African American History Month: Some Reading Recommendations

Harriet Jacobs (c. 1894)

The internet can be a great place to start exploring resources regarding African American History Month.  In my teaching, I return again and again to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South project, which contains a number of different collections including “North American Slave Narratives.”  While the collection features the stories of famous abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, it’s worth checking out some of the less familiar items too.  One intriguing source is Benjamin Drew’s work with “fugitive slaves in Canada.” Drew interviewed African Americans who had fled the institution of slavery first by escaping into the North, but who then abandoned the United States entirely when their freedom seemed threatened again.  Initially, many had fled bondage in the U.S. South and resettled in a northern state that prohibited slavery.  In 1850, however, the United States Congress passed a stronger Fugitive Slave Act, which “made the hunting down of escaped slaves, even in free states, fully legal.”  The already tenuous freedom of those who had escaped seemed even more so, and the people Drew interviewed had made the difficult decision to safeguard their freedom by leaving the United States entirely.  While the voices of these stories attest to the barbaric qualities inherent in the institution of slavery as practiced in the United States and its reach beyond the Mason-Dixon line, they also illuminate the tenacity and strength of the human beings fighting for their freedom.

Nella Larsen

The long reach of a racially-based system of slavery as practiced in the United States is also evident in the history of “racial passing.” The Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History notes that the term refers to “a crossing of a line that divides social groups.” The term “is used most frequently, however, as if it were short for ‘passing for white,’ in the sense of crossing over the color line in the United States from the black to the white side.”  As even the entry in Wikipedia outlines, the literature on the topic is vast.  My introduction to the topic came by way of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, which deals with the phenomenon in the context of early twentieth century Chicago and New York.  The manageable length of the novel, combined with the complexity of the subject, make it an ideal primary text for the classroom–or, in my case, an informal book club among friends.  For an academic treatment of the history of passing, I’d encourage folks to check out Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs’ A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.  And, if you don’t have time for the full book, check out Hobbs’ TED talk on the subject.

Finally, how about one poem?  Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” is worth the two minutes it will take to read it.

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.

Nor do I often want to be a part of you.

But we are, that’s true!

As I learn from you,

I guess you learn from me–

although you’re older–and white–

and somewhat more free.


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