Catholics, Blacks, and Jews and probably didn’t think much of Finns either. Witnessing my grandmother’s disdain for minorities and the poor including my mother, I learned about racism and class prejudice firsthand. But I am my mother’s son, and I resented my grandmother’s self-satisfied posturing. Therefore I’ve always been on the side of the underdog and made it my business to learn all that I could about how inequalities are produced and perpetuated in the United States, and to do all I can to make the world a fairer, more egalitarian place.


I wrote...

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

By Douglas S. Massey, Nancy A. Denton,

Book cover of American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

What is my book about?

American Apartheid describes how Black residential segregation was created during the first seven decades of the 20th century by powerful white actors in the public and private sectors, who collectively worked to isolate black in-migrants within ghettos for purposes of exclusion and exploitation. As a result, high levels of segregation prevailed throughout metropolitan America as of 1980.

Public policies enacted during the 1930s institutionalized the discriminatory of realtors and lenders, ensuring that Blacks were confined to recognized Black neighborhoods and that these were cut off from capital and credit to guarantee their decline. As Black poverty rates increased during the 1970s and 1980s, segregation served to concentrate deprivation spatially to create a supremely disadvantaged context that acted to perpetuate black poverty over the life course and across the generations, giving rise to what in the 1980s was known as the “urban underclass.”

Decolonizing Feminisms

By Laura E. Donaldson,

Book cover of Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender & Empire Building

This book takes a tour through the most impactful and influential popular literature circulating in the 19th and early 20th centuries—the stories that laid the groundwork for a collective Anglo-American consciousness—and explains how these stories produced a set of feminist ideologies that were reliant upon a racist and imperialist imaginary. Whether it is her chapter on the “King and I” in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or her tracking of the “picanninies” romping through “Peter Pan” and a “Passage to India,” Donaldson explains how we came to associate feminism with the ideologies of slavery and colonialism in the deepest recesses of our imaginations.

Decolonizing Feminisms

By Laura E. Donaldson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Donaldson presents new paradigms of interpretation that help to bring the often oppositional stances of First versus Third World and traditional versus postmodern feminism into a more constructive relationship. She situates contemporary theoretical debates about reading, writing, and the politics of identity within the context of historical colonialism--primarily under the English in the nineteenth century.

Who am I?

As a historian of feminism, I have been trying for decades to understand how gender, race, class, and nationality are knotted together in ways that are not always obvious or trackable in our personal experience. The books I recommend here have served as brilliant lanterns for me—not simply pointing out the flawed history of western feminism but instead explaining the complicated effects of whiteness and imperialism in the development of today’s feminist identities, ideologies, and consciousness. For me, these histories offer intersectional keys decoding the map of the world we’ve been dropped into and offering a path leading to a more justly feminist future….I hope they do for you too!


I wrote...

White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

By Tracey Jean Boisseau,

Book cover of White Queen: May French-Sheldon and the Imperial Origins of American Feminist Identity

What is my book about?

“White Queen" is what an unusual and fascinating woman named May French-Sheldon (1847-1936) called herself, or claimed that the Africans she met, during her 1891 expedition to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, called her. Her explorer’s outfit—including a full-length, jewel-encrusted, white ballgown, tiara, and waist-length blonde wig—ensured her whiteness would be inextricably linked to what she hoped would be read as “queenliness.” “White Queen” also describes a kind of white, Western, feminist figure whose claims to power, importance, and personal emancipation rely heavily upon and perpetuate a world structured by racism and colonialism.

This book zooms in on the fascinating life and public career of the first woman explorer of Africa to explicate how white American feminist identity—first forged in the fires of colonial conquest—became reliant on tropes of race in ways that still yoke American feminism to the politics of empire.

Book cover of Selected Writings on Race and Difference

Stuart Hall provided me with a model for mapping the shifting political conjuncture in real time, and the transforming racial dynamics that centrally shaped neoliberalism’s political emergence and cultural expression of the period. He showed how the newly emergent racial politics identified with neoliberalizing societies is increasingly linked to the immigrant, the unbelonging, the supposed rise in local crime as a consequence, and the perceived threat to the traditional culture of their host society. Hall offers the dynamic terms of analysis for these emerging phenomena: the floating signifier of race, the pluralizing of racism, racial panics, the law and order society, articulation of race with class and gender, etc. His work, so formatively brought together here by Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, was enormously generative for me in analyzing the formative connections of neoliberalization and the shifting dynamics of racial politics.

Selected Writings on Race and Difference

By Stuart Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Selected Writings on Race and Difference as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Selected Writings on Race and Difference, editors Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore gather more than twenty essays by Stuart Hall that highlight his extensive and groundbreaking engagement with race, representation, identity, difference, and diaspora. Spanning the whole of his career, this collection includes classic theoretical essays such as "The Whites of Their Eyes" (1981) and "Race, the Floating Signifier" (1997). It also features public lectures, political articles, and popular pieces that circulated in periodicals and newspapers, which demonstrate the breadth and depth of Hall's contribution to public discourses of race. Foregrounding how and why the analysis of race…

Who am I?

