Outstanding Academic Titles 2020: Black History Month

This week's sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: books highlighting several facets of African-American history.

This week’s sneak peek from our 2020 Outstanding Academic Titles list: books highlighting several facets of African-American history.

1. Freedom libraries : the untold story of libraries for African Americans in the South
Selby, Mike. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

The Civil Rights Movement was known as the freedom struggle, and its centers took on this nomenclature as well, particularly freedom houses and freedom schools, which are two of the better-documented elements of the movement. Readers should not be surprised by the addition of freedom libraries to this list, yet it is surprising how little is known of their history. All the more reason to welcome this book exactly on that subject: libraries created and fostered by civil rights activists to provide reading material to African Americans in the South, who often had little access to free public libraries and their resources (needless to say, official city libraries were segregated). This book by Selby, a professional librarian, clearly bears the marks of a passionate personal project, and the author greatly enriches this little-known chapter in the history of the freedom struggle. The text is full of personal stories and testimonies, many of which will be fairly unknown even to scholars in the field.
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2. Saints in the struggle : Church of God in Christ activists in the Memphis Civil rights movement, 1954–1968
Chism, Jonathan. Lexington Books, 2019

image of book cover

Conventional historical knowledge of the civil rights period holds that black Pentecostal churches largely refrained from political activism. In this well-documented text, Chism (Univ. of Houston-Downtown) ably refutes that interpretation. Taking the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee, as a case study, he details the ways churches linked membership among the elect of God to the secular obligations of citizenship. Chism’s study draws from printed sources and a few solid oral histories as much as from primary material to focus on the short Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968), a story that has been hiding in plain sight. One of the book’s strengths is the author’s ability to meld professional insight with the social insight of being on the inside of the movement as a church member. In the process, he is able to perceive the role of women and avoid the trap of concentrating strictly on the agency of male clergy, while deftly weaving together the religious and social politics of race in Memphis. View on Amazon

3. Harriet Tubman : a life in American history
Walters, Kerry. ABC-CLIO, 2020

Book Cover

Harriet Tubman (1822–1913) is back in the news lately, with a major motion picture about her life and a controversy over a redesign of the $20 bill featuring her image. Yet, she has never truly fallen from social discourse in the first place, given her astonishing life and accomplishments in rescuing fugitive slaves; serving as a scout, nurse, and caretaker for “contraband” slaves during the Civil War; and tirelessly advocating for downtrodden African Americans. Although her story has been turned into hagiography by many popular authors, in part following Tubman’s own embellishments (and those of her first biographers, who confused and exaggerated details), and partly due to the difficulty in remembering details from decades past, a number of recent accomplished historians have brought her story to life in a historically responsible way. This excellent work is a synthesis of that scholarship, presenting Tubman as the fascinating, headstrong, self-sacrificing, physically damaged, financially destitute, and occasionally gullible person that she was in historical reality.
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4. Move on up : Chicago soul music and black cultural power
Cohen, Aaron. Chicago, 2019

Beginning with the creation of the “Chicago sound” in the late 1950s and ending with funk and disco in the 1980s, Move on Up is a skillful, wide-ranging exegesis of soul icon Jerry Butler’s observation (quoted in the introduction) that “most of what’s done in [Chicago] is prompted by politics, and most of black politics is supported by music.” Cohen (City Colleges of Chicago) interweaves personal and institutional portraits of performers, educators, media (record companies, radio, TV), churches, businesses (venues, black advertising agencies), cooperatives, and activists to illustrate how an ever-expanding web of social and economic relationships influenced and sustained Chicago soul over three decades. As the sound evolved, it was nourished at various times by African and Eastern cosmologies, fashion, theater, literature, and plastic arts, furnishing––without the aid of infrastructure––a set of complex, grassroots responses to social marginalization. Given Chicago’s significance as a destination during the Great Migration, an in-depth examination of its soul scene is long overdue. Cohen’s deep experience as a Chicago local, journalist/critic, and scholar is evident throughout this accessible, academically satisfying monograph.
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5Black cultural production after civil rights
ed. by Robert J. Patterson Illinois, 2019

Patterson (Georgetown Univ.) has gathered an impressive array of scholars to meditate on black cultural productions in the 1970s and their influence on political movements and cultural engagements of the time. The essays collected in this title survey a wide range of authors and filmmakers, connecting their works to the Black Power movement, black freedom struggles, slavery, feminism, and the Vietnam War, among other topics. What binds these essays together, however, is their commitment to historical contextualization of the concerns surrounding these artists and their cultural products, and their attention to the tensions between progression and regression that define black political life in America. The authors reveal how 1970s artists, from Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka to Ntozake Shange, Adrienne Kennedy, Gayl Jones, and Fran Ross, shaped the discourses of black politics and culture and were shaped by those forces in turn. The essays gathered here speak to one another in remarkable ways, both because of the authors’ commitment to the material and the editor’s guidance.
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