It’s an unfortunate reality that the education system in the United States tends to view history through a whitewashed lens. Unless you take a niche set of classes dealing with historical and contemporary race relations, you are likely to miss out on some of the best literature on race in America. With white supremacist rallies and anti-protests popping up at college campuses across the country, there’s no better time to familiarize yourself with the history of race in America and its contemporary implications. If you’re looking for a place to start, try out one of these seven books about race relations in the United States.
1. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave" by Frederick Douglass
This may have been a feature on your high school reading list, but it definitely deserves a revisit. Possibly the most influential novel from the abolitionist movement, Douglass’ autobiography chronicles his heart-wrenching experience as a slave, freedman and abolitionist orator. It’s a short read, but it’s one of the best first-hand accounts of life as a slave in America ever to circulate. Get it for $3.00.
2. "Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup
The film version is no match for this poignant narrative, which details Solomon Northup’s transformation from a free black into a slave after being tricked into captivity. The novel’s exposure of the horrors of slavery stands out from other slave narratives due to the wrinkle of Northup’s initial freedom. The best part? 'Twelve Years a Slave' is available online – for free or for only $3.55 from Amazon – so it only takes a quick Google search to enhance your understanding of slavery.
3. "Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity" by Tim Wise
If you’re more into the theoretical than the historical, Tim Wise’s book 'Colorblind' offers a powerful rebuttal of the commonly held belief that color-consciousness is detrimental to equality among the races. He not only lays out several themes of racism and discrimination that persist today but also makes the argument that colorblind policies actually contribute to discrimination in these arenas. Get it for $10.23.
4. "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander
This book is the perfect complement to 'Colorblind', but it also stands alone as the most critical and eye-opening book I read during my freshman year. Alexander puts forth a powerful thesis which alleges that mass incarceration as a means of social control “functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” This book is unlike many other race theory novels in that it directly condemns purposeful government policies as one of the main roots of the problems facing African Americans, which many authors ignore. Get it for $13.56.
5. "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II" by Douglas A. Blackmon
In this book, Blackmon makes the bold assertion that slavery didn’t end with nominal freedom after the Civil War. He dives into topics like sharecropping, peonage and the criminalization of blackness through convict leasing. Through the lens of one man named Green Cottenham, Blackmon exposes how policies and prejudices in America led to “industrial slavery” that persisted until the 20th century. It’s a riveting story perfect for students looking for a unique perspective on black labor. Get it here.
6. "The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America" by Andrés Reséndez
We can’t talk about the lasting ramifications of slavery without also noting the slavery of Native Americans and its consequences. In school, we tend not to learn about the mass enslavement of tens of thousands of Native Americans by conquistadors in the Columbus era and beyond. Reséndez seeks to change that, bringing forth evidence and testimonies that illuminate Indian slavery on the continent. He argues that this form of mass slavery was more powerful in destroying the Native populations than any sort of health epidemics. Get it here for $12.49.
7. "13th," directed by Ava DuVernay
If you’d rather learn about mass incarceration and the perpetuation of slavery through the penal system by watching than by reading, '13th' is an incredibly well-made documentary that digs into the prison industrial complex. It features interviews with prominent leaders and activists (as well as an appearance by former Speaker Newt Gingrich). The documentary also exposes the role of corporations in fueling policy efforts to support the prison-industrial complex. You can find '13th' on Netflix.
This list can just serve as a starting base for expanding your knowledge on race relations in the U.S. There is a wealth of information out there, all you need to do is start looking.