Yesterday I watched the President speak at the opening of the National Museum of African American History. Long overdue is the understatement of the year; even in this year of the Trump! Against the background of a nation building a shrine to the people and contributions that literally made this country came a couple of cringe-worthy news sound bites where people in the Trump campaign showcased their ignorance by making such outrageous claims as, "There was no racism before the Obama administration."
Where to begin?
That many people in influential positions do not know their own history is a good place. This is the mission I was on when I decided to become a teacher. I was fresh from a history textbook education when I entered college. It just so happened to be 1966. In the immediate years that followed, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement came my real instruction in American History. Fortunate enough to find myself with the likes of Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the first African American history classes at UCLA (of course they were called Negro History back then) I recall saving all the reading for those classes until everything else was done. I savored those book. No matter that the subject matter was often brutal and gut wrenching, I read like Lincoln by candle light. Black Cargoes, by Malcolm Cowley and Daniel Mannix. The narrative of Frederick Douglass, the novels of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, the poetry of Dunbar and McCay, the writings of Dubois, B.T. Washington, Malcolm X, et.al. Where were these texts when my love of history was developing in high school? Where are they now, I wonder?
I'll never forget the first time I set eyes on this diagram from the book Black Cargoes:
I remember when I was a VISTA Volunteer, working in the worst areas of Houston, Texas, how one of the guys on my project set about making sure that some of the aforementioned titles and authors were available in the local public library. It was his personal mission. One thing that helped him that year was the fact that as employees of the federal government we were able to access what was called a "government book kit." Part of the budget of the Office of Economic Opportunity in those "War on Poverty" days included a set of about 25 books, mostly paperback, that we could receive and distribute as we saw fit. Some ended up in local libraries. How gratifying it was to bring African American titles to the Jefferson Davis county library in Texas!
I'd love to see the federal government reinstate this policy and distribute some book kits to people who don't know their own history. I've a few books I can suggest that might help hide our embarrassment when people who know nothing embarrass themselves and our image as a literate people. As Malcolm X said, "a people without history is like a tree without roots. " Now that so much of our country's history has been recovered and revealed, it's a shame not to spread it around.
A few books that would make any list would include:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Black Cargoes by Cowley and Mannix
White over Black by Winthrop Jordan
Slave and Citizen by Frank Tannenbaum
My short list is a mix of new and old. There are hundreds of others in all fields from literature to the behavioral sciences. Hopefully one read will lead to another.