History & Theory
Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 2nd ed., Foreword by Cornel West, New York: The New Press, 2010, 2012.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness critically examines how America’s criminal justice system has been used to legally perpetuate injustices against blacks under the guise of an ostensibly race-neutral anti-drug policy. However, as Alexander shows, the disproportionately high rate of black mass incarceration in the United States is a direct result of the racialized enforcement of drug policies stemming from America’s War on Drugs. Alexander argues that much like during slavery and the Jim Crow era, mass incarceration, the New Jim Crow, creates a “racial undercaste” as means of exerting social control over blacks, stating that “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (2). This book is a must-read for anyone looking to understand the racial bias prevalent in America’s prison-industrial complex, the long-term societal effects of imprisonment, and how even seemingly well-intended legislation can be enforced in such as manner as to render it discriminatory. Bobbi Reimann
Sarah Lewis, ed. Aperture “Vision & Justice: A Civic Curriculum.” New York: Aperture Foundation, 2019.
Have you ever wondered what the connection between images, representation, and citizenship is? How do art, justice, and culture connect? How are our notions of political participation and democracy bound up with photography and film? How do photographs and images shape the vision of a just society? How have African American artists seized the medium to oppose prevalent stereotypes, negotiate black identity, and display the vision of full participation in U.S.-American society? These are some of the questions which the 80-page booklet addresses. In short essays and interviews, the issue introduces the work of artists and leading figures. It presents approaches to the cultural work of changing the vision of a country. Racial justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, e.g., talks about the role of memorials and historical reconciliation in shaping the cultural narrative that defines social structures. African American and feminist studies scholar Robin Bernstein exposes how black children are regularly seen as older and how that becomes dangerous, e.g., when childish behavior – seen as age-appropriate in other children – is deemed criminal or inappropriate. These scholars’ essays are interspersed with students’ considerations on photographs and visual culture in the pursuit of racial justice. Nicole Schneider
You can access the Civic Curriculum on Vision & Justice here.
Barbara Ransby. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.
A good place to start reading up on the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests currently taking place in the United States is Barbara Ransby’s Making All Black Lives Matter. It offers a dense, yet comprehensive and hands-on description of the Movement for Black Lives, its core values, and the principles behind their demands. An activist and organizer herself, Ransby is able to present background information and places contemporary activism for black liberation in a context that is both historical and socio-political, as well as nation-spanning and local. I think it provides a good overview of the reasons people protest and the demands that go beyond calls for prosecution of individual offenders. Nicole Schneider
Andrea Ritchie. Invisible No More: Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color. Introduction by Angela Davis, Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.
Andrea Ritchie’s Invisible No More: Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color is a timely masterpiece that examines how women of color – a term inclusive of Black women, Indigenous women, and transgender women – are often left out of the narrative surrounding racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration. She provides countless examples of traumatizing and deadly encounters that women of color have had with law enforcement officers, highlighting how long-standing racialized and gendered paradigms of policing have resulted in violence against Black women and women of color, who, as she notes, constitute the “fastest-growing jail and prison populations” in the United States (235). Her work challenges readers to expand the narrative of police brutality and mass incarceration to include the experiences of women of color. To render their experiences visible and stop the violence against them, however, will require the public and law enforcement officers to recognize and eliminate criminalizing narratives of Black women and women of color and adopt a more intersectional approach to policing. Only then, Ritchie shows, can wider police reform in the United States be tackled effectively. Bobbi Reimann
Richard Rothstein. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright, 2017.
Many Americans today believe that racial segregation exists due to de facto segregation, believing that de jure segregation was eliminated long ago. This “willful blindness” (xiii), however, removes obligation from white Americans in particular to accept responsibility for being complicit in structuring America’s racially segregated residential neighborhoods, as American historian Richard Rothstein cogently outlines in his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America. Using the U.S. Constitution as a basis, Rothstein lucidly explains how governmental policy at the federal, state, and local levels in the mid-twentieth century in particular enforced residential segregation across America and examines how law enforcement and justice officials brutally upheld the racially divisive standards implemented by the government, leading to inequities in American society today, which come to the fore during periods of civil unrest. To overcome its racial division, Rothstein argues that America must directly confront the unconstitutional practices applied into the twenty-first century and finally assume responsibility for its systemically racist practices. This is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand how governmental policy and everyday inaction have sustained an inherently racist residential system in the United States and includes a section on “Frequently Asked Questions” that tackles some of the most frequent misconceptions the public has. Bobbi Reimann
You can listen to an NPR interview with the author here. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's "How Real Estate Segregated America," published in Dissent Magazine in 2018, adds a further piece to the puzzle of residential segregation, namely public-private partnerships, which you can read about here.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation provides a thorough and somewhat dense study of the conditions that led to the Black Lives Matter Movement and its political outlook. If you want to dig a bit deeper and seek to understand the historical processes and social, economic, and political dimensions of the systemic problems black Americans face, this is the book to go to. Taylor addresses, i.e., how the ideas of ‘American Exceptionalism’ and ‘Culture of Poverty’ mask systemic factors determining black life, how the ideological tool of colorblindness functions to further shift the burden of racial oppression onto black communities, and how the current movement provides a “political alternative based in protest and rearticulating Black oppression as systemic phenomenon” (19). Combining both the ‘history’ of the movement and a vision for the future, the book outlines what the systemic ‘state violence’ protested looks like and which solutions the movement envisions. Nicole Schneider
James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press, 1963.
The writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin opens his seminal book The Fire Next Time with a letter to his fourteen-year old nephew, written on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation, the freeing of slaves. He ends this letter with a wake-up call: “the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” The Fire Next Time is both a plea against continuing racial injustice and an outcry for survival, human interconnection, and change. Baldwin’s meditation on race is “relevant for understanding the pain and anger behind the protests“ (Barack Obama), as it dwells on the young James’s life in the ghetto, his encounters with white supremacy on the streets, and the police brutality he experiences in Harlem. What Baldwin asserts almost 60 years ago remains true today: whatever white people do not know about Black people “reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Julia Faisst
“A Letter to My Nephew” was originally published in The Progressive and the “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in The New Yorker.
Amiri Baraka. It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music. Black Forum, 1972.
In 1970, Motown founded the progressive subsidiary label Black Forum. The unique spoken word label created a platform for black activists and artists to critically address racism and inequality in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Among the eight LPs the label issued, Amiri Baraka’s album It’s Nation Time stands out as a complex compilation of poetry, African music, free jazz and R&B. In the course of its 14 tracks, Baraka unfolds an uncompromising vision of a utopian black nation. Today, It’s Nation Time remains current in its radical and urging call for social change. Ulla Stackmann
You can listen to It’s Nation Time here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning book Between the World and Me is a letter from father to fifteen-year-old son in which Coates shares his thoughts on what it means to be Black in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is a powerful examination of the dangers and impediments for the adolescent development of Black youth in an environment governed by systemic racism. At the same time, it provides readers with multigenerational insights into the embodied experience of white supremacy. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” Coates writes in Between the World and Me. It is a sentence that stuck with me because his concise and effortless phrasing of the fact stands in stark contrast to the stifling and growing historical record of its erasure through hegemonial strategies of dismissal, denial, delegitimization, and dehumanization. This book is an excellent starting point for those seeking to better understand the significance of the current moment. Nathalie Aghoro
Rebecca Skloot. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Books, 2010, 2011.
Divided into three distinct sections – Life, Death, and Immortality – and based on extensive interviews as well as on archived materials, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksis a multifaceted critically acclaimed nonfiction account of Henrietta Lacks’ life and legacy, influenced by racism, poverty, and unethical medical practices spanning from the Jim Crow era to today. Skloot’s work examines how Lacks’s cervical cancer cells were harvested by her physician without her consent in 1951, quickly becoming a veritable “HeLa [Henrietta Lacks] factory” (93), and have been used in a vast array of scientific and medical research, ranging from helping find a cure for polio to cloning and gene mapping. At the same time, the book explores the Lacks family and their struggle to come to terms with having their DNA made public and marketed for medical and commercial gain, all while directly benefiting little from these advancements themselves. Indeed, as Henrietta’s daughter Deborah says, “if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?” (9). Ultimately, Skloot’s book helps restore Henrietta Lacks’s identity and humanity and raises important questions about medical consent, compensation, and ethics, all while shining a light on the humility of the Lacks family, whose biggest desire is to see Henrietta honored for the extensive role she has played in medical and scientific history and to “make right with the family” (328). Bobbi Reimann
Jesmyn Ward, ed. The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. New York: Scribner, 2017.
Over 50 years after the publication of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), Jesmyn Ward now brings together a wide range of contemporary voices that have taken Baldwin’s influential book as a point of departure for their responses to both Baldwin and to the bitter and continuing reality of racism in America today. This “choral response” (Jelani Webb) consists of biographical pieces, as, for instance, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s trip to Baldwin’s house in France through ruminations on mourning as a condition of black life by Claudia Rankine or Edwidge Danticat’s “Message to my Daughters” to Emily Raboteau’s discovery of the neighborhood mural “KNOW YOUR RIGHTS!” Kerstin Schmidt
Novels & Memoirs
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah. New York: Anchor Books, 2014.
Nigeria-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed novel Americanah depicts the life of a young Nigerian student in the United States and the grim experience of what it means to be black in contemporary America. Adichie’s book gives a blunt yet deeply personal perspective on the persistence of racism, racial inequality and injustice. Blending diverse narrative voices and oscillating between documentary and fiction, her book is both unsettling and deeply thought-provoking. Julia Rössler
Darnell L. Moore. No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America. New York: Bold Type Books, 2018.
