Gov. Ralph Northam has been reading books and articles about African-American history, part of his penance for, well, you know.
We know what his staff has given him: Roots” by Alex Haley and “The Case for Reparations,” an essay in The Atlantic magazine by Ta-Nehisi Coates. That prompted us to wonder what books others might recommend. Last Saturday, we presented a reading list from some African-American officeholders in this part of Virginia. Today, we present recommendations from some prominent African-American educators in the region.
Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for diversity, inclusion, and strategic affairs at Virginia Tech. She suggested “A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor: Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America.” The book tells the story of her mother, who made that journey from the cotton fields of Texas to the halls of academia at a time when just 1 percent of full professors were black women. (The figure’s not much better today; it’s just 2 percent.) The book was selected for the American Education Studies Association 2018 Critics’ Choice Award.
Wornie Reed, professor of sociology and Africana studies and director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech. He recommended three books.
The first is “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. Her premise is that the current criminal justice system, especially the so-called “war on drugs,” is “a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” She points out that the United States has the world’s highest per-capita incarceration rate, one that is eight times higher than, say, Germany’s. This is a book that ought to appeal to the governor. Alexander looks at how there’s now a large class of people, mostly African-American men, who are unable to find work because they are branded for life as convicted felons. After the “blackface” scandal broke, Northam’s office went largely silent. One of the first statements to be issued after communications resumed was a release pointing out that Northam has restored civil rights to 10,992 Virginians who had served their felony convictions. That’s more than any other governor, with the exception of Terry McAuliffe, who restored the rights of 173,166 in an attempt to execute a blanket restoration of rights — something later blocked by the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled the state Constitution requires the governor to act on each application individually.
Next comes “Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America From the Civil War to World War II” by Douglas Blackmon. This book, which documents the “neo-slavery” of African-Americans during segregation, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. There’s a Virginia connection here, too. Blackmon was, until last fall, the director of public programs at the Miller Center, a public affairs research center at the University of Virginia.
Finally, Reed recommends the report that President Lyndon Johnson commissioned in 1967 on why there were so many race riots in the country. “The Kerner Report: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” was no ordinary government document. The sharply-worded report, which criticized a long list of government policies, became an instant best-seller. Its most famous line was “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Forest Jones Jr., director of administrative services for Salem City Schools: He sent us four of what he called “my favorites about the African American story.” They are:
“Frederick Douglas,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author William McFeely, is a biography of the former slave who before the Civil War was a prominent abolitionist and after the war broadened his call for social reform to include women’s suffrage. In 1888, Douglas became the first African-American to receive a vote in a major party’s roll call for president — at the Republican convention that nominated Benjamin Harrison.
“Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston was just published last year but is based on the author’s 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the slave trade. Congress banned the importation of enslaved people in 1807, but the practice continued anyway. The last known slave ship came to the United States in the summer of 1860, bringing more than 100 people who had been enslaved in west Africa. Lewis lived on until 1935 and in his latter days was interviewed by multiple researchers who documented his remembrance of being captured and transported across the ocean. One of those interviewers was Hurston, an influential anthropologist and author of her day. Despite her fame, publishers refused to take on her book about Lewis, and her manuscript languished in the Howard University library until last year. Now it’s winning widespread praise. National Public Radio called it “eye-opening, terrifying and wonderful.”
“Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle” by Kristen Green tells a story close to home: How one county in Southside Virginia shut down its public schools for five years rather than integrate, and what impact that had on children who were denied schooling. This book made the New York Times’ best-seller list in 2015.
“Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and At War” by Linda Hervieux is exactly as it sounds. This book also has local connections: One of the people whose story she tells is that of William Dabney, described as “an eager 17-year-old from Roanoke, Virginia.” Dabney survived D-Day, and the rest of the war, and returned home to Roanoke where he started his own business. The black battalion that he was part of went overlooked until the past two decades. Hervieux has pieced together their story, just in time, too. Before Dabney passed away last year at age 94, he was the unit’s last living member.
Next Saturday, we have still more recommendations.