Critics who decry Black History Month celebrations often claim they focus too much on well-known figures and personalities and don’t reaffirm the importance of recognizing African-American accomplishments on a regular basis. But a series of new books by noted scholars and authors refute those contentions. While they certainly cover familiar names and major events, they also demonstrate why these people and places have not only affected the lives of black people, but changed the course of history in a manner that affects all Americans.
The political passions of youth
Wesleyan University history professor Andrew B. Lewis’ The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation spotlights the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), established in 1960, whose members were younger and more radical than their counterparts in the NAACP and other black organizations. Through interviews with key members Marion Barry, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash and Bob Zellner, he examines the sit-ins, voter registration drives and protest marches that led to the dismantling of state-sanctioned segregation throughout the South.
But the book also shows the split within SNCC between those who felt America could be changed politically (Bond, Barry and John Lewis) and others who were convinced that black America’s only hope was a philosophy of self-determination that ultimately became known as “Black Power” (Stokely Carmichael, H. “Rap” Brown). Unfortunately, this conflict splintered SNCC, as did the Democratic Party’s decision to withdraw federal support, largely due to fears about the group’s direction. Still, The Shadows of Youth shows that SNCC had a large, mostly positive impact on the Civil Rights movement, and that its major goals weren’t nearly as radical as many claimed.
Building a landmark case
Attorney and author Rawn James Jr.’s Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle To End Segregation examines the celebrated 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case by profiling the lives of its two principal architects. Charles Hamilton Houston, the first black man on the Harvard Law Review, was a brilliant lawyer and teacher, and Thurgood Marshall was one of his students at Howard University. This pair opened the NAACP’s legal office and spent years devising the legal campaign against educational disparity that culminated in the Brown case. Sadly, Hamilton died before the case was fully developed, but Marshall would victoriously argue it, and ultimately end up on the Supreme Court himself after breaking the back of the “separate but equal” philosophy of education.
Migration and culture
University of Maryland Distinguished Professor of History Ira Berlin’s The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations studies four centuries of black relocation to and within America. Berlin begins with the first two migrations—the forced relocation of Africans to America in the 17th and 18th centuries and the movement of slaves to the interior of the South during the 19th century. Berlin also presents what he deems an updated approach to African-American culture, one that doesn’t just cover progress from slavery to civil rights, but also incorporates the struggles of more recent black immigrants to the U.S. He draws comparisons, for example, between the two most recent migrations—the movement of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North and Midwest between 1915 and 1970 and the growth of the foreign-born black population in the U.S. that mushroomed during the last part of the 20th century. Berlin believes that the cultural and social contributions to both black life and America in general by recent immigrants from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and other areas have been sizable and often overlooked. The Making of African America contains its share of controversial views about black culture, but it is thoroughly researched and well-documented.
Nina Simone: a life divided
Award-winning journalist Nadine Cohodas has previously penned definitive books on Dinah Washington and Chess Records, and her latest biography covers a beloved, misunderstood icon. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone profiles a complex, immensely gifted performer whose frequently acerbic personality and willingness to openly confront injustice often obscured her instrumental and vocal brilliance.
Classically trained as a youngster, then denied a chance to attend the Curtis Institute of Music due to racism, Simone (born Eunice Waymon) divided her professional life between forging a brilliant sound that blended jazz, classical and pop influences and political activism. Cohodas illuminates Simone’s close friendships with playwright Lorraine Hansberry and author James Baldwin, her clashes with promoters, record labels, ex-husbands and audiences, and her remarkable musical achievements.
As with all the books mentioned here, Princess Noire has special meaning for black Americans, but tells a story that’s important for everyone to know.
Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and other publications.