Great books tell stories. Here’s our pick of vivid and insightful new releases for better understanding America, world events, history, science, and theology
WORLD members have said my American history reading recommendations in our Dec. 29 issue are useful, so here’s one more column of suggestions as we head into February, Black History Month. As a white person with African-American family members and friends, I may have some gnosis, knowledge, about parts of the black experience, but not epignosis, intimate knowledge from having lived it—so I’ve learned more by reading 30 books that show individual struggles in often-toxic environments.
Before transatlantic slavery: Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind shows the work of Augustine and many others. The Africa Study Bible, produced under John Jusu’s supervision, combines the New Living Translation with notes connecting the Bible and Africa. François-Xavier Fauvelle’s The Golden Rhinoceros synopsizes numerous histories of the African Middle Ages.
Coming to America: Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy is a good history of slavery and war in Virginia from 1772 to 1832. Ned and Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast is a painful history of the slave-breeding industry. Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart shows how “enlightened” Americans invented racial segregation. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton shows how slavery profited South, North, and England.
Anti-slavery efforts: Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause is a history of the abolitionists who fought the peculiar institution. Christopher Cameron’s To Plead Our Own Cause examines the specific role of African-Americans in Massachusetts, and Jared Brock’s The Road to Dawn tells the story of Josiah Henson, an escaped slave who was one of the inspirations for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which in turn inspired the abolitionist movement.
Blind spots: Joel McDurmon’s The Problem of Slavery in Christian America documents the racism of many 19th-century churches and corrects “happy slave” romanticizing. McDurmon quotes Memphis preacher R.C. Grundy’s observation that “the southern rebel church … is worth more to Mr. Jeff Davis than an army of one hundred thousand drilled and equipped men.” Some of the worst racism emerged from the pen of noted theologian R.L. Dabney, whose three-volume Discussions has Himalayan heights and Dead Sea depths.
Post-Civil War: Matthew Harper’s The End of Days examines how Christian understanding helped some newly emancipated African-Americans leave behind a slave mentality. Sadly, many whites backlashed: Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name describes the virtual re-enslavement of sharecroppers and others, and David Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery zeroes in on Mississippi’s Parchman Farm and Jim Crow justice. Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, is deservedly a classic of perseverance under pressure.
Into the 20th century: Gene Dattel’s Reckoning With Race starts in the 19th century and shows the Great Migration north during the 20th century and the urban ghettos that resulted. Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till examines the most notorious hate crime of the 1950s. Detroit 1967, edited by Joel Stone, shows what happened in one of America’s worst race riots. The Intersection, by Bridge Magazine and Detroit Journalism Cooperative members, contains up-close-and-personal riot remembering.
Into the 21st century: James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own critiques the “war on crime” in African-American communities that began in the 1970s and continues to the present, with consequences for black families and cross-racial cooperation. Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All” is a liberal view of recent racial conflicts. Sheriff David Clarke Jr.’s Cop Under Fire is a conservative view.
Two beautifully written books: James McBride’s The Color of Water is an African-American man’s tribute to his white mother, and Walter Wangerin Jr.’s Father and Son tells of the Indiana pastor-author and his black adopted son. Jason Riley’s Please Stop Helping Us and False Black Power? criticize the conventional civil rights movement and explain “how liberals make it harder for blacks to succeed.”
Christian witness: Ismael Hernandez’s Not Tragically Colored rises above materialistic determinism and victimhood. John Perkins has risen above both for decades: Let Justice Roll Down was his 1976 memoir, and One Blood (2018) includes his “parting words to the church on race.”