On Monday, President Obama welcomed National African American History Month, as presidents have done in February for many years. “We should take note of this special moment in our Nation’s history and the actors who worked so diligently to deliver us to this place,” said Obama in his statement.
In this spirit, we’ve asked a group of distinguished Americans–black and white–a single question: What one book on the black experience should every American read?
WILLIAM B. ALLEN This one is too easy: Every American should read Uncle Tom’s Cabin! No other text so centrally defines the moment of transition from slavery to freedom. No other book has been so misunderstood. No other misunderstanding has so imperiled the potential for full and patriotic citizenship in the United States. This is a sacred text of freedom, and must be read.
JANE COASTON Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King, Jr. His condemnation of the moderate, “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” is a worthy message to those who seek favor or mildness in the face of injustice.
Have you ever had a dream? We hear so much about Martin’s famous Dream that Malcolm’s–to be a lawyer when he grew up–gets lost in the shuffle. But Malcolm’s dream was stillborn when an elementary-school teacher told the young man to set his sights lower; maybe, instead of being a lawyer, he could be a carpenter, “just like Jesus.”
What if the impressionable young man had been able to find validation in the schoolyard rather than the streets? It’s impossible to say for sure, but the election of Barack Obama hints at what’s possible when individuals have access to quality education and live in a world where race is an increasingly weak barrier from the Good Life.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, read in the aftermath of Obama’s victory, should provide proof to any skeptics as to this country’s capacity for change and its struggles in working toward that “more perfect union” of which the Framers spoke.
– James David Dickson is an editorial writer for the Detroit News.
GERALD L. EARLY I suggest Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. Here is the story of the first great national black politician, who had considerable crossover appeal, managed to create an important black institution from scratch in the deep south, and reached out to lower-class rural blacks–the majority at the turn of the century–in ways that few other important blacks of the era could. He walked a tightrope with incredible dexterity and aplomb and managed, before Obama, to make the black story of uplift a new, fresh version of the American story, influenced equally by Horatio Alger and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. Mythmaker, institution builder, and complex trickster: Washington’s is a story worth reading.
JOHN MCWHORTER The most important book a modern person should read about the black experience is neither Malcolm X’s autobiography nor any other memoir, history, or novel that casts racism–subtle or not–as the essence of the black experience. Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character remains, almost 20 years after its publication, a crucial analysis of what ails today’s debate over race.
A constructive concern with black uplift has bifurcated into, for whites, an emotional commitment simply not to seem racist, and for blacks, a victim-based self-conception based less on modern experience than a quest for spiritual security. The result is a coded and grievously insincere “dance” we all do, which discourages true achievement by blacks and nurtures quiet racism of a new kind among whites. The situation Steele nails so accurately and eloquently is an understandable by-product of how the civil-rights revolution played out. My sense is that in 2009, the rituals Steele describes have somewhat less influence than they did when he wrote–but we will never be truly post-racial in the sense Obama’s election has us thinking about until what Steele describes is utterly antique. Legions of black people think like Steele in their hearts and suppose that they are alone, but in 50 years his book will seem the quintessence of common sense. Anyone interested in getting on the bandwagon ahead of the curve should read The Content of Our Character–twice, even, and pass it along to a friend.
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM With Barack Obama as our president, it is hard to keep singing the old tune of white racism and black oppression. The music should have stopped quite some time ago. But it served a purpose: It kept the civil-rights establishment firmly in control of all race-related policy.
The old lyrics are woefully outdated–and have been for a good while. But conservatives, in their impatience with those who have worked so hard to nurture white guilt, should never forget what life was like for southern blacks not so long ago.
And that brings me to the book of my choice: Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Wright’s story of his boyhood is not wholly accurate, and he paints the Jim Crow South as more monolithic than it was. But it is an unforgettable introduction to a vanished world in which “whites had drawn a line over which [blacks] dared not step.”
LEE WALKER On January 20, “the most consequential black person in America was a biracial man who had been abandoned by his father and raised by his mother.” That sentence actually comes from a recent Wall Street Journal essay on Booker T. Washington. A century ago, he was the most powerful and influential black man in America. Yet he is often ignored today. Last year, the Heartland Institute published Booker T. Washington: A Re-Examination (edited by Diane Carol Bast and S. T. Karnick), which is based on a conference I helped organize. It offers the thoughts of more than 20 scholars who find Washington’s writings and speeches to be more important than ever in pointing the way to racial harmony as well as economic and social success for black Americans.
– Lee Walker is president of the New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, based in Chicago.