Must reads in African American History


Over the last several months, I read two books that any teacher of US History should be aware of: "The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery," edited by Rochelle Riley, with a foreword by Nikole Hannah-Jones, and "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America," by Richard Rothstein.

The first book is a set of shorter and longer essays by a range of authors on topics such as Black women and the "legacies of defiance;" a military family descended from slaves; "sports industries as plantations;"  "everyday rebellions;" and civil rights and schools, among other topics. All of these essays are compelling; some of them are downright poetic. One could use the book as a set of meditations on "the burden" and legacy of slavery for personal introspection and reflection. One could also use the book as part of a class, study group, or book club.

The second book was described by the NY Times as "a powerful and disturbing history of residential segregation in America." In the book, Rothstein argues that there is no such thing as "de facto" segregation since US policy from the early 20th century on not only tacitly supported segregation but promoted it in multiple ways--through the New Deal and its various laws and agents and auxiliaries that the federal government underwrote, like home builders (e.g., Levittown), mortgage lenders, and the construction industry responsible for the federal highway system. Some of what Rothstein describes can also be found in other books like "Crabgrass Frontier", but as far as I know there has never been such a comprehensive look at how the federal government, in violation of the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments basically operated in unconstitutional fashion in promoting segregation, effectively making it through its policies de jure rather than de facto segregation. 

Rothstein makes a direct connection between these policies and the Supreme Court cases in 2007 on school integration (Seattle, Louisville) and Chief Justice John Roberts 'misrepresentation of our history' in his written opinions and examples of recent racial unrest like that a few years ago in Ferguson, Missouri.  Rothstein writes: "When Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that if residential segregation 'is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications,' he set forth a principle. But the principle supported his conclusion--that government remedies for segregation were impermissible--only because he assumed an inaccurate factual background: that residential segregation was mostly created by private choices. We need not argue with the chief justice's principle; his jurisprudence is flawed mainly because he and his colleagues got their facts wrong" (p. 215).

And it is little wonder that even well-educated Americans are ignorant of this history. As Rothstein also touches upon earlier in the book, history textbooks either pay no attention to this history or present the past in ways that let those responsible for segregation off the hook. Here's one example from "The Americans":"African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods" (p. 199). Who did the forcing or how segregation came to be the law of the land is overlooked.

Readers of these books will gain powerful insights that will allow them to teach against the grain of such problematic renditions of this nation's past.

 Dr. Margaret Crocco
Chairperson, Department of Teacher Education
Michigan State University