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.