President Donald Trump, speaking at a recent Black History Month event, praised the work of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The president took some flack for speaking of Douglass in the present tense, making it appear as though he may have thought Douglass, who died in 1895, was still alive.
What followed, however, was something that thrills the heart of Clemson University professor Rhondda Thomas: suddenly, Douglass was in the news, and people everywhere were talking about the slave who taught himself to read and write, gained his freedom and became one of the most eloquent and powerful voices against slavery and Jim Crow in America.
In celebration of Black History Month, Thomas, who specializes in African-American literature, suggested several must-read books that reflect on the black experience. The books trace African-American history through at least three centuries.
And, yes, Douglass is included on the list.
“These are important foundational books,” Thomas said. “What’s represented in the media often does not fully reflect the complexities and breadth of the experience of African Americans. I think by reading these texts people can begin to see the multiplicity of voices and experiences, and the depth of the history, which doesn’t start in America but goes back to Africa.”
The books range from history to fiction, essays and autobiography. Together, they offer a heroic narrative that looks at the nuances and complexities of such issues as slavery and resistance to oppression.
“Slavery was not just about picking cotton in the field,” Thomas said. “There were various forms of slavery. People of African descent have always found ways to fight back against oppressive conditions. There were always folks who were free and able to carve out places for themselves in the midst of slavery and Jim Crow. Black folk have always found ways to thrive and fight back against the ways various oppressors have sought to confine and deny them equality and opportunity.”
Following is Thomas’ list with her comments about each book. The books are arranged chronologically, not by publication date but by the period represented in each book.
“Homegoing,” by Yaa Gyasi: “An epic African Diasporic story that traces the trials and triumphs of seven generations of matriarch Maame’s family in slavery and freedom, from Ghana to America over 300 years.”
“A Mercy,” by Toni Morrison: “The haunting, lyrical tale of a young enslaved African woman’s quest for identity, love and belonging in colonial America.
“Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century,” edited by Vincent Carretta: “A collection of stories by people of African descent who pushed back against the oppressive conditions of slavery and marginalization through their writings.”
• “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,” by Frederick Douglass: “The triumphant narrative of a slave’s transformation into a man and formidable activist in the antislavery movement.”
“I Belong to South Carolina: South Carolina Slave Narratives,” edited by (Clemson professor) Susanna Ashton: “A collection of narratives that reflect the multiplicity of experiences of enslaved peoples in South Carolina and some of their harrowing journeys to freedom.”
“The Garies and their Friends,” by Frank Webb: “The interwoven stories of an interracial family constrained by the legalities of slavery and their free black friends in Philadelphia who are seeking home, family and security.”
“Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted,” by Frances Harper: “A Reconstruction novel that examines the choices white-skinned protagonist Iola Leroy must make – to pass for white or identify with African American people – after her liberation from slavery during the Civil War, and the wisdom and contributions of folk characters who are essential for building and sustaining communities in slavery and freedom.”
“The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line,” by Charles Chesnutt: “A collection of stories that examines the contradictions and challenges African Americans faced in dealing with the “color line,” legalized racial segregation, on themselves and their communities in post-Reconstruction America.”
“The Souls of Black Folk,” by W. E. B. Du Bois: “Provocative essays that reflect DuBois’s early intellectual inquiry into what it meant for African Americans to grapple with the question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ in early 20th century America.”
“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” by Isabel Wilkerson: “Gripping stories of thousands of African Americans who journeyed from the South to escape racial violence and oppression and seek new opportunities and safe homes in the North, Midwest and West during the early decades of the 20th century.”
“Simple’s Uncle Sam,” by Langston Hughes: “Though Hughes is well known as a poet, he also wielded his pen as a cultural critic through one of his best known and beloved characters, Jesse B. Semple. Better known as Simple, this “Everyman for black Americas” from Harlem offered humorous social commentary that helped African American residents better understand and engage with local, national and global events.”
“Negroland,” by Margo Jefferson: “Jefferson takes readers into the little known black elite world, providing insights regarding her struggles to come to terms with the intersectionality of race, class, gender and privilege in her upper-class African American community in Chicago in the mid-20th century.”
“March Trilogy,” by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin: “This graphic novel series provides readers with visually compelling images that illustrate the inspiring narrative of Lewis’s harrowing yet transformative experiences in the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “In a letter to his son, inspired in part by James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, Coates shares his coming-of-age story of growing up black and male in Baltimore to enable his son to better navigate the continuing challenges of being black and male in 21st century America.”
“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” by Margot Lee Shetterly: “This is the inspiring story behind the award and box office winning film ‘Hidden Figures,’ bringing to light the forgotten history of black women mathematicians’ contributions to NASA’s success in getting American astronauts to the moon and beyond.”
“Citizen: An American Lyric,” by Claudia Rankine: “This collection of hybrid poetry-prose and images carefully and critically examines issues of race in America through the lens of varied African-American experiences as Rankine instructs and encourages readers to be citizens and protect others’ rights of citizenship.”