Dwayne Allen Thomas

The Cross-Examined Life

4 Books You Should Read Before Black History Month Ends

Some of my favorite reads for Black History Month.

Posted Feb 15, 2020

When Kobe Bryant passed away last month, I shared an article highlighting stories about his extreme dedication to practice in tribute. I could’ve rattled off statistics—five NBA championships, two numbers retired with the same team, that time he scored 81 points, etc.—but I found the stories about how he attained that level of success far more interesting. In one, then-Assistant Coach Bill Bertka took away a 17-year-old Bryant’s keys to the Lakers' practice facility so that he wouldn’t overwork himself. Bryant still found a way into the facility—by sticking a sock in the door.

Our knowledge of historical figures is often limited to a few bullet points, framing people in terms of accomplishments and taglines. This focus spills over into Black History Month, where vignettes often focus on the fact that a person was the first to break the color barrier in some field. But, like Kobe, the accomplishments we celebrate may not be the most interesting part of the story.

And maybe if we hear more about their background, our perception of historical figures might shift closer to, “This is a real person whose life I can learn from.” It is with this thought in mind that I share the following books.

Levels of the Game by John McPhee

This book is about a tennis match. I don’t follow tennis. I read this book in two days. McPhee is often praised for his writing skills, but his research skills turn the play-by-play of a 1968 match between Arthur Ashe and Car Graebner into a story about race, class, upbringing, competition, and respect.  

Deep Like the Rivers (Education in the Slave Quarter Community 1831-1865) by Thomas L. Webber

What do you know about how the people held as slaves in the United States lived their lives? It’s too bad you can’t just ask them. But, people did.

During the Depression, one of the projects taken by writers working for The Federal Writers’ Project was to interview former slaves, resulting in a large database of information about people who might not have otherwise shared their stories. Some of these stories led to this book, which tells stories about how people lived their lives when slave owners weren’t around. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say there’s more joy than one might expect.

Locking up our Own by James Forman, Jr.

A mostly black city. A mostly black police force. A black mayor. A rash of violence, thanks to crack. How did they handle it? Hold on to your hat…

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice by Thomas F. Jackson

My favorite pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., are the ones of him sitting on the table with a pool cue behind his back about to take a shot, and the one of him and his family in a two-door car that appears to be a pony car. After years of seeing only his "I Have a Dream" speech, these were surprising. I wouldn’t have thought that the person who gave the speech was some cool guy, but apparently, he was both.

Likewise, this biography presents a different King than we’re used to—instead of the person whose legacy is remembered as saying we should judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, King’s ideas evolve. Near the end of his life, he was coming to realize that economics, not race, was the issue we should be concerned about. This book covers that transition.

These and other books helped me shift my understanding of black history from a set of terrible events to a sea of actions taken by people who, even in the worst circumstances, often managed to stick a sock in the door and do exactly what they wanted. I hope you get a chance to read one or more. If you do, let me know your thoughts!

A version of this article appears on my personal blog.