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Culture Books

Lives and memories


Lives and memories

Four autobiographies of black Americans

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Doug­lass: First published in 1845, Douglass’ autobiography recounts his harrowing journey from slave to freedman. His earliest memories include horrific mistreatment of slaves and separation from his mother. But Douglass proved resilient, teaching himself to read and mastering skills and a work ethic that would benefit him in freedom. In this account, he avoids the flowery rhetoric of the age, instead writing concise descriptions of the cruelty he saw. A Christian himself, he explains in an appendix that his criticism of Christian slaveholders reveals only their hypocrisy, not any fault in Christianity. Douglass eventually became a leader in the anti-slavery movement and also the first black vice presidential nominee.

Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks: On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white patron on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus. Born in Alabama in 1913, Parks grew up hearing of Ku Klux Klan violence, and later she and her husband worked with an early version of the NAACP to provide legal justice to victimized blacks through the 1950s. Parks presents herself as a sensible, hard-working woman whose Christian values steeled her to do the right thing when it counted. After the bus incident, others—including Martin Luther King Jr.—joined her in a citywide boycott, sparking challenges to segregation across America. All ages can benefit from this 1992 young readers’ account (co-written by Jim Haskins) of the birth of the civil rights movement. 

Up From the Projects by Walter E. Williams: As Williams grew up in Philadelphia in the 1930s-40s, his mother held him to high expectations in school. Though he lacked a father, he gained a positive attitude toward work from Jewish businessmen. Christian readers won’t appreciate some of his young-adult stories of mischief-making—for example, helping a friend visit a prostitute. But his independent personality later primed him to resist big-government ideologies as a UCLA-trained economist and a professor at George Mason University. Williams writes conversationally, but overall, he doesn’t capture the importance of his contributions: For a cleaner, more insightful introduction to his life and work, see the 2014 documentary Walter Williams: Suffer No Fools, free on YouTube.

My Grandfather’s Son by Clarence Thomas: Since his 1991 appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Thomas has served as one of the court’s most conservative members—and the least talkative. In this 2007 memoir, Thomas speaks up for both himself and his cherished values, including self-reliance and hard work. Readers meet his tough-minded, occasionally cruel grandfather, who sacrificed to send Thomas to private Catholic schools. We also see Thomas rebel in college, embracing the Black Power movement and temporarily rejecting his Roman Catholic faith. Through personal trials and political pressure, Thomas eventually finds an uneasy home in Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party, living out his grandfather’s encouragement to “stand up for what you believe in.” The last chapters detail (too extensively) his fight against allegations of sexual misconduct during his Supreme Court nomination.