Readings on American Race Relations
This resource list was compiled by Krystyna Mazur, William Glass, Agnieszka Graff, and Marta Usiekniewicz and announed in the statement issued by Polish Americanists. It is a companion to the panel discussion entitled “On Looting Black Bodies and the Social Contract in America” featuring Shayani Bhattacharya (Lebanon Valley College), Joshua Clark Davis (University of Baltimore), William Glass (ASC UW), and Krystyna Mazur, and moderated by Agnieszka Graff, organized by the American Studies Center on June 9, 2020 to comment on the social, political, and media aftermath of the death of George Floyd.
Polish translation of the recording is available upon clicking the [cc] button.
The mainstream coverage of the protests triggered by the death of George Floyd, racist cliches in the social media, and the alarming comments of politicians have revealed the urgent need to discuss the tensions and mechanisms that contribute to the situation. The following list and the panel discussion are not intended to be comprehensive but rather suggestive of the great variety of resources for understanding what has been happening in the United States since the death of George Floyd by the knee of a white policeman and why that incident provoked the reaction that it did.
Our list is long and covers a lot of topics. Here’s a place to start. For more detailed comments on these sources, look below.
Begin here for an introduction to the movement behind the current wave of protests in the United States.
Pew Research Center, Race in America (2019)
Then consider this snapshot of American race relations and the stark differences between the way blacks and whites view the circumstances.
Ta-Nehishi Coates, “A Case for Reparations”
This essay offers a sweeping overview of the crushing effects of slavery and Jim Crow by focusing on a black neighborhood in Chicago.
Ava DuVernay, 13th (Netflix)
Essential viewing for understanding the way the American justice system was perverted by the war on drugs resulting in flooding American prisons with African Americans and thus undermining African American trust in law enforcement. This powerful documentary explains how the “loophole” in the 13th Amendment, along with the war on drugs created a system of mass incarceration that led to situation where African American men were arrested and jailed in numbers much higher than their percentage in the population.
James Baldwin, “The American Dream and the American Negro” Speech
A clip from Baldwin’s debate with American conservative William F. Buckley that offers a more pessimistic perspective than Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Surprisingly relevant even after fifty years.
Michelle Alexander on the new Jim Crow, George E. Kent Lecture at the University of Chicago.
Her book, The New Jim Crow, is startling, eye-opening analysis of how the American legal system has deprived African Amerians of social and political rights much in the same way segregationist laws at the turn of the twentieth century created Jim Crow. This lecture is a good introduction to her argument.
Robin diAngelo, “‘Why ‘I’m Not a Racist’ Is Only Half the Story”
A brief introduction to diAngelo’s analysis of White Fragility. A longer version can be found in this lecture, White Fragility and her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
Franz Fanon, “The Fact of Blackness”
Fanon describes the metaphysical crisis resulting from the confrontation of the black person with the white colonizer: the loss of the original frame of reference, or rather the imposition of a new dominant frame of reference results in self-estrangement, a loss of access to one’s self.
James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village” (Polish translation: “Obcy w wiosce”, in “Zapiski syna tego kraju”, trans. M. Denderski, Karakter, 2019)
In this essay, written in a Swiss village high in the Alps, Baldwin is confronted with the fact that the villagers (who have never seen a typewriter, or, for that matter, a black man) have the power of othering: they can claim the authority of Western civilization to reduce him into an exotic wonder. This leads Baldwin to speculate on the difference between American and European racism, which lies in the fact that in the U.S. the enslaved black people have been, from the start, part of the social fabric, while in Europe they were kept at a convenient remove in the colonies.
James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (Polish translation: “Zapiski syna tego kraju” in “Zapiski syna tego kraju”, trans. M. Denderski, Karakter, 2019)
The “race riots” of 1943 are the backdrop to Baldwin’s discussion of his difficult relationship to his dying father whose bitterness against white oppression has sped up his death, and yet he has been incapable of saying no to the white man. Baldwin himself, when confronted with omnipresent racism flies into a rage that also nearly costs him his life. Striving toward reconciliation with his father, Baldwin laments the impossible situation of black parents in the U.S. faced with trying to create an antidote to the poison that is killing themselves within their children.
