Tag Archives: history

Black Self-Determination, by V. P. Franklin

Black Self Determination

What It’s About

An early history of resistance and achievement by African-Americans, from the antebellum era to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.

Why I Think You’d Like It

If you’ve read many conventional history books, the agency of Black Americans erased or downplayed. Many kids grow up thinking of them as largely helpless and ignorant up until the days of Martin Luther King. This book is one of the most thorough challenges to that notion. It uncovers a wealth of original sources that were long ignored by white historians, and tells the history of Black emancipation from their own cultural perspective.

Rather than being a simple linear history, it takes on history subject by subject. It starts with the work of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, and puts them in the context of a contentious period of self-discovery. He shows how their perspectives didn’t align with the experiences of many freed slaves, which is context that I never got when I learned about these men.

It goes on to talk about the cultural history of Black religion, education, music. It outlines core values of the early Black community, such as freedom, education and self-determination. It especially argues how they were developed as tools to survive slavery and how they evolved to empower and strengthen their communities as slavery ended only to bring new challenges.

It is incredibly thorough, both in its scope and in its cited sources, and I sorely needed to read it. For anyone looking to unwhitewash their understanding of history, I can’t recommend it enough.

Content Warnings

Quotes periodically from writings of Black people on lynchings, beatings and other acts of violence that they witnessed or experienced. Some descriptions are fairly graphic.


The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene An Intimate History

What It’s About

A history of the discovery of the gene, the decoding of DNA, and all the difficult social and ethical questions that come with the science of genetics.

Why I Think You’d Like It

In general, I love the style of teaching science through it’s history. It’s a reminder that science is not a result, but a quest, and scientists not as austere demigods of knowledge, but fumbling discoverers who make no shortage of mistakes along the way.

In this book, it is an especially appropriate approach. Every scientific story has included the potential for abuse, but the science of genetics has been misused in some of the most horrific ways yet. Even the nuclear bomb can’t compete with the deaths and tortures we have justified with some misappropriated genetic jargon. By telling the history of genetic studies side by side with the cultural implications, Siddhartha Mukherjee brings home the importance of thinking hard about how we use and abuse genetics today.

He also tears apart the cultural abuses of science brilliantly. He starts with the justifications themselves; what people said in order to make segregation, forced sterilization and genocide sound not just socially acceptable, but enlightened. He puts you in the place of an ignorant citizen, easily impressed by anybody who sounds like they can tell a mitochondria from a protein. This is paired with reminders of the culture at the time, and the way certain lines of reasoning sound appealing as they justify pre-existing beliefs. Then, just as you’re beginning to worry about whose side he’s really on, he attacks. He lays out the lies, the misconceptions, the assumptions and outright biases. He exposes the reality of the lives affected by the various racist and toxic policies, and the actual moral questions we are left with. As he moves forward through history, you see the gaps close between antiquated notions and ideas we can find in any modern grocery store magazine stand. You see the common lineage of modern ableism, sexism and racism share with the eugenics movements of the past. He points out the flaws in saying, “well, they didn’t know better back then” by showing the questions that scientists could have asked, even with their resources at the time, but didn’t, and the dissenting voices that were ignored until it was too late.

But don’t think this is a downer book. It’s also full of the miracles and wonders of real science and true discover. The prose is fantastic as well. Siddhartha Mukherjee has a good sense of narrative rhythm, and hits a beautiful balance between thought provoking and fun to read. This history is fascinating and cool, but it’s not an abstract curiosity for any of us. He does a fantastic job reminding us of this.

This is an awesome book for anyone into science, history, politics, social justice, human rights, culture, or just learning for the sake of being a more informed person. It is fascinating and cool, but genetics not an abstract curiosity for any of us. It is inextricably linked to who we are, and how we view it will determine how we operate as a society.

Content Warnings

Nothing in a MPAA sense, but as you probably gathered, a good deal of the book covers arguments for oppression, and the real world consequences. Unless any of that would trigger actual PTSD symptoms, I’d encourage you to give this book a read. He is blunt, but not graphic, and the payoff is exponentially worthwhile.

