A sociological look at Black History Month Perspectives on the African diaspora

Reading list

Tania Mousel

Black History Month or African American History Month is a concept that has its roots in the United States of America to remember important personalities and events in the African diaspora. Originating in the United States, over time, it has also been recognized in many other English-speaking countries, like Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland. The movement has its beginnings in 1926 when the Association for the Study of Negro History declared the second week of February ‘Negro history week’. Over the years, its popularity grew and finally in 1970 black students and educators at Kent State University proposed extending the remembrance of Black History to the whole month of February.

As subject librarian for the field of sociology and social sciences, I invite you to explore some of the most important works looking at the African diaspora through a sociological lens. I have included works on the unique challenges black people have faced and still face today in the US and in Europe as well as books on culture, literature and essays – all from a social sciences perspective.

As Black History Month is recognized especially in English speaking countries, this list is heavily focused on the experiences of the African diaspora in these places. Our collections contain many more works, however, from researchers and authors all around the globe.

The Black studies reader (ed. Jacqueline Bobo [et al.])

Available at the library

In order to get a wide overview on different topics in the field of African American studies, I chose to introduce this reading list with the Black studies reader. This extensive volume features many important researchers in the field and is useful to both general readers and experts in the field. The volume contains discussions about black masculinities and black feminism, and also talks about the difficult aspect of non-heteronormativity and blackness. I found the chapters by Angela Davis ‘Black women and the academy’ as well as ‘Black bodies/gay bodies’ by Alycee J. Lane particularly interesting to read. Furthermore, the book includes chapters on slavery and the emancipation of the slaves, the long history of segregation and racism and the still today occurring racialization of the black body.

The meaning of freedom : and other difficult dialogues (Angela Y. Davis)

Available at the library

Angela Davis is one of the most well-known activists, writers and philosophers in the African American space. She is a Marxist, feminist political activist and, at 80 years old, still a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Davis has received many awards and accolades over her long career and has produced many important works. She has an ease with words, which makes for a very engaging read. In The meaning of freedom, a collection of some of her speeches, Davis brings up very complex and systemic issues in a way that is comprehensive for everyone. What I find especially interesting in her work is how she intertwines the different issues, which shows us the intersectionality of the different social justice movements. 

Caste : the origins of our discontents (Isabel Wilkerson)

Available at the library

In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson draws parallels between the caste system in India and racial discrimination in the US. She argues that the treatment of black people in the US and how it is justified by other ethnicities stems from the same type of thinking as the caste system in India. I found it a very engaging read: the language used is meant for a general audience and the points she is making are coming across clearly. The book has found both critical acclaim and a wide commercial success and is therefore a worthy inclusion in this list. 

I am not your negro (James Baldwin, compiled and edited by Raoul Peck)

Available at the library - Available in the Media Centre

James Baldwin is probably one of the best-known black authors. Among his works were notes for a book he wanted to write but never managed to finish before his death. In the project, called Remember this house, he wanted to write about the story of America through the lives of three of his murdered friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. After his passing, Raoul Peck made a documentary with the notes of the unfinished book and also published the written material. I am not your negro is a collection of quotes by different people, notes about his three friends by James Baldwin, messages he wrote to his publisher, parts of some of his speeches as well as his reflections and thoughts while writing. It is a very emotional read, as in the fifties and sixties, racism was much more blunt, obvious and state-sanctioned through segregation than its more hidden, yet still institutional and systemic, counterpart we experience in 2024. So many of James Baldwin’s quotes in this book still ring true today and invoke an immediate emotional reaction. He is a very reflective writer, and I can only recommend the book and the documentary, which can be found in our Media Centre.

If we were white, if we were Irish, if we were Jewish, if we were Poles, if we had, in fact, in your mind a frame of reference our heroes would be your heroes, too. Nat Turner would be a hero for you instead of a threat. Malcolm X might still be alive. Everyone is very proud of brave little Israel – against which I have nothing; I don’t want to be misinterpreted, I am not an anti-Semite. But, you know, when the Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish, or any white man in the world says “give me liberty or give me death,” the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger, so there won’t be any more like him.

Don’t touch my hair (Emma Dabiri)

Available at the library

Hair has always been a source of pride for black people and an element of criticism and racism used against them. The subject is a vast and complex one. On the one hand, there have been many instances of black children being told to get ‘school-appropriate’ haircuts, when they had traditionally black hairstyles, and the same happening later at their workplace, while on the other hand non-black people appropriate these same styles, get called beautiful, and promote them as a fashion statement to other non-black people. Moreover, there is a history of other ethnicities commenting and wanting to touch black hair without asking, turning black hair into a fetish and objectifying it. Emma Dabiri takes us through the history and culture of black hair, connecting it with the history of slavery and racism of the west and even to the discrimination within black circles. Don’t touch my hair is the Irish author’s first book. She has an accessible writing style that is geared towards a wide audience. Her work was shortlisted for the 2019 Irish Book Awards.