Ralph Ellison, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks”
1970 essay on race in the US by one of the greatest African American writers. Ellison speculates on the reasons for the persistence of the insane fantasy of a “lily white” America and shows how deeply American culture – the language, the music, the literature and identity itself – is intertwined with Black culture.
Toni Morrison, “Black Matters”
Morrison argues that the concepts of “blackness” and whiteness” are inseparable from each other and that in fact “blackness” has been created in order for “whiteness” to exit. One needs to attend to these constructs and the underlying racism. The impact of racism on the perpetrator should be studied as well as its impact on the victim. She discusses the convoluted construction of black characters in white novels as an effect of a self-imposed blindness to the humanity of black people.
Toni Morrison, “Racism and Fascism”
In this short address, Morrison creates an implicit parallel between racism and fascism as processes that begin with the isolation, pathologization, and finally criminalization of an internal enemy. Both serve the function of “marketing for power.”
Pew Research Center, Race in America 2019
A statistical snapshot of how Americans view race relations after three years into the Trump presidency. It is startling for just how different black and white Americans experience race and how different they see the state of race relations.
Ta-Nehishi Coates, “A Case for Reparations”
Coates’s essay makes a compelling case that centuries of slavery and Jim Crow deprived African Americans of the opportunities most white Americans had to benefit economically from their labor and build wealth for future generations. But for Coates, reparations is not just about economic justice, reparations would be “more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe…. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning”
Poet, essayist, playwright, Claudia Rankine is a key voice speaking on behalf of African Americans today. This beautiful essay explores the lived reality of systemic racism in the U.S. Rankine connects the Black Lives Matter Movement to the longer tradition of mourning in Black protest culture, claiming that “Unlike earlier black-power movements that tried to fight or segregate for self-preservation, Black Lives Matter aligns with the dead, continues the mourning and refuses the forgetting in front of all of us.”
The subtitle tells all. One of the more important American magazines compiles a list of and links to its articles on the state of American race relations stretching from the 1850s to 2020.
Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
This powerful piece of scholarly advocacy details the way the war on drugs led to the disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans resulting in a loss of civil and political rights much in the same way segregation laws and disenfranchisement did in the first half of the twentieth century. A succinct summary of her book can be heard in her interview on Fresh Air or watch her George E. Kent Lecture at the University of Chicago.
Academic articles and essays
Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”
Crenshaw argues that forms of oppression intersect and cannot be dealt with in isolation from each other. For example, black women suffer from the lack of language to address their situation which differs from that of both black men and white women. Race and gender should not therefore be treated as exclusive categories. The essay not only lays the foundation of the theory of intersectionality, but has become the basis of organizing for progressive movements in contemporary US, including BLM and Women’s March on Washington.
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being
In this beautiful and moving combination of reflection on her personal experience, literary and visual critique, and report from Black lives in the United States, Sharpe argues that African Americans continue to live in the wake of slavery (in the wake of the slave ship), and as a continuous wake keeping watch with the dead. “Wake work” becomes the site of a variety of forms of resistance.
Classic text on the connection between race and class in American history. Lipsitz examines racism as an effect of interests, not just a matter of prejudice, showing that whiteness works as structured advantage in US society, leading to unearned rewards for whites in the realm of employment, housing, asset accumulation and healthcare. He claims that whiteness remains central to U.S. culture.
Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (available in the ASC library)
A classic, interdisciplinary study of the parasitic nature of slavery, which operates on the personal, symbolic, ideological, cultural and political levels.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: the Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (available in the ASC library)
12 of the U.S. presidents owned slaves, 8 of them while they were in office. Following meticulous research, Dunbar tells the story of George and Martha Washington’s obsessive chase after their own escaped slave.
Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World
From 1441 when a Portuguese ship return to Lisbon with African slaves until the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, Europeans took some 11 to 13 million Africans from their homes to work on plantations in the Americas. This book provides both a tragic tale of a slave revolt on the high seas and an analysis of the economic, political, and social dimensions of the trade. A massive database available at Slave Voyages enables visitors to investigate over 36,000 trips of individual ships as they sailed from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back to Europe.
Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia
Of the millions of Africans who endured the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, only about five per cent went to what became the United States but around half came to the Americas after 4 July 1776. The Age of Revolution that brought liberty to European colonies in the Americas, and not insignificantly to the slaves in Haiti, could easily be called the Age of Slavery. This is the essential paradox of the history of the United States: many of the most eloquent spokesmen for liberty owned slaves and profited from their labor. One of the first historians to wrestle with this was Professor Morgan. This book is a meticulously researched and densely argued book that shows the way notions of American freedom were tied to the enslavement of Africans. A brief version of Morgan’s study is his article “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox.”
Edward Baptist, The Half that Has Never Been Told (available in the ASC library)
Baptist argues against the very common assumption that slavery was inefficient, as opposed to capitalism. He demonstrates that cotton produced by the South was the raw material that made US capitalism, that fed Northern and English/European industries and the industrial revolution, that created the great banks and was, in turn, the locus of great investments from all over the (white) world.
James Walvin, Sugar, the World Corrupted: from Slavery to Obesity and Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History.
In the Americas, slavery was primarily an economic institution exploiting labor for the production of cash crops. Two of the most important were sugar and cotton. Both have had sweeping histories written about them that put African slavery at the center of how these crops went from luxuries to common commodities and played central roles in the development of capitalism and in the capital accumulation necessary for the Industrial Revolution.
Jules Tygiel Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy
The long struggle for civil rights in the twentieth century has many chapters, but one of the lesser known but more significant was the effort to integrate America’s past time: baseball. This book details how the effort in the late 1940s foreshadowed the 1950s Civil Rights Movement through the use of moral suasion, economic boycotts, militant confrontation, and personal courage to end the color line in this sport. You don’t need to understand baseball to appreciate the story.
Stephen Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: the Story of Emmett Till (available in the ASC library)
On the lynching of a 14-year-old from the North, who came to visit his family in the South and was falsely accused of inappropriate conduct toward a white woman.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
With a novelist’s eye for character and setting, historian John Dittmer narrates the way local people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, not “outside agitators,” stood up to and brought down Jim Crow in one state.
Classic short fiction
Richard Wright, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow”
A short account of what it was like to be a black boy and young man in the South at the beginning of the 20th century.
James Baldwin, “Going to Meet the Man” (Polish translation: “Na spotkanie człowieka”, trans. E. Krasińska, PIW, 1971)
In the short story, written from the point of view of a white policeman who oversees the imprisonment of early Civil Rights activists, Baldwin diagnoses the mechanisms of racist violence. The story has a fascinating psychoanalytic dimension, in that it suggests a link between racism, childhood trauma, and sexuality.
Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
This volume has four: two from slaves in the British Empire and two from slaves in the antebellum American South. Two are from women, two from men. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano tells his story from his capture as a child in Africa to his command of merchant ship in the Caribbean, while The History of Mary Prince shows the brutality of life on a Bermuda salt farm. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the best known of the over 6,000 freedom narratives published in the United States, The paradigmatic slave narrative that tells of the physical and psychological torture and dehumanization of slavery that was cruel to the slaves and degrading to the slave owners. He tells of his emancipation and his escape from slavery. The text belongs to the large abolitionist archive that was written by both white and black authors. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (pen name Linda Brent) beautifully and painfully demonstrates that “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”
These narratives, along with many others, are available at “North American Slave Narratives” on the website Documenting the American South. A broader collection of narratives is “Testimonies of West Africans from the Era of Slavery.” Finally, the massive oral history collection compiled during the 1930s can be found in “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938” at the Library of Congress.
Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery
Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice
Clifton Taulbert, Once upon a Time When We Were Colored
After the 13th Amendment to the American constitution ended slavery, the 14th granted the former slaves citizenship, and the 15th promised them the right to vote, southern states began a systematic campaign to undermine these amendments that resulted in the American system of apartheid known as Jim Crow. Two autobiographies provide insight into different strategies African Americans pursued in response to these developments. Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington offers an apologia for his willingness to compromise with Jim Crow in exchange for economic opportunity while Ida B. Wells describes her Crusade for Justice to stop the horrors of lynching used by whites to enforce the new racial order. A gentler picture of life under Jim Crow appears in Once upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton Taulbert, but it no less heartbreaking to read how a grandfather teaches his grandson his abc’s so he can recognize which drinking fountain was for whites and which was for coloreds.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi
In the Civil Rights era, one of the most powerful and influential autobiographies is that of Malcolm X. It remains an eye-opening document of black life in northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s revealing the racism deeply embedded in American institutions. Coming of Age is Mississippi is Anne Moody’s journey from growing up in poverty in a sharecropping family to becoming a civil rights activist to questioning what, if anything, had been gained in the struggle.
Toni Morrison, Beloved (several copies available in the ASC library; Polish translation: Umiłowana, trans. R. Gorczyńska Znak 2007)
Based on the life of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who killed her child to save her from being taken back into slavery, Beloved is a story of a woman–and a race–traumatized and haunted by the past. The novel marks a watershed moment in the development of American collective memory of slavery.
Octavia Butler, Kindred (available in the ASC library)
An African American woman living in modern-day California with a white partner is suddenly transported back in time to the Antebellum South and forced to find a way to survive.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
From microaggressions experienced by the poet and her friends, through racist responses to Serena Williams, and the deaths of black men: the book-length poem is a meditation on the racial violence experienced by people of color in the U.S.
Karen Thorsen, The Price of the Ticket
An intimate documentary portrait of James Baldwin, made with the use of documentary footage and interviews with friends and family, which offers the unique opportunity to see Baldwin talk about his life, his choice to move in Europe, his position as black man in the U.S.
Goran Olson, The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-75
A documentary film about the Black Power Movement made recently from rediscovered tapes that have been shot in the US by a group of Swedish journalists–a uniquely European take on Black Power.
Stanley Nelson, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Considered “soberingly relevant” today, the film introduces the viewer to the Black Panthers, their response to racist violence and injustice in the U.S. of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the many programs the average viewer may be unaware of, such as e.g. the free breakfast program.
Spike Lee, When the Levees Broke (2006) HBO
A documentary film in 4 parts about the (preventable) catastrophe in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina and the lack of response from the authorities which resulted in death, misery, and destruction. Lee argues about the politicized nature of the disaster.
Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
This 2016 documentary is based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin Remember this House where he recalls the leaders of the civil rights movement, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most powerful films on the history of racism in the U.S.
Eyes on the Prize, parts 1 and 2
Eyes on the Prize is a two-part documentary series that first appeared on American Public Television. The first part with 6 episodes, America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, covers the fight to dismantle Jim Crow and secure voting rights for African Americans. The second part of 8 episodes, America at the Racial Crossroads, 1965-1985, lacks the narrative focus of the first part, but in a way that reflects the reality of how race relations developed after the classic Civil Rights era.
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till by Keith Beauchamp (2005)
Excellent documentary revisiting the lynching Emmett Till and its aftermatth. Available on YouTube.
Oscar Micheaux, Within Our Gates (1920)
A pioneer of African American cinema was Oscar Micheaux whose career spanned from the 1910s into the 1940s. His best movie, and the first surviving movie by an African American director, is Within Our Gates. A melodrama telling the story of African American woman who teaches at a school in the South, the film also represents Micheaux’s cinematic response to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of the Nation (1915). The climax of Within Our Gates shows the true nature of lynching in opposition to the racist lies in Griffith’s movie.
Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station (based on true events)
A fictionalized last day in the life of Oscar Grant, shot by a policeman from the San Francisco transit authority in 2009.