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith


What It’s About

Ida Mae Jones, a light skinned Black woman, passes as white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, in WWII.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because it’s everything historical fiction should be. The research is excellent, and Sherri L. Smith includes a cool postscript on what real world events inspired various scenes in the novel. The story is moving and emotionally real, but it isn’t just about angst and difficult choices. It’s about female friendships, fulfilling dreams, being part of a cause you believe in, and the sheer joy of flying.

I loved both Ida Mae and all the supporting characters. She bonds with a couple of other quirky misfit girls and they support each other through flight school. She also has a close relationship with her father and brothers, as well as an interesting, tense relationship with her mother, who is afraid Ida Mae will abandon them for a life of passing for white full-time. The complexity of their relationship is raw and relatable. I love how you are made to see both of their points of view. In fact, while there are a few characters who are just straightforward villains, most of the time you can see both sides of a conflict, and feel for everyone involved.

It’s also one of those stories that absolutely needed to be told from within the group. I’ve seen a lot of passing-for-privileged narratives, for all kinds of identities, written from someone of the privileged group, and they’re usually crap. I’d honestly gotten pretty sick of them, but Sherri L. Smith shows how poignant and thought provoking these stories can be when an insider chooses to tell them.

It took me to another time and place, put me through an adventure, and left me thinking about the issues and problems it raised. What more could you ask for?

Content Warnings

Racism towards some of the main characters, or witnessed by them. Otherwise it is fairly tame; the work the WASP do is dangerous, but they aren’t involved in anything gory or graphic.

Harlem Nocturne, by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Harlem Nocturne

What It’s About

This book is equal parts biography and cultural history, focusing on three artists; modern dancer Pearl Primus, novelist Ann Petry, and musician/singer/composer Mary Lou Williams. As it describes their fusion of artistry and activism, it also takes the history of Harlem past it’s 1920s heyday and shows how the cultural and artistic boom evolved into the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are many gaps in our history when it comes to African Americans. You would be forgiven, after reading your average American textbook, for thinking the entire Black community was just cryogenically frozen between the 20s and the 60s. And that’s if you had one of the good ones that mentioned the Harlem Renaissance at all. This book is a fantastic way to begin filling in the gaps. Griffin’s focus may be the 40s, but she also gives context from the 30s and indicates how the changes wrought in WWII set the African American community up to weather the 50s and triumph in the 60s.

Griffin has a fantastic writing style. I never got bogged down in too much detail, nor did I get ever get lost. She’s as engaging as any storyteller; I didn’t just find these women’s lives interesting, but I also cared about them. They came alive on her pages, and I found myself hungry for still more information on them when I was done.

As I read this book, I kept returning to the ideas of the ups and downs of life, and legacy as the ripples we create. There’s also a beautiful mixture of realism and hope here. As the war ended and McCarthyism took hold, many of these women had their work eclipsed, and are still sadly obscure today. Yet the work they did was still important to what would come later. They spoke out, they lived life their way, and they shaped their communities in powerfully positive ways.

The whole book was engaging, thought provoking, and I finished it in about three days because I couldn’t put it down. I can’t recommend it enough, and I will definitely be reading and recommending more of her work. We all need books like this in our lives.

Content Warnings

Some references to lynchings and other anti-black violence, as context for their work. Otherwise you’re fine.