Darnell Moore is a black queer organizer whose memoir invites us to follow his journey from being a boy in the poor urban city of Camden, NJ, to becoming one of the leading activists in the Movement for Black Lives. He writes about learning self-acceptance and centering his care and work on those most marginalized, as that is, for him, the most effective way to change society. His book reveals the systemic injustices he has experienced. It reveals personal choices and structural problems that have endangered his health. It talks about family ties that have strengthened throughout hardships and gives an account of his life in the conditions caused by the devaluation of black lives in society. The memoir introduces different approaches to freedom and presents Moore's insights into the radical black tradition and his own understanding of what black liberation ought to look like. All in a language that is readable and shows traces of his practice as speech writer and rhetoric expert. No Ashes in the Fire is an honest book that engages with questions of belonging, acceptance, sexuality, personal growth, religion, being black, and finding pathways to activism. “Black Love, shared by so many, is the reason I am here,” Moore writes, “Breathing. Fighting. Dreaming. Surviving. Working. Even when we start the fires that have consumed so many of our own, I remember who handed us the gasoline, the matches, and the inclination to hate our reflections” (226). Nicole Schneider
Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. 1970. London: Vintage, 1999.
Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is a novel about the coming of age of a group of young black girls in a black community in the 1940s. Dark and devastating at times, beautiful and reconciliating at others, this book presents the life of Pecola who is cast an outsider and internalizes this role given to her. Elegantly, Morrison narrates the story from a child’s perspective, digging deep into the histories and secrets of the town’s community. While reading, pay attention to questions of norms, beauty, love, and belonging. What is beauty and who decides what is normal? Why are most baby dolls white and why are blue eyes considered beautiful? What does this do to those who do not fit these norms? And how does this constant reminder of non-belonging affect families and relationships? The characters in this book each have found a different way of dealing with this cultural pressure. They have come to the insight that no matter how much they belong, even in this little place of their own, they will never be part of the larger culture represented by white skinned, gold locked, and ever smiling Shirly Temple-movie stars and the like. Nicole Schneider
Angie Thomas. The Hate U Give. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2017, 2018.
Angie Thomas delivers a unique account of what it’s like to grow up black in a white world. The Hate U Give follows black American teenager Starr Carter as she negotiates her two worlds, one poor and black and the other upscale, suburban, and white. Her two worlds collide after her friend Khalil is killed during a routine police stop, and Starr is forced to decide what role she will take in the ensuing police investigation and media frenzy. While following Starr’s journey to herself and her community, the reader comes to understand anger about police brutality and dubious internal police investigations, media framing, everyday racism, and the need to voice anger in light of oppression. This novel is an excellent starting point for anyone looking to understand the Black Lives Matter movement and the current protests in the United States. Bobbi Reimann
Gwendolyn Brooks. “Boy Breaking Glass.” Blacks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987.
The poem portrays a young boy engaging in an act of destruction, breaking windows, as a reaction to his marginality in society ("I shall create! If not a note, a hole. If not an overture, a desecration"). The poem resonates with the theme of invisibility as well as feeling devalued as a human being ("Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there"). It captures the frustration of living unacknowledged by those in power ("Who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau, the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty, runs"). Despite the boy’s outrage, he maintains a singular dignity defined by his choosing activeness over resignation, and in this way is read not only as a sympathetic character but also an inspiring one. The poem was written in response to a suggestion made to Brooks to write a poem about inequality. Brooks was the first black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Much of her later work, including this poem, deal with Civil Rights activism as well as the disaffection and grief experienced by inner city youth. Similar themes already feature in her most famous poem "We Real Cool," which was written almost three decades earlier. Michael Hilton
You can read “Boy Breaking Glass” here and listen to Brooks reading "We Real Cool" here.
Porsha Olayiwola. I Shimmer Sometimes, Too. Minneapolis, MN: button poetry, 2019.
Porsha Olayiwola is a Boston-based educator, performer and writer who describes herself as “Black, futurist, poet, dyke, hip-hop feminist, womanist.” In 2019, she published her poetry collection I Shimmer, Sometimes, Too that develops a compelling, multi-layered perspective on what it means to be a queer black woman in the USA. The poems in the volume evolve around themes of embodiment and corporeality; Olayiwola examines how our bodies can be vulnerable, sensual, beautiful, treacherous, limited, a means to communicate and many things more. The remarkable use of typography throughout the book reflects this focus on materiality underlining the complexity and thoughtfulness of the volume. Ulla Stackmann
(Please find the links in the titles)
Critical race theorist and feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw gives a TED talk about how frames and definitions keep doubly marginalized people from being recognized. In “The urgency of intersectionality,” she illustrates the concept of intersecting identity categories and introduces black women who were victims of police violence but regularly not considered in reports, media attention, and communal outrage about police violence.
In his TED Talk “How to raise a black son in America,” poet and activist Clint Smith performs a poem about ‘the Talk’ between black parents and their children and the danger of being considered a threat.
In his TED Talk “We need to talk about an injustice,” criminal justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson speaks about the system of mass-incarceration, capital punishment, and the project of reconciliation with history in the United States.
Baratunde Thurston’s TED Talk “How to deconstruct racism, one headline at a time” looks at the hidden structures behind racism and the system of white supremacy that forces black persons to “carry the burden of other people’s fears.”