Ava DuVernay, When They See Us (based on true events) (Netflix)
A fictionalized story of “the Central Park Five”—the five teenage boys falsely accused and sentenced to prison for the death of a white female jogger. The film reveals the mechanisms of rush sentencing, black scapegoating for crime, and the lack of accountability of the U.S. justice system.
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman (based based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth)
Spike Lee is the best known African American film director. This film (winner of Grand Prix in Cannes in 2018) is part black comedy and part crime thriller – the true story of two police detectives- one Black, the other Jewish – who joined forces to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan Chapter in Colorado Springs in the 1970s. It is also a moving meditation on racism in the U.S. and its connection to film history.
Youtube, vimeo, podcasts
America’s preeminent African American writer debates the up and coming conservative intellectual and founder of the National Review on the question “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” For background see, Nicholas Buccola, The Fire Is upon Us.
James Baldwin, “On Language, Race, and the Black Writer”
Baldwin’s speech at University of California–Berkeley in 1979 is scathing critique of a white America determined to “keep a nigger in his place.”
Reni Eddo-Lodge, “Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race”
Reni Eddo Lodge discusses “polite” racism, such as can be encountered in “respectable society” in the form of denial: the refusal by the Nice White People to accept the evidence of the existence of structural racism and its consequences, refusal to accept the fact that their skin color is the norm.
Cheryl I. Harris, The Afterlife of Slavery: Markets, Property and Race
The author of White Fragility explains that even the most progressive white liberals don’t truly understand the way that having grown in a racist society blinds them to their own racism. A short introduction to her thesis is here “‘Why ‘I’m Not a Racist’ Is Only Half the Story”.
1619, New York Times
An audio series on how slavery has transformed America, connecting past and present through the oldest form of storytelling.
Cornel West, “Race Matters”
In this brilliant example of modern oratory, Dr. Cornel West, one of the key contemporary African American intellectuals, takes the listeners through the history of white supremacy in the United States, through “the varieties of death” African Americans had to wrestle with, and defines the necessary conditions for the existence of a multiracial democracy.
“A Conversation with My Black Son”
Parents of African American or mixed-race sons describe conversations that white parents never have to have with their boys.
‘What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?’: Descendants Read Frederick Douglass’ Speech
In this short film, five young descendants of Frederick Douglass read and respond to excerpts of his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” which asks all of us to consider America’s long history of denying equal rights to Black Americans.
Mamadou Diouf, “Mała książka o rasizmie”
An illustrated book to help teach Polish children about race and present antiracist approaches.
A conversation between Afro-Polish women about their experience of living in Poland and experiencing Polish racism, also coded in language, as is the case with the Polish term “Murzyn.”
AMAKA: Już nie szukam miejsca, w którym będę taka jak inni
A short documentary with Amaka Margaret Ohia, a Polish-Nigerian, about the experience of being mixed-race in Nigeria and Poland and working towards an understanding of multiculturalism.
Recommendations regarding non-discriminatory language at the University of Warsaw, complied at the request of the Rector’s Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination.
Polish linguists, university professors, historians, and activists discuss the changing perception of the “M-word” used to decribe black people in Polish.
Marek Łaziński, “Spory o słowo Murzyn”
This guide is aimed at those willing to write and speak about Africa without prejudice, giving up racist rhetoric marked by colonial heritage.
An analysis of discursive representation of black people in the Polish media focusing on linguistic mechanisms present in Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita articles.
Margaret Ohia, Paweł Nowak, “Nie wszyscy Polacy są biali, czyli o czym nie śniło się Norwidowi”
Jarosław Pietrzak, “Brzydkie słowo: Rasa”
An article about how the category of race has been formed over the years and its close relationship with the development of capitalism.
William Glass’s overview of sources on the history of white-on-black violence
The video of a white policeman kneeling on the neck of George Floyd seems to have finally broken through the willful ignorance of white Americans about the systematic and systemic violence suffered by black citizens. What may be less clear is the long history of this racialized brutality. It began as soon as captive Africans were put on slave ships, and those ships set sail on the middle passage. [Read more]
Printable reading list.