A Banquet For Hungry Ghosts, by Ying Chang Compestine

A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

  • Genre
    • Horror, Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • In Chinese folklore, one of the classic ghost story forms is of a hungry ghost; a person who, having died hungry, must be fed by the living, or it will feed on them. This is a collection of short, spooky stories based on that tradition, each centered around a dish in an eight-course feast. 
  • Characters
    • Some stories have tragic protagonists, who were victimized in life and return for revenge. Some are despicable, brought to a messy end by their own flaws. Some are clever enough to narrowly avoid a rough fate. Some are sweet and well-meaning, but horribly unlucky. All of them make for excellent stories.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The fun of a campfire urban legend, but without all the cliche. I can enjoy a well-told creepy story even if I know where it’s going, but with a few exceptions, in this book I generally didn’t. She used all the classic tropes but kept taking me by surprise.
    • One reason the stories were so unique is that she drew on her memories of the Chinese Revolution and the various ensuing abuses of power. It adds an extra shiver when you remember that, hidden among the ghoulishness and drama, there is some element that real people suffered under. And I think that’s part of good horror, even the campy sort. There should be a real human feeling underneath, not just gore for gore’s sake. I thought this book got that balance perfectly right.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • After each story, in which she makes you agonizingly hungry for a dish and then creeps you out so fast you get whiplash, she gives you the recipe for the featured food. And you realize that as horrified as you were, you still want to try that goddamn murder dish. It’s pretty sadistic… and I need to buy this for myself to get those recipes.
    • Before returning this to the library, I did get to make tea eggs, long-life noodles and eight treasure rice. They were all great, and the recipes were easy to follow (although I did have to look up how to steam sweet rice for the eight treasure rice recipe).
    • She also includes notes on recent Chinese history, which was fascinating and got me curious to learn more. I know a lot more about ancient Chinese history than the more recent struggles, and I think that’s a massive problem in our education, especially considering what a huge player China is internationally.
    • Beautiful, ghostly, atmospheric illustrations.
  • Content Warnings
    • Multiple gory deaths, and if animal cruelty is too much for you, you might want to skip the tofu chapter.
  • Quotes
    • “When she looked up, the small figure of a girl stood in front of the henhouse, dressed in silk the color of moonlight. Her eyes pierced the storm with flames of hatred. As she bent down to pick up an empty bowl, her long wet hair, dark as ink, draped across her face.”

Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac

Code Talker

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Ned Begay, veteran of WWII, tells his grandchildren stories from his days as a Navajo code talker with the Marines. 
  • Character Empathy
    • Ned tends to view people through the lens of culture first, and then sketch them out as individuals, but this doesn’t result in stereotyping or simplifying. Instead, Ned has an eye for the complexities of culture; how it influences people for good and ill, how it can share knowledge but also limit perspective. Through his eyes, you see his love for his own Navajo culture, his affinity for other marginalized groups, and his ability to see the difference between an oppressive culture and the individuals who make it up. He’s able to do the latter without minimizing the crimes or neglecting the victims.
    • At the beginning of the story I thought of Ned as a mere neutral storyteller, but by the end I was intensely attached to him. He sees the worst of humanity and reports on it accurately, but he is also determined to look for the best in humankind. He’s one of those characters that my brain won’t let me treat as a fictional character. He’s real, dammit! He’s real!
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s understated, in a good way. On the surface, it’s the voice of an old man, pragmatic rather than poetic, recounting the facts as best he’s able to for the sake of his family’s history. Beneath, it’s full of love, sympathy and insight. It never beats you over the head with its points, nor does it bandy about with false complexity. It is simply authentic.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The research is incredible, both the military history and the portrayal of the Navajos. Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, was especially determined to get the latter especially right, and sought out as many Navajo code talkers to interview as he could find. I’ve looked at a few different reviews, both from Navajo perspectives and non-native history geeks. Everybody says it is dead on accurate; I’ve yet to find someone mention a single error. This book will probably teach you more than most non-fiction books. 
    • The bantering friendships between him and his fellow Marines. So many warm happy feels! Also, although he mentions that people die, he doesn’t usually torture you with in depth gory deaths of individuals you love, so that’s a nice change. It doesn’t feel cheap; more like Ned just didn’t want to spend time dwelling on the sad parts. These were his friends, and he doesn’t want to remember them dead. He just wants to pass on the happy memories.
  • Content Warnings
    • Obviously there’s violence, though he tends to skim over it. As I said, it seems to be that, as a narrator, Ned doesn’t want to dwell on the bad. The most intense description actually isn’t of the war at all, but his time in boarding school, when his mouth was scrubbed with soap for speaking Navajo. 
    • Racism against the protagonist and other Navajos, running the gamut from intentionally harmful programs like the boarding schools to unintentional microaggressions like the ubiquitous nickname “Chief.”
  • Quotes
    • “Never think that war is a good thing, grandchildren. Though it may be necessary at times to defend our people, war is a sickness that must be cured. War is a time out of balance. When it is truly over, we must work to restore peace and sacred harmony once again.”
    • “Strong words outlast the paper they are written upon. ”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  • Genre
    • Memoir, Autobiography
  • Summary
    • Frederick Douglass describes his resistance and ultimate escape from slavery in Maryland. 
  • Information
    • In a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, an influential abolitionist of the time, he talks about claims, commonly touted by slavery advocates, of well-treated slaves and bans on excessive punishment. Frederick Douglass, even as a slave, grew up with relative luck. Everyone agreed that Maryland was far less brutal than the deep south, and furthermore he typically got to work as a skilled laborer, rather than grueling field work. Even so, he saw enough violence and brutalities to shock anyone. On top of that, he lays out for his readers the dynamics of psychological abuse, and the ways that even the supposed “kindness” of nicer owners were ultimately just tools to dehumanize. Today, we still hear the same arguments, used to justify white supremacy as “white heritage” and other such nonsense. This book destroyed white supremacist bullshit back then, and it still does today.
    • Plus, the man’s life was fascinating. The way he not only survived but constantly improved himself, in the face of a world where his basic humanity was attacked daily, is incredible. He learned to read despite the fact that it would get him beaten or even killed, just because he wanted to, which pretty much makes him the patron saint of badass bookworms.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • I think most people would, without knowing better, assume this book is historically significant, but old, dull, stuffy, and ultimately not worth reading unless you’re an actual historian or taking a class. If you’ve thought that, let me tell you, you are completely wrong. Frederick Douglass was the furthest thing from stuffy. His prose hits this perfect balance of crisp and straightforward but expressive and moving, and despite how time and language have marched on he is still remarkably readable. It’s a short book, but there is so much in it, you will probably find yourself reading more than you intended to every time you pick it up. In other words, this book isn’t just going to enlighten you about an essential part of our history that we’re still embarrassingly bad at talking about; you will actually like reading it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The part where he recalls how he taught himself how to read. I don’t want to spoil it but basically he figured out how to trick snotty white boys into teaching him the alphabet and it’s hilarious. 
    • When he goes on rants, it is a fucking joy to read. He comes up with the most devastatingly constructed and beautifully cutting ways to say “fuck you.”
  • Content Warnings
    • I mean, it’s the life of a slave. If you think he’s not going to describe beatings and gaslighting and people being murdered while they beg for their lives, well, you’re probably exactly the kind of person who needs to read this book. 
  • Quotes
    • “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
    • “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

Black Victorians, Black Victoriana, Edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