I grew up and completed the formative years of my college education in Cape Town, South Africa, while active also in anti-apartheid struggles. My Ph.D. dissertation in the 1980s focused on the elaboration of key racial ideas in the modern history of philosophy. I have published extensively on race and racism in the U.S. and globally, in books, articles, and public media. My interests have especially focused on the transforming logics and expressions of racism over time, and its updating to discipline and constrain its conventional targets anew and new targets more or less conventionally. My interest has always been to understand racism in order to face it down.


I wrote...

The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism

By David Theo Goldberg,

Book cover of The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism

What is my book about?

Modern states are racially structured. They become modern by assuming the structures of racial arrangement. But these arrangements are not static. As political economy shifts over time so do the conditions of racial structure. From the 1980s, neoliberalism deregulated economic activity within and across states globally, while ramping up the regulation of social order through the funding of repressive state apparatuses such as the military and police. Personal responsibility was emphasized above all in the face of the financialization of all social choices. Racial reference was erased which, rather than ending racism, rendered it less nameable, if not invisible. The book traces these developments across five regions because of the variations but especially because the threat of racism anywhere is shored up by racism elsewhere.

Race

By Denise Eileen McCoskey,

Book cover of Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy

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.

Race

By Denise Eileen McCoskey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How do different cultures think about race? In the modern era, racial distinctiveness has been assessed primarily in terms of a person's physical appearance. But it was not always so. As Denise McCoskey shows, the ancient Greeks and Romans did not use skin colour as the basis for categorising ethnic disparity. The colour of one's skin lies at the foundation of racial variability today because it was used during the heyday of European exploration and colonialism to construct a hierarchy of civilizations and then justify slavery and other forms of economic exploitation. Assumptions about race thus have to take into…

Who am I?

I’m that infamous medievalist who wrote the big book on medieval race. It took 20 years of thinking and research, and a whole lot of writing, but now people are convinced that there was, indeed, such a thing as race and racism between the 11th and 15th centuries in the West (aka Christendom/Europe). I'm Perceval Professor of English and Comparative Literature, with a joint appointment in Middle Eastern studies and Women’s studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


I wrote...

The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages

By Geraldine Heng,

Book cover of The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages

What is my book about?

I take readers on a journey from North America (where Greenlanders and Icelanders had a lot to say about Native Americans) to Europe (where Jews were racialized, and “Gypsy” became the name of a slave race), to the Middle East (where Muslims were the international enemy in the killing fields of holy war) to Africa (where blackness was seen as the color of sin and the devil, and Ethiopians were deemed a population of sinners) to the Eurasian steppes and China (where Mongols evolved, in the western mind, from subhuman beings to the representatives of the greatest empire on earth). Along the way, I show readers why all this still matters today.

The Invisible Line

By Daniel J. Sharfstein,

Book cover of The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America

This book features a trio of true-life stories from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries about families whose ancestors were enslaved but who, by a variety of stratagems, managed to cross the color line and become “white” in the eyes of others – and eventually in the eyes of their own descendants. These stories illustrated for me the actual permeability of racial categories, hinging largely on one’s physical appearance and possessions.  In other words, the lighter your skin and the larger your bank account, the greater the possibility that others will allow you to be whoever you say you are.

The Invisible Line

By Daniel J. Sharfstein,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I first heard about Melungeons when a babysitter told me they would “git” me if I didn’t behave.  She said they lived in caves outside our East Tennessee town and had six fingers on each hand.  I consigned these creatures to myth and nightmares, until a cousin informed me that some of our shared ancestors were Melungeons and showed me scars from the removal of his extra thumbs.  For the next ten years I visited sites related to Melungeons and interviewed many who claimed Melungeon ancestry, running DNA tests on some. This research yielded my memoir Kinfolks: Falling Off The Family Tree and my historical novel Washed In The Blood.


I wrote...

Washed in the Blood

By Lisa Alther,

Book cover of Washed in the Blood

What is my book about?

The Southeast was not a barren wilderness when the British arrived at Jamestown. It was already inhabited by Native Americans, French, Spaniards, Portuguese, Africans, and others. Extensive racial mixing there produced offspring who often became “British” when their complexions allowed it.

Washed In the Blood features three linked generations of such people. Diego Martin arrives in the Southeast in 1567 as a hog drover with a Spanish exploring party. His leader abandons him to the wilderness, where natives rescue him. In the 19th century, a descendant of Diego’s marries a Quaker from Philadelphia, who runs a school for mountain children. By the 1920s Diego’s descendants have split: The merchants in town deny any kinship to their darker cousins on Mulatto Bald. Will Martin from the Bald falls in love with a town girl, both unaware they are cousins. Reinventing themselves as white citizens in a new industrial town, they are appalled when Will’s illegitimate, dark-complexioned son arrives at their doorstep and falls in love with their daughter.

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