Educate & Agitate: Books for Black History Month 2022

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist

Author Edward E. Baptist is a History Professor at Cornell University. This work explores slave labor in the context of both the national economy and the global markets of the 19th century. On an intellectual level, Baptist debunks so many assumptions that I (and likely others) have made about the slave economy. For example, I assumed that slavery was an antiquated form of labor and production that would have ultimately been made obsolete with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Baptist argues the opposite – that without the South’s supply of raw cotton, there would not have been a corollary rise of industrialized textile mills in the Northeast and Europe. Another one of Baptist’s prevailing theses is that the “success” of rapidly increasing cotton production was driven through greater cruelty and oppression. Yet if any of this sounds like dry, economic analysis, I assure you that Baptist always keeps the human face of slavery in the forefront of this work. The readers meet many enslaved individuals and learn their stories of loss, grief and survival within this perilous market system.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Mothers was Bennett’s debut novel and it catapulted her onto the New York Times bestseller list. Set in Oceanside, The Mothers begins with the story of teenage Nadia, who has a relationship with the pastor’s son before moving away for college. Years later when Nadia returns to town, she and the other main characters are continuously confronted with the sins of the past. The novel slowly reveals how the adults in this small church community contributed to the chain of events that led to the present day. From my perspective, this novel is ultimately a reflection on shame and the grip it can hold on our lives and decisions. Although I have not read Bennett’s newest novel, The Vanishing Half, it has also won pervasive critical acclaim.

Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman

I swear that Amanda Gorman’s words are the balm that can heal a broken destiny. When I began reading her newly published poems, Call Us What We Carry, I expected more of The Hill We Climb, more reflections on American cultural identity. Yet, it was her meditations on pandemic life that have most drawn me into her words. Beyond the extraordinary content of her thought, is her brilliance in wordsmithing. An italicization or a capitalization can inflect an entirely different tone or meaning. When reading her poetry, I spend a lot of time thinking she did that with this word. The brilliance of her thought is completely enmeshed in the brilliance of her written form. My pandemic reality, along with many others, allows for few sober escapes. Let Amanda Gorman’s work be one of yours.

Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey

As a parent of “white” children (or multiracial children who will be likely assumed white because of their skin-tone and the spaces they inhabit), I was personally challenged by reading Raising White Kids. Harvey is an educator, anti-racist advocate and parent herself. She weaves in many stories about how her children have developmentally learned about race and racial difference. Her bottom line is this, if white parents continue to avoid having racial conversations with their children, they will inhibit those same children/teenagers/young adults from “catching up” to their BIPOC peers whom do not have the privilege of avoiding conversations of race. And in doing so, they will negate any opportunity for meaningful connection with their peers. Any white parent who is interested in equipping their children with the tools to become anti-racists needs to read this book.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This YA novel follows the story of 16-year-old, Starr Carter. Her life is so much about code-switching between her two worlds – that of the low-income neighborhood where she grew up and the elite prep school where she attends. When Starr witnesses her unarmed best friend, Khalil, killed at the hands of a police officer, she is unwillingly thrust into the national spotlight. The carefully constructed wall between her worlds shatter. The Hate U Give works on the macro-level as an exploration of the ramifications of police brutality on communities of color. Yet it is the softer side of this novel, a 16 year-old girl navigating the emotional waves of grief alongside the parents who would do anything to protect her, where Thomas’ work truly soars.

Photo Courtesy of Oladimeji Odunsi @oladimeg

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