Books and other written materials are a great entry point for talking about difficult topics like race and reconciliation. Here are some of the books and other writings we’ve found helpful. We encourage you to form a group and invite people to talk about their reactions and responses. Remember, the goal is not to get people to think or feel like you — it is to listen and hear each person’s response. Be respectful. Be honest. Be who you are. Listen with compassion, even if you don’t agree (even if you violently disagree). If we can learn to hear each other, we can begin to the build bridges that lead to reconciliation.
The Tracing Center has shared with us a helpful one-page introduction to the history of slavery: “A Closer Look at Myths About Slavery.” This can be a good starting point for discussion, and for thinking about topics for further reading.
- Edward E. Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014)
An introduction to the role of slavery in the economic development of the United States.
- Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014)
A new history of cotton (and therefore slavery) and their central role in the making of the modern world economy, by a Brown University historian.
- Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008)
The story of how slavery persisted, in other forms, for many black Americans in the century following emancipation.
- Alexandra A. Chan, Slavery in the Age of Reason: Archaeology at a New England Farm (2007)
An exploration of the lives of enslaved people and slave masters in New England, based on archaeological work done at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Mass., once a 500-acre slave plantation.
- Christy Clark-Pujara, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (2016)
Tells the entwined stories of those who suffered from, and profited by, slavery in Rhode Island. Highlights the centrality of slavery and slave-trading in the history of Rhode Island, and explores the experiences of free and enslaved people of African descent, and their resistance to chattel slavery.
- Gene Dattel, Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power (2009)
A study of the central role of cotton, and therefore of slavery and race, in the history of the United States, including the rise of the textile industry and northern commercial success, territorial expansion, and enduring economic power after emancipation.
- Anne Farrow et al., Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery (2005)
A highly readable introduction to the history of the North’s role in slavery and the slave trade.
- Elise Lemire, Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts (2009)
An exploration of the lives of enslaved people and slave masters in a quintessential New England town, more famous for being the home of leading abolitionists than for being a “slave town” for a century and a half. Addresses how emancipation unfolded in the North, as well, by showing how Concord first segregated its newly emancipated black population, and then systematically drove them away, even while the cause of abolition in the South was gradually becoming more fashionable in the North.
- Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (1998)
Explores how New England gradually and reluctantly emancipated its slaves in the generations leading up to the Civil War, and the implications of that process for the lives of formerly enslaved blacks and for the North’s creation of the myth of its racial innocence.
- Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2013)
MIT history professor offers the first book-length exploration of the ways in which U.S. institutions of higher learning, North and South, benefited from, and were deeply enmeshed in, the history of slavery and race. A good introduction to the ways in which all U.S. institutions, communities, and families are enmeshed in this history and its legacy.
Race and privilege
- Thomas Norman DeWolf, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History (2008)
Tom’s memoir traces his journey, with nine distant relatives, to uncover the history of their Rhode Island slave-trading ancestors, and to think about what this history means for all Americans today.
- Debby Irving, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (2014)
Debby’s memoir recounts how she gradually learned the privilege inherent in being white, and in not seeing that privilege or understanding how it operates.
- McIntosh, Peggy, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1988)
This is a classic summary of many of the ways in which white people, today, benefit from the privilege of being white in our society. This article is a good basis for beginning a nuanced discussion of privileges and disadvantages arising out of our nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination.
- Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (2010)
A highly readable account of the modern development of the idea of “race.” Ideal for understanding how race is socially constructed, not a biological reality; how people in most times and places have not known “race”; how the idea of race developed in the West; and how the evolution of the idea of “race” has proceeded along with with the interests of white people and the institution of whiteness.
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010)
Alexander, a civil rights attorney, examines our system of mass incarceration, tracing its origins and its impact. She argues that our criminal justice policies function as a form of racialized social control, parallel to the laws and norms of the Jim Crow era and arising out of that period.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)
This book, written in the form of a letter to the author’s black teenage son, speaks honestly and eloquently of the racial injustice his son must expect to face in our society, and of the courage he must summon in order to confront racism.
- Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014)
- James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) (study guide available HERE)
In this book, Cone, a noted theologian, draws a parallel between Jesus’ death on the cross and the lynching of black Americans in the Jim Crow era. He argues that there is a conflict inherent in being both black and a Christian, one which parallels the symbol of the cross, which evokes both Christ’s suffering and his promise for humanity. The paradox of the cross thus serves as an ideal symbol for addressing racism in the U.S. from a Christian perspective.