Black Victorians Black Victoriana

  • Genre
    • History, Black History, European History, Essays
  • Summary
    • Black history, as it’s taught in America, consists of a brief overview of slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and the life of George Washington Carver. In other Western countries, the situation is apparently not much better; historians have been trained to think of white history as history and anything else as an obscure specialization. There are, thankfully, efforts to change that, and this book focuses on a particularly neglected period; the lives and rights of Black people living in England during the Victorian era. 
  • Information
    • I got this book a few years ago because I wanted to know how to write non-white people in a Victorian inspired setting. And by Victorian inspired setting I mean steampunk. I was expecting a comprehensive picture, but instead it’s a collection of academic essays on different aspects of Black Victoriana. It was less of a picture, more of a collection of puzzle pieces, which in a way was more interesting. It’s intent was to open a conversation, by pointing out interesting and neglected facets, and leaving the reader still curious to learn more. 
    • These articles touch on genealogy, famous individuals, immigrants, families, portrayal of Africans in Victorian culture and the efforts Black Victorians took to reclaim their image. Every one of these articles taught me something fascinating and new, and several gave me character ideas. I’d definitely recommend this both to writers and history nerds.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Obviously it varies by author, and it should be noted these people are mostly academics first and writers second. While some of them were stiff, they were straightforward and relatively easy to get through; nothing painfully bogged down in jargon or made artificially complicated. The prose is plain, but the content more than makes up on it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • An entire essay on the fabulously fascinating life of Pablo Fanque, who owned one of the most successful and famous circuses of his era. Yes, that’s one of the ones that gave me a story idea. 
    • The story of Ida B. Wells’ trip to Britain and how she continued her fight for racial justice there. 
    • Absolutely beautiful photos and illustrations of Black people in Victorian garb.
    • The article on the Pan-African Conference of 1900 is required reading if you are into anti-imperialist and decolonizing movements.
    • This is a fabulous starting point, not only because of the subject matter within, but because it draws from so many authors and references so many other books. It’s an introduction with a built-in reading list for your continued research.
  • Content Warnings
    • You’re good.
  • Quotes
    • From the editor’s intro; “For more than thirty years a gap has existed in the scholarship of black Britain, one that leaped from the thousands of black inhabitants of eighteenth century Britain to the two migrations of black people into Britain during World War I and directly following World War II… One of the purposes of this book is to dispel that silence by carefully combing the records to locate black Victorians and to put them back into the national picture, both in the ways they were represented in popular culture and as actual people who lived, worked, traveled, lectured, performed, and struggled in Victorian England.”

Who Do We Honor?

I’m stretching the definition of the writerly blog for today. Bear with me.

Harriet Tubman has been in the news lately. Specifically, her relationship to the $20 bill. And also Andrew Jackson. XKCD sums the issue up nicely (actual newspaper link for those who want it).

It puts me in mind of this Stephen Fry interview, in which he makes many points that I think are intelligent, then illustrates them with examples that I think are terrible. He claims that people often seek simplistic solutions and black and white views of a world that is really very complex. He illustrates this with, among other things, the movement to take down the statue in Oxford of Cecil Rhodes. Stephen Fry doesn’t want a society where the bad things someone does are enough to erase the good they do, and I agree. But I think he is missing the point with that particular figure, just like those who moved Jackson to the back instead of removing him entirely.

He is right that historical figures are complicated. If we don’t have records of them doing a problematic thing, its because we don’t have very comprehensive records. Flaws are a side effect of being human. The women and queer folk and POC who I would like to see getting more honor all have their flaws too, and that’s okay. The problem is that for some of the great white men, if you stack their good sides up next to their bad sides, one tends to dwarf the other.

For example…

Andrew Jackson

Good; He was the first president to come from a fairly humble background, which is cool. Reformed some government policies that were tending towards cronyism and corruption. Generally kept the economy from tanking, which is good. It’s a thing presidents should do.

Bad; He was singlehandedly responsible for the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears.He used his power as commander-in-chief to march thousands of people, including children, into barren deserts. Over ten thousand human beings died along the way, because of him.

Cecil Rhodes

Good; He was very good at being a bureaucratic government-type person. Also set up a scholarship; not for people who are broke or anything, just Americans who want to study in the England and vice versa.

Bad; That bureaucratic talent was dedicated to colonizing Africa. He was a huge racist, so all of his policies were aimed at making sure whites had it better than blacks, and he considered that to be a great, humanitarian effort. Because, you know, Africans were too sub-human to effectively govern themselves. Even the Rhodes Scholarship had some icky racist elements in its founding.

If you look at the historiography of these men, its clear that their fame was not based in good things done despite their human failings. Historians of the past considered their crimes a positive good, and so they were lifted up. Similarly, historians of the past dismissed the achievements of those who weren’t straight white men whenever possible. We have only so much room for statues. We have only so many types of currency. We have no shortage of unrecognized heroes whose good sides aren’t inextricably tangled with oppressive ideologies, or whose bad sides don’t involve the deaths of any children at all.