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Sunday, October 24, 2010


In response to several [well, two] requests, herewith a short reading list of first-rate works on the history of African-Americans. Needless to say, this is neither exhaustive nor definitive. It is not even scholarly, because I am no historian. But I have read all of these books, and can personally report that they are interesting and enormously informative. Feel free to supplement this list in many ways, and to add or subtract from it as you see fit.

You might begin by reading quickly John Hope Franklin's widely used and many times revised text, FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM. This is not a scholarly work so much as an overview of the entire story of the experiences of Africans and their descendants in the United States. That story now extends almost four centuries [the first slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619], and it is useful to get a synoptic overview before reading works more narrowly focused on one period or one topic.

There are many books on the institution of slavery. Let me suggest several. Charles Joyner's DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE is an extremely interesting study of slavery on the rice plantations in South Carolina along the shores upriver from Charleston. There are several reasons to read Joyner, aside from the fact that it is simply a first-rate piece of historiography. First of all, South Carolina is an extremely important locus for ante-bellum slavery. Secondly, Joyner shows that the West Africans enslaved and brought to the Carolinas to work on the plantations were already skilled in rice agriculture, and in fact knew a great deal more about it than their English masters, who had no experience of growing rice at all. Without the knowledge and skills brought from West Africa, the plantations would have failed. Furthermore, because disease and insects drove the owners of the plantations into the city for much of the year, the slaves in effect ran the plantations. This is a view that contradicts the traditional Southern myth that the slaves were ignorant children incapable of surviving without the firm hand and guidance of their cultured White owners. With Joyner, read also Peter Wood's classic work on South Carolina slavery, BLACK MAJORITY.

Slavery was an economic institution supported and rationalized by an elaborate system of laws. In my view, the indispensable book on this subject is SOUTHERN SLAVERY AND THE LAW by Thomas Morris. This is not an easy read [I got it put on the first year reading list in the UMass Afro-American Studies doctoral program, but the students hated it and got it taken off.] However, I believe it is well worth the effort. Let me say just a few words about what I learned from it. The principal legal tradition for the colonists was of course English Common Law, in which there was no recognized category of chattel slavery. This posed all manner of problems for the colonial slave-owners. Here are just three: In the Common Law tradition, the legal condition of the offspring followed that of the father. But the slave-owners wanted to assert property rights in the offspring of the female slaves raped by them [slaves were extremely valuable property], and so the rule was reversed, and the condition of the offspring came to be determined by that of the mother. Second, even if the slaves were chattels, it made a good deal of legal difference whether they were chattels movable [like livestock, furniture and jewelry, etc.] or chattels immovable [i.e., land]. When an estate was being settled, the creditors could demand that the chattels be sold to pay off existing debts. Land was the last thing to be sold off, because without the land, the widow or sons had nothing. But without slaves to work the land, the land was useless, so there was pressure to classify slaves as chattels immovable, like land, even though that flew in the face of reason. Third, although the slaves were legally property, like horses and chairs, they were actually human beings [this is of course the central contradiction of the institution of slavery]. As property, they had no standing in court, no rights that could be a cause of action. But as human beings, they might be the only witnesses to a legal dispute between two white men [such as whether one of them had stolen the horse of another.] So the courts struggled with whether the testimony of slaves could be admitted into evidence. Morris goes into all of this in fascinating detail. If you really want to know how slavery operated as a legal, economic, and social system on the ground, as it were, there is nothing better, in my judgment.

With Morris, you can also read the much better known, but also much less rigorous and detailed, book by the distinguished Black Federal Appeals Court judge Leon Higgenbotham, IN THE MATTER OF COLOR.

The second major period of the story of African-Americans is of course the Civil War and its aftermath. I can recommend several wonderful books, over and above the classic work of Du Bois already mentioned on this blog. Leon Litwak is the author of two simply beautiful books, rich, incredibly detailed, full of splendid vignettes of the period. The first is BEEN IN THE STORM SO LONG, which deals with the period of the war and Reconstruction. The second is TROUBLE IN MIND, which does the same sort of job for the Jim Crow era. For a straight narrative account of the crucial period of Reconstruction, with emphasis on the political developments both in Washington and in the Southern states, by all means read Eric Foner's definitive RECONSTRUCTION. I have already alluded to the important work by Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, and a big team of faculty and graduate student researchers at the University of Maryland, summarized in the three essays that served as introductions to the volumes of original documents they surfaced from the National Archives, SLAVES NO MORE.

For a detailed account of workers, Black and White, over the entire sweep of American history, you must read Jacqueline Jones' great book, AMERICAN WORK. It will forever put out of your minds the myth that African-Americans are somehow inferior to Whites as workers.

Since this is, surprise surprise, running on too long, let me move rapidly to the twentieth century. I strongly recommend the classic work of urban sociology by St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton, BLACK METROPOLIS [really mostly written by the young Drake], a study of the Black community in Southside Chicago in the period before World War II. And of course for the full detailed story of the series of court challenges to Jim Crow leading up to and including Brown v. Board of Education, read SIMPLE JUSTICE by Richard Kluger.

Ok. enough. This will certainly get you started. I have not said anything about Black literature, art, music, and so forth, nor have I even mentioned the Civil Rights Movement. Not only does this list make no pretence to be complete or definitive, it does not even claim to cite the best books available. Suffice it to say that it is a list of some of the books I read to prepare myself to serve as the Graduate Program Director of what became the best doctoral program in Afro-American Studies in the world.


ajrosa said...

Good choices. I would only add Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone, which offers a really wonderful overview of racial slavery's development, from West Africa to North America. His emphasis on African agency and generational changes in societies with slaves and slave societies offers a complicated and non-static view of colonial slavery's history.

Also, I would suggest John Thornton's Africa and Africans in the Making of America, as well as Michel Gomez's Exchanging Our Country Marks. Both works focus on the complex cultural identities of those Africans who got caught up in the slave trade. By focusing on Africans as variegated ethnicities, Thornton and Gomez underscore the specific ways in which Africans transformed ( and were transformed by) the cultural landscape of colonial America.

ajrosa said...

P.S. I actually liked Morris's Southern Slavery and the Law. I was in the silent minority.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Andrew. Since you are actually a scholar of this subject [hard at work on what will be a major, major intellectual biography of St. Clair Drake], your suggestions carry very great weight.

Ori said...

Thanks very much for this, Robert. If you have some time to list additional books about the twentieth century, that would be very handy, too. It's very much appreciated.

Nora said...

I would make two additions to this excellent list. The first is brand new, Isabel Wilkerson's _The Warmth of Other Suns,_ which is the tale of the Great Migration; the "whitening" of the South in the years after Reconstruction was abandoned. Six million African-Americans left for the North and the Midwest between 1915 and the early 70s. She's a journalist and not a historian, but so far as I know no historian has yet tackled this crucial part of the story so until such time as someone else covers this ground, it will have to do. It's an engaging read, in need of a somewhat more ruthless editor than it had.

The other book I'd recommend is Edward Ball's _Slaves in the Family._ His book, as well as Annette Gordon-Reed's _Hemingses of Montecello_ make the essential point that Americans have always been one people, that slaves were never "other" than our literal brothers and sisters.