African-American History

Read a book.

When I get frustrated with people who fail to understand a point I'm trying to make or circumstances as I see them, the charge I am most likely to level at that person is: read a book.

Reading (or watching documentaries, which seems to me an analog to reading) is helpful to me when I'm trying to make sense of situations I don't understand or arguments that other people very different from me are making.  This especially occurred in the wake of the Women's March on January 21, when women of color accused white women of ignoring problems beyond those of white middle-class women.  I read a lot of think pieces in response, and they did not fall on deaf ears.  I know that my feminism is white.  It's only through luck and an eccentric (in the good way) Intro to Gender Studies professor that I was exposed to other feminisms relatively early on in my academic life - black feminism, women in Islam, queer feminism, and (ever my favorite) cyborg theory.  One of the links that I saw circulating after the Women's March was Melissa Harris-Perry's Black Feminism Syllabus, which she originally posted in response to cruel comments someone had made about Michelle Obama's persona as First Lady.  I started there, and picked the book that I could immediately load on to my Kindle through my library's services.  And then I kept going.  And it's now a month later, and twenty-two days into Black History Month - between MHP's list and the resources made available because of Black History Month, I've done something of a deep dive into the subject. I'm providing a bibliography and some annotations below because, if you are confused in these confusing times: read a book.  


  • Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (originally published 1983).  Davis threads the needle on a lot of issues, gracefully taking what you think you know and flipping it upside down.  She gives credit where credit is due, but also pointedly eviscerates legacies, arguments, histories, where necessary.  Her interest is in arguing how black women have been left out of discussions of both the post-slavery era and the struggle for women's rights and proving how their particular circumstances make them powerful outliers necessary for comprehensively understanding both of those histories.
  • Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (originally published 1984).  Lorde was probably the black feminist writer I knew the most about and had read the most in pieces with having actually picked up the book.  I'd recommend reading a more foundational text first (i.e. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought) because this is a collection of essays and speeches that dips in and out of debates you'll appreciate more if you understand the basics.  Lorde is, however, eminently quotable, and she is a truly a poet, even in her most straightforward speeches.
  • Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.  This book is pretty phenomenal.  It starts with the Rosa Parks that everyone forgets - the activist NAACP field secretary who investigated and documented rape allegations throughout the Alabama countryside long before she refused to give up her seat on a bus.  That's only the beginning of this argument, and it proceeds through the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Summer, and notable rape trials in the 1960s and 1970s to demand attention for the substantial, yet usually underrepresented role of black women in forwarding the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016).  Not finished with this one yet!  See the movie mention below.

Documentaries and Movies

On PBS: 

  • Birth of a Movement - This episode of Independent Lens discusses the origins and release of D. W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation, a 1915 masterpiece of early cinema yet also a barely veiled narrative of white supremacy, and how William Monroe Trotter, a Harvard-educated black writer and friend of W.E.B. DuBois, mobilized protests of the movie.  This documentary makes the argument that these protests presaged tactics that would form the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer - Both of these documentaries were American Experience episodes, and both use a combination of historical footage and more recent interviews.  They are both fascinating, and if you need a reminder of how bad things were then, these clear, concise films are what you need.
  • Oklahoma City - I've included this here because it couches the Oklahoma City Bombing deep into the vein of anti-government white supremacy that arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  I remember much of this information from the documentary on Timothy McVeigh that Rachel Maddow did a few years ago, but it has become perhaps even more compelling in today's political climate.

Streaming on Netflix or Amazon Prime:

  • 13th - This is Ava DuVernay's documentary on how the prison system grew out of conditions created by the 13th Amendment, which was supposed to mean liberation from slavery.  This documentary interviews a who's who of black intellectuals, and it's exceptionally well-done.  Definitely worth watching, and maybe also keep a list of the people you see so that you can then look up their books.  It should win the Best Documentary Oscar this year.
  • Selma - This is Ava DuVernay's quasi-fictional account of the series of marches in Selma, Alabama that have come to define the Civil Rights era.  I missed this movie in the theaters the year that it received Oscar nominations, but I remember the outcry over the lack of honors given to David Oyelowo for playing Martin Luther King, Jr.  The strange thing about this movie, though, is how decentralized it is - King is important because he is commanding and because we know he is important, but the movie shows the breadth of debate and action that characterized this moment in the movement.  That is a necessarily broad perspective.

