Recommended African American Readings

Where does African American history begin? Is it just the history of free people from Africa sold into bondage in the Americas? Should it begin with the free African explorers who helped to discover and settle a massive continent? Does it include the valiant soldiers who stood shoulder to shoulder with Patrick Henry and helped to free the American colonies from the iron fist of Great Britain's king? Can it exclude the repatriated Americo-Liberians and Caribbean-born Marcus Garvey's failed Black Star liner? Is there a place in African American history for the first black President, Barack Obama, whose African forbearers are not descendants of freed slaves?

At first glance, African American history seems to be a story of the road from slavery to freedom. However, an important clue points to a deeper story. Only one ethnic group in America refers to an entire continent, instead of a country, as their point of origin. The African odyssey in America encompasses many markers. Some are found in the ever-changing nomenclature that appears in this vibrant saga. From buffalo soldiers, from slave to freedmen, colored to Negro, and black to African American, these terms define important stations and passages.

The history of African Americans must include the dark years of Jim Crow that followed the Emancipation Proclamation up to and through the civil rights movement that claimed the lives of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. Lynchings, cross burnings, Dred Scott, the Quakers, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad stations from Ohio to Canada, and the color line are all elements of this extraordinary story.

Its fabric is woven with secret symbols in quilts, dreams deferred and aspirations realized. It must note the artistic achievements of Phyllis Wheatley, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay, assistance from Native Americans and the drinking gourd, gospel music, the blues, and jazz. The tragedies of Ibo Landing and the Tuskegee experiment, the triumph of Alex Haley's Roots, and Brown vs. Board of Education cannot be discounted. The exhortations and urgent calls to action from the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and SNCC must not be overlooked either. The March on Washington and a Birmingham church bombing that shocked our nation and the world are essential readings, too.

From the first black Harvard graduate to the first black president and the first black Navy seal, the achievements of countless courageous individuals have been recorded as the history of this race in America. The contributions of George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, the talented tenth, and every Mississippi sharecropper who stole away to Chicago to make a better life for those left behind are equally important pages in this chronicle. Read it to experience and understand the unique African American quest to reach the Promised Land.