Black and British : a forgotten history (David Olusoga)

Available at the library

Next on the list is the British historian David Olusoga’s work Black and British. It was important to me to include a book that focusses on historical events. With civilization’s origins in Africa, the slave trade, European colonization all the way up to the racism of today, Olusoga’s work has a lot of ground to cover. This is definitely a more difficult and academic work, but a very important addition for the interested reader.

The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Michelle Alexander)

Available at the library

Michelle Alexander’s work has received a lot of praise for how it deals with an extremely important subject matter. The new Jim Crow clearly demonstrates the systemic racism happening in the US justice system, even today, and how the colorblindness of the Obama era has not helped. Alexander’s – a civil rights lawyer and professor of law at Stanford – book has been called eye-opening, a bible of a social movement and an instant classic, as well as invaluable and explosive by different journalistic publications and other researchers in the field. The BnL’s edition features a foreword by Cornel West, another important political activist, philosopher and author.

Are you entertained? : black popular culture in the twenty-first century (Simone C. Drake & Dwan K. Henderson, editors)

Available at the library

Another aspect that should not be omitted is pop culture. I found the chapter structure of Are you entertained really compelling and engaging. This book is a more academic work with many contributions on different aspects of black popular culture, from radio and TV to music and art. Particularly interesting chapters to me were the discussion about cultural appropriation and the perspectives on black dances. Simone Drake and Dwan Henderson have managed to wave together a collection of essays and interviews, which explore the complexities of black popular culture with a focus on the history that has led to this point.

My people : five decades of writing about Black lives (Charlayne Hunter-Gault)

Available at the library

Charlayne was born in 1942, so she grew up under segregation. She won a legal battle, allowing her to become one of the first black students at the University of Georgia. As a journalist, she wrote about black lives and experiences, becoming an internationally renowned writer and political activist. Over the course of her career, she has met countless other activists, like Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. and the articles range over decades, from the US to Africa, from news and events over essays on specific personalities. There is also an entire subsection on the intersection of feminism and blackness or the exclusion of black women’s issues from mainstream feminism. Since the articles are short, the book can be read as a whole, but it is also useful for research on a specific topic. It is also interesting to see her stories and language change over the fifty years of journalism, during which Hunter-Gault worked for some of the most famous publications in the US.

Capitalism & slavery (Eric Williams)

Available at the library

The original version of Capitalism and Slavery, which was Eric Williams’ doctoral thesis, was published in 1944. Williams was the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago after it gained its independence. In his thesis, he makes the argument that the flourishing of capitalism in Britain and also the US was mostly due to a free labor force, slave labor. Furthermore, he argues that even the abolition of the slave trade and slavery was motivated by economic factors rather than ethical ones. His thesis takes us through history, from the time of the first European settlers on the American continent, the colonies and the slave trade all the way through the abolition of slavery, the industrial revolution and the state of modern capitalism. The multiple new editions of Williams’ work prove its importance even today and make it clear why I chose to include it in this list. 

Stamped from the beginning : the definitive history of racist ideas in America (Ibram X. Kendi)

Available at the library

Finally on this list, I included two books by Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi is a professor, author and activist, who has written multiple books on racism and structural issues in the US system. Stamped from the beginning is a well-researched deep dive into the racism that is strongly engrained in US society until today. He takes us through the different time periods by anchoring the history around a few famous personalities. The book has received multiple accolades, was a New York Times bestseller and is a National Book Award winner. It has been described as brilliant and disturbing and I particularly like this quote by David Olusoga from The Guardian:

Perhaps what is most disturbing about Kendi’s work is that it shows how the same racial ideas, dressed in different period costumes, have been repeatedly used to explain away the deaths of generations of African Americans, slaves, victims of Jim Crow lynchings and, in the 21 st-century, casualties of police shootings.

How to be an antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi)

Available at the library

I found How to be an antiracist a fitting end to this list. This is a much more emotional read than the previous book. Through different anecdotes and stories, Kendi shows us that the US is not just a country with a few racists, but that the division of people based on skin color extends through all aspects of life and is structurally embedded in its politics. The book is organized into chapters that each examine a different theme through a racial lens. The central idea of the book is that the opposite of racism is not non-racist, but antiracist. He makes the case that not being racist is not a passive state, but a very active one and therefore in order for someone to not be racist, they have to be antiracist. This can be uncomfortable to read and to reflect on. As with his other works, Kendi received much praise for this book, which features a language style destined for a large audience. It also arrived at a time, when the discussion of racism was at the forefront of the national discourse in the US with regular police violence against black people and subsequent riots.

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