In Theaters:

  • Hidden Figures - an absolute must-see.  This is my favorite of the Oscar nominees this year (save maybe Lion), and though it has been made sleek for movie audiences, it does not shy away from much of the harshness wrought on the black women who worked hard for the privilege of being able to do difficult and complicated work appropriate to their skill. 
  • I Am Not Your Negro - This film will square off with 13th for the Best Documentary Oscar, but it really shows how broad a genre that can be.  If 13th provides an intellectual analysis, I Am Not Your Negro is more of a prose poem set to images.  Baldwin, long-dead, is given a screenwriting credit because so much of the film is in his own words.  When coupled with more recent images, his words become prophetic, and this film that is, on the face of it, a biographical documentary becomes powerful social analysis.

So that's what I've been up to lately.  Do you have anything I should add to my list?  If the answer is Moonlight... I am working on it.

Collecting the Painful Present

Recently, the news broke that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) had expressed interest in preserving the gazebo, then set for demolition, in the Cleveland park where Tamir Rice had been shot.  A few days later, the NMAAHC stepped in again—this time to set the record straight.  It was not preservation that they were after, and there would be no space in their museum for Rice’s story, not yet anyway.  They had intended to intercede on behalf of Black Lives Matter activists, and some vague wording, with the Smithsonian name behind it, had been misunderstood by the media and the city of Cleveland.

The backlash started right away.  One contingent expressed outrage that the gazebo should even be considered for preservation, though for different objections.  They felt either that it is perhaps insignificant in the scope of human history or less significant relative to the Smithsonian’s other treasures.  They may have felt that it provides such a grim reminder of a terrible event, more fit for a memorial than a museum.  Of course, there were people arguing the opposite—that Tamir Rice’s story is worthy of preservation through the gazebo, that it is a crucial cornerstone in interpreting recent African-American history.  One smart friend of mine raised the question of why preserve anything related to this particular case.  In the rash of recent police violence against African-American men and women, why would Tamir Rice’s story be singled out for interpretation and preservation?

Well, she didn’t use the word interpretation.  At that question, asked before the NMAAHC reneged on its supposed desire to preserve the gazebo, my museum brain kicked in.  Why would the NMAAHC want to preserve the gazebo?  What does that say about their collecting mission?  What does it mean that they, as a history museum, would be purposely liaising with a community of activists that is exerting their power at this very moment?

For one, it’s ballsy.  The museum hasn't even opened yet, but they would be exercising an exceptionally powerful influence, in the name of the Smithsonian, to intercede and successfully preserve an object freighted with both emotional baggage and the logistical concerns of space, weathering, etc. that come with managing museum collections.

Besides that, the process of building a collection means taking into consideration a variety of factors that include, and are certainly not limited to: history, psychology, diversity, and, critically, availability.   By availability, I mean two things: 1) the simple fact of existence—do objects, documents, or other items exist to be collected that tell the stories a museum is interested in? and 2) will the people or institutions who currently hold these objects sign on to the mission of the museum and donate these objects to that institution? 

For museums that have not yet begun to interpret histories of their diverse communities, the problem may often be that they simply don’t have the collections items available to tell those stories in a credible way.  Though such objects once existed, the museum did not then pursue them, and no one interceded to collect or preserve them before their consignment to the rubbish pile.   If someone or some community did intercede, or saved items for personal enjoyment or interest, they may not understand why a museum would want to have them.  The act of approaching a museum staff to offer an object from a culture that is underrepresented by that institution may be tremendously intimidating.  Enthusiastic museum staffers may or may not understand how to respond in a way that gives respect to the donor and does justice to the significance of the object.

