My 10 Favorite History Books of 2017

Jemar Tisby

After reading dozens of U.S. history books for my PhD coursework this year, I find myself circling back to a few works time and again. So I decided to put them in a of list my ten favorite history books that I read in 2017.

I say “favorite” because this list is entirely subjective and I chose the books based on how much they impacted me personally. A book’s presence or absence on this list does not at all speak to its critical reception among academics nor does it concern the impact the book has had on the field of U.S. History or beyond. Furthermore, this is a list of books I *read* in 2017. It is not a list of books that were *published* in 2017.

I commend these authors and their works because they have significantly changed my thinking on a particular subject or they explored a topic that I had not previously pondered.

One last note, these are academic treatments of history. They are scholarly works and they are often only read by other scholars. Although several of the historians (especially Tyson) have readable, even elegant prose, some of the books may seem too detailed and stiff for some readers.

Without further ado, here’s a list (in no particular order) of my favorite history books I read in 2017.

Note: If you would like to purchase any of these books through Amazon, please go smile.amazon.com and look us up under our old name “Reformed African American Network.” Part of your purchase will go to support The Witness!

1. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – David J. Garrow (1986)

At over 600 pages, David J. Garrow’s biography provides a comprehensive narrative of King’s life. Garrow focuses specifically on King’s activism within the context of the organization he founded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Other biographies will explore King’s theology and other aspects of his public life.

What impacted me about Garrow’s portrait of King was how this historically transcendent figure is so relatable in his humanness. He is a man who, under constant and intense pressure as the face of the Civil Rights movement, self-medicated through food and extra-marital affairs. At times he moved boldly and courageously in the face of violence and imprisonment, at other times he took the way of moderation to preserve strategic alliances.

Most of all, King suffered loneliness and doubt. The more prominent King became, the fewer people he could trust and the more isolated he felt. What leaders among us have not felt the longing for peers who would understand and would not judge us? Remarkably, he survived 13 years as the biggest target of white supremacists and the focus of constant infighting among black people. After reading Garrow’s treatment of King, I felt like the Baptist preacher was more of a man and less of a myth.

2. Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association – Tony Martin (1986)

Marcus Garvey organized the largest black pride movement in American history. At the peak of his influence, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had dozens of chapters and hundreds of thousands of supporters. Garvey adopted the now familiar red, black and green colored flag to represent people of African descent and exhorted his people to see that black is beautiful.

Martin provides an exhaustive record of Garvey’s life, including the way the U.S. government targeted him for imprisonment and deportation. Garvey truly is an under-appreciated figure in American history and the struggle for Black Power. Tony Martin makes sure that anyone who is curious has a great resource for learning about Garvey.

3. Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807 – Gregory E. O’Malley (2014)

Even after Africans had endured the passage across the Atlantic Ocean from West Africa to the Americas, their journey was not over. Other historians have focused almost exclusively on the transatlantic journey known as the “middle passage,” but they have given little attention to the voyage after the voyage. Upon initial landfall in the Americas, slaves often faced another journey to other parts of colonial America. They hopped between islands and settlements, their slave traders always looking for buyers and the best deal on their human “cargo.”

O’Malley fixates upon the point-of-sale because it serves as one of the starkest examples of human commodification. “The regular and visible exchange of enslaved people as property in the markets of early America offered one important site where colonists learned to see African men and women as economic units with their humanity obscured.” Thus helps readers understand the story of slavery in both economic and human terms.

4. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery – Jennifer L. Morgan (2004)

Jennifer Morgan’s book explores the “double labor” of women as both productive and reproductive persons. It constitutes an ambitious and expansive revision of the way historians often underplay the role of African women as slaves who shaped colonial slavery, especially in their capacity for natural “increase.” She contends that the real and projected ability of slave women to reproduce centrally affected both the demographics of the colonies and the emerging concepts of race.

In both literal and figurative senses, black women are the mothers of America. They cared for their own children and the children of their slave owners. Both black and white populations depended on their labor in the fields and their reproductive ability as well. The country has repaid black women simply by calling them “strong” and by relying on them continually rescue America from its worst tendencies. Listen to black women. Honor black women. Love black women.

5. The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics – Jefferson Cowie (2016)

In this synthesis of the historical period between the Great Depression and the 1970s, historian, Jefferson Cowie, explains that the New Deal era was an anomaly in the American political and economic pattern. For a brief few decades the nation saw a semblance of equality begin to emerge in terms of government policies designed to help working Americans. While inequality persisted, particularly between white and black citizens and men and women in the workplace, those gaps shrank during the implementation of the New Deal. This period, however, ended with the 1970s, and America is back to federal government conservatism as usual.

The more I learned about the persistence of conservatism in other eras, the more Cowie’s book made sense to me. Even current events reinforce the idea that America’s political default is a form of conservatism (not “small government”– Cowie shows that conservatives have no problem with huge expenditures on the military and corporate incentives). The rise of the Tea Party and, of course, the 2016 presidential election seem to support Cowie’s thesis.

6. Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies – Judith Stein, (2010)

As the name implies, Stein seeks to reinvent the seventies not as a decade in which “nothing seemed to happen” but to the contrary it was a pivotal period in forming what America was to become in subsequent years. She chooses the 1970s because it “was the only decade other than the 1930s wherein Americans ended up poorer than they began.” For Stein, the seventies marked a transition from the Age of Compression to the Age of Inequality. During the Age of Compression the economy grew, wages went up, and gaps between rich and poor shrank. This was the result of Democratic liberalism, specifically Keynesian economics which focused on economic stimulus through government intervention and spending to increase consumption. The Age of Inequality was characterized by increasing ideological separation between the fate of capital and the fate of labor. Economic policies began favoring big corporations while union and labor suffered low wages an high rates of unemployment.

I generally knew little about the 1970s from an economic standpoint. Yet, as Stein argues, it was a decade that influenced the course of events for the next thirty years. Stein’s work forces the reader to re-evaluate the decade of the 1970s. She demonstrates that economic uncertainty drastically re-aligned the politics of the decade and the two or three decades after that. In the end, she leaves little doubt about the importance of the 1970s in American history.

7. How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society – Manning Marable (1983)

Manning Marable argues that the capitalist economic system not only left black Americans out of one of the most explosive periods of capital accumulation in history, but it did so by exploiting the labor of black people who helped generate that capital. Although black people form an integral part of American capitalism, they have historically been left out of the material prosperity it generates. The remedy, according to Marable, is for socialists “to make the case for equality within society—a principle that cannot be achieved without the total reconstruction of American civil society.” Marable sets up a binary choice—either subvert the entire economic system or assimilate to it. One might critique Marable and this point and argue that there are more options than he proposes. Nevertheless, Marable’s unrelenting ideological stance in favor of socialism prompts a debate that has, perhaps, been one of the main reasons his work remains significant more than three decades after its initial publication.

Marable’s assessments of black women’s economic vulnerability, his exploration of black incarceration, and his data-driven analysis of inequality in the black community foreshadowed the current attention given to these areas. In his book he was able to pinpoint black America’s areas of highest tension and connect them to the capitalist system. If readers disagree with his polemically and ideologically driven conclusions, they can still find rigorous historical and sociological analysis that provides material for critical discourse on the racial dimensions of capitalism.

8. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression – Robin D.G. Kelley (1990)

While the Communist Party in the United States is generally thought of as an northern, urban movement, in Hammer and Hoe, Robin D.G. Kelley explores its southern, rural dimensions. Messages about social justice and racial equality found resonance in a population of poor black sharecroppers and unskilled laborers in Alabama who were motivated less by ideological commitments to communism as a political system and more by the promise of black empowerment and self-determination. This is not to say that black adherents of Communism in the South were uncritical in their thinking, on the contrary they embraced Communism and made it their own. By adding elements of Christian religion, folk wisdom, racial issues, and concerns of the poor, southern black Communists made a foreign set of beliefs their own.

This book forced me to re-think black radicalism in two ways—geographically and chronologically. First, Hammer and Hoe moves the discussion from the urban North to the rural South. Second, it roots black radicalism not in the post Civil Rights era of Black Power, but decades before in the Depression era with antecedents predating even this period. In tracing the history of black Communist thought and activity in the South, Kelley demonstrates that radicalism can find a home in places that seem least conducive to revolutionary social action.

9. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power – Timothy Tyson (2001)

While the Civil Rights movement is often remembered in reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent advocacy, Radio Free Dixie by Timothy Tyson details the decades of activism in which Robert F. Williams, a military veteran, promoted an unabashed black activism that included the use of weapons. Tyson revisits the black freedom struggle and contends that some picked up arms to protect themselves against white supremacy. Radio Free Dixie disrupts staid notions of nonviolent black resistance. Countless black people across the country as well as international allies, resonated with Williams’ brand of armed self-defense. In fact, the support Williams garnered makes nonviolence seem much less popular among everyday black people than common accounts claim. Radio Free Dixie makes it naive to conceptualize the Civil Rights movement as a fundamentally nonviolent one. Black freedom fighters did, in fact, advocate armed self-reliance in principle and in deed.

Tyson is a master storyteller. He combines rigorous historical research and analysis with a marvelous ability to weave together narratives of national importance with more parochial happenings in the lives of individuals. He draws the reader into the drama of the moment and the visceral emotions of what his subjects experienced. Radio Free Dixie is one of the rare academic treatments of history that is worthy of reading for its literary value alone.

10. Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America – Joseph, Peniel. (2007)

In Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour Peniel Joseph tackles the daunting task of outlining the history of the Black Power movement in the twentieth century.  Joseph says that, “understanding the history behind the iconic Black Power imagery…requires plumbing the murky depths of a movement that paralleled, and at times overlapped, the civil rights era.” He then uses eleven chapters of narrative history to trace the roots of modern black power with Malcolm X in the 1950s to official end of the Black Panther Party in 1982. The book’s main value, then, is as a survey of the late twentieth century Black Power movement. Joseph’s work is expansive and maps the geography of a complex set of events.

Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour moves beyond the iconic imagery and individuals of the Black Panther Party and tells a much larger story of black activism. It reaches back into the 1950s to trace the consistent stream of of resistance that led to what historians characterize as the Black Power era in the late 1960s and 1970s. It also parts ways with earlier assessments that characterized Black Power as a tragic departure from the Civil Rights era. Joseph sees more continuity in the movements and more positive effects—pride, self-reliance, political mobilization, etc.—to the era than others.

2 thoughts on “My 10 Favorite History Books of 2017

  1. Leila

    It works quite well for me

  2. Marculis

    Definitely will check out some of these books!

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