Books to consider on Juneteenth

Chris Schluep on June 18, 2020

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On Tuesday, Amazon employees received an email from Jeff Bezos recommending that we all cancel our meetings this Friday in honor of Juneteenth, which he described as "the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S." He encouraged us to "reflect, learn, and support each other."

After I read his email, I started putting together a list of books I would recommend to people around Juneteenth. This was originally going to be a list of history books, but then Ralph Ellison's novel came to mind, and after that I started jotting down both fiction and nonfiction titles. The list is by no means exhaustive. Every time I look at it I want to add another book. But I hope there's something in here for everyone.

Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison

Juneteenth was edited into a 368-page novel from 2,000 pages that Ellison had written over a 40-year period. It was published posthumously in 1999 and contains some of his finest writing. The novel opens in the '50s when a white racist Senator is shot by a young black man. The story is told mostly in flashbacks. It is surprising and emotional—and one scene featuring a Juneteenth sermon is a highlight among highlights.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates is best known for writing Between the World and Me, but We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of important essays that first appeared in The Atlantic and that increased his stature as a writer and thinker. Essays include “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” and “Fear of a Black President.” He also wrote the novel The Water Dancer, which we chose as a Best Book of 2019.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

From the early 1900s to the 1970s, millions of Black people migrated from the South to the North. Wilkerson, whose parents fled the rural South to settle in Washington, D.C., follows three people who made the journey. Many viewed those fleeing the South as the poor, uneducated masses—but Wilkerson illustrates that these were people who sought to improve their lives, wanted to work hard to do so, and who changed the places they landed as well.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

This is Kendi’s National Book Award-winning work in which he follows the lives of five people—Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis—to expose how racist thinking is baked into the American experience, and how we can recognize it.

Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives by Dana Canedy, Darcy Eveleigh, Damien Cave, Rachel L. Swarns

A few years ago, photo editor Darcy Eveleigh discovered dozens of photographs in the New York Times archive that had never been published. She and her colleagues began exploring the history behind them: pictures of a 27-year-old Jesse Jackson leading a rally in Chicago, Rosa Parks arriving at a Montgomery Courthouse, Ralph Ellison on the streets of his Manhattan neighborhood, and many more. Why hadn't they been published? What was the history behind each of theses powerful photos?

They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery

Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery traveled across the country to report on the issue of police violence. He talked to the families of victims, to activists, and to people he met along the way. This is frontline reporting on a movement, including the beginnings of Black Lives Matter.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama

The book opens with the death of his father, which sparked Barack Obama to trace his own story. Dreams of My Father is a memoir by a future president as he undergoes a journey of self-discovery.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Before coming to America from Nigeria, Ifemelu had never experienced racism like this. Despite her college scholarship, she has trouble finding the right work, and she struggles even more as a “Non-American Black.” Meanwhile, the man she loves cannot join her in the post-9/11 United States. But she will figure it out.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling novel should be familiar to many readers. But his re-imagining of the Underground Railroad as a real train that travels through time, space, and place allows him the freedom to examine the Black experience in a way that is both fresh and timeless.

The Black Cabinet by Jill Watts

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to office in part by Black voters from the South, and afterwards, a cadre of Black intellectuals sought to bring their communities’ needs to the table. The so-called Black Cabinet was an unofficial but effective group that lobbied the President, negotiated the politics and attitudes of D.C., and put their imprint on the New Deal.

The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli

Robert S. Abbott founded The Defender in Chicago in 1905. By doing so, he became one of the country’s first black millionaires, delivering the news to countless Black Americans and even smuggling the paper into the segregated South. The Defender informed its readership, exposed Jim Crow, helped to spur northern migration, and helped presidents to get elected. This is a fascinating read.

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