In this sense, the question of “worth” in collecting can very much function as a question about race and class.  Museums and their curators and educators may tend to avoid difficult stories of racial unrest when there is not an accompanying narrative of uplift, an inspiration or achievement in the face of tremendous prejudice or other difficulty.  This can be especially true in museums that carry a federal endorsement like the Smithsonian.  Phillip Morris, a columnist for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, indicated the trouble with these oversights in his own discussion of the events surrounding the gazebo's preservation.  Though he says he is not advocating for preservation, he writes: “a case can be made that Tamir's story mixes coherently with museum artifacts depicting the extraordinary complexity of the African-American experience in the United States. That's a call for museum curators and historians.”  He’s right. It does.  The gazebo may be undesirable to its current community, but that doesn’t mean it should be torn down before a reasonable assessment of its potential role in history can be made.

And here’s what else: if the NMAAHC stood by its statement of interest in exploring options for preserving the gazebo, it would mean setting a standard for the value of artifacts related to stories like Tamir.  It would clearly state that black lives matter to museums and that artifacts of the movement and its precipitating tragedies belong in museum spaces to aid in educating visitors about how they do fit within historical legacies of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.  It would clearly mark museums, and especially the NMAAHC, as institutions that can be trusted to guard these artifacts and tell these stories.  That would be an example that should be set.  Since the NMAAHC backed off, it’s not that they can’t do that and it’s not that they won’t, but it could be much harder.

The Relevance of History in Oberlin Mogridge Mogridge

I recently wrote a post for the Oberlin Heritage Center's blog about a controversial period in the city's history in which a group of activists tried to integrate the town's barber shops.  After doing enough research on local businesses owned by African-American residents to write a month's worth of Facebook posts and a mini-exhibit in the museum's outdoor kiosk, I had no other outlet for fully conveying this story and its complex revelations.  A long blog post proved the strongest way to communicate this message to as many audiences as possible.

Here's an excerpt:

"Examining the history of Oberlin’s barber shops means addressing a situation in which overt discrimination was standard practice, far into the twentieth century and throughout the United States. In 1940, Oberlin had 4,305 citizens, and 897 of them were black.  Yet, by this time, there were no barbers in town who would serve African-American customers in their shops during regular business hours. This post presents the story of how, at the height of World War II, discrimination in the barber shops became a town-wide topic of discussion and, subsequently, a cause for social action."

Read more here.

The pre-history to my blog post is, of course, Oberlin's history as "a hotbed of abolitionism," "the town that started the Civil War," and a very active site on the Underground Railroad where former slaves might choose to stay and then find freedom, prosperity, and a semblance of racial equality.  Yet anyone following news about higher education knows that Oberlin today retains its activist bent and that questions of race and ethnicity have become significantly more complicated.  The history between these two eras is exemplified by the story told in my blog post, and the post provides important context for how social movements in the town may form and how they may succeed.  It allows residents of the town who may remember the some of these brave barbers to understand how this history enabled their existence.

A recently formed organization named the History Relevance Campaign celebrates stories like this one from Oberlin for how productively they demonstrate that studying history benefits numerous aspects of contemporary society.   This campaign has published a Value Statement, which outlines seven reasons history is essential to ourselves, our communities, and to our future.  Using their language, quoted below, it becomes clear how the story of Oberlin's barbershops exemplifies the ways that history can inform an understanding of the community.


  • Forms our identities: "...History enables people to discover their own place in the stories of their families, communities, and nation... Through these varied stories, they create systems of personal values that guide their approach to life and relationships with others."
  • Makes communities vital places to live and work: "History lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities. No place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in human memory."
  • Creates engaged citizens: "By bringing history into discussions about contemporary issues, we can better understand the origins of and multiple perspectives on the challenges facing our communities and nation."

Since starting as an AmeriCorps Member at the Oberlin Heritage Center in September 2015, this blog post is among my favorite projects I've done.  It feels important and relevant.  It feels like the act of writing this story contributes to remembering parts of the city's history that seem difficult, but that inform how the city views itself today.  I believe it contextualizes places and ideas that are familiar to many people in Oberlin who may not remember this specific story, but that the story also reaches beyond one city to broader understandings of race and civil rights that resonate across the entire United States.  

Stories that work with these two levels of meaning have to be central in local history organizations.  By working with stories that connect past to present, local history museums can make substantial contributions to how their audiences broadly understand historical content.  By connecting local stories to national events, they make historical narratives deeper and more detailed, which can only benefit everyone's understanding of the past.