13 eye-opening essays and articles from Black writers you should have already read to understand America's problems with race

Crystal FlemingCrystal M. Fleming, author and associate professor of sociology and Africana Studies at SUNY Stony Brook, recommended works by Ida B. Wells and James Baldwin.
  • In the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice and police brutality, many Americans are taking steps to educate themselves about racism in the US.
  • Business Insider asked Black sociology, history, and literature experts to share the most important nonfiction essays and works of journalism by Black authors on race and racism in America.
  • The essays range from “A Report from Occupied Territory” by James Baldwin to “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, activists and thought leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement are calling on Americans to educate themselves on the history of race and racism in the US.

And people are listening. Right now, several books on The New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list are on race or white privilege. If you’re looking for more to read to understand the history of racism and white privilege in America, or if you’re not able to purchase a book at this time, consider reading works of journalism on race and oppression by Black authors.

Business Insider asked Black literary and historical experts to share their favourite works of journalism on race by Black authors. Here are the top pieces they recommended everyone read.

“Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” and “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States” by Ida B. Wells

Chicago History Museum/Getty ImagesIda B. Wells, pictured here in 1920.

In 1892, investigative journalist, activist, and NAACP founding member Ida B. Wells began to publish her research on lynching in a pamphlet titled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.” Three years later, she followed up with more research and detail in “The Red Record.”

Shirley Moody-Turner, associate Professor of English and African American Studies at Penn State University recommended everyone read these two texts, saying they hold “many parallels to our own moment.”

“In these two pamphlets, Wells exposes the pervasive use of lynching and white mob violence against African American men and women. She discredits the myths used by white mobs to justify the killing of African Americans and exposes Northern and international audiences to the growing racial violence and terror perpetrated against Black people in the South in the years following the Civil War,” Moody-Turner told Business Insider.

Read “Southern Horrors” here and “The Red Record” here>>

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesWriter and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, testified about reparations for the descendants of slaves during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee in June 2019.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, best-selling author and national correspondent for The Atlantic, made waves when he published his 2014 article “The Case for Reparations,” in which he called for “collective introspection” on reparations for Black Americans subjected to centuries of racism and violence.

“In his now famed essay for The Atlantic, journalist, author, and essayist, Ta-Nehisi Coates traces how slavery, segregation, and discriminatory racial policies underpin ongoing and systemic economic and racial disparities,” Moody-Turner said.

“Coates provides deep historical context punctuated by individual and collective stories that compel us to reconsider the case for reparations,” she added.

Read it here>>

“The Idea of America” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the “1619 Project” by The New York Times

Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody AwardsReporter Nikole Hannah-Jones attends The 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony in 2016.

In “The Idea of America,” Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones traces America’s history from 1619 onward, the year slavery began in the US. She explores how the history of slavery is inseparable from the rise of America’s democracy in her essay that’s part of The New York Times’ larger “1619 Project,” which is the outlet’s ongoing project created in 2019 to re-examine the impact of slavery in the US.

“In her unflinching look at the legacy of slavery and the underside of American democracy and capitalism, Hannah-Jones asks, ‘what if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we [Black Americans] have never been the problem but the solution,'” said Moody-Turner, who recommended readers read the whole “1619 Project” as well.

Read “The Idea of America” here and the rest of the “1619 Project here>>

“Many Thousands Gone” by James Baldwin

Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty ImagesJames Baldwin is best known for his works ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ ‘The Fire Next Time’ and ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain.’

In “Many Thousands Gone,” James Arthur Baldwin, American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist lays out how white America is not ready to fully recognise Black people as people. It’s a must read, according to Jimmy Worthy II, assistant professor of English at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

“Baldwin’s essay reminds us that in America, the very idea of Black persons conjures an amalgamation of specters, fears, threats, anxieties, guilts, and memories that must be extinguished as part of the labour to forget histories deemed too uncomfortable to remember,” Worthy said.

Read it here>>

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.

GettyMartin Luther King Jr. was the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.

On April 13 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists were arrested after peaceful protest in Birmingham, Alabama. In jail, King penned an open letter about how people have a moral obligation to break unjust laws rather than waiting patiently for legal change. In his essay, he expresses criticism and disappointment in white moderates and white churches, something that’s not often focused on in history textbooks, Worthy said.

“King revises the perception of white racists devoted to a vehement status quo to include white moderates whose theories of inevitable racial equality and silence pertaining to racial injustice prolong discriminatory practices,” Worthy said.

Read it here>>

“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” by Audre Lorde

Robert Alexander/Getty ImagesAfrican-American writer, feminist, poet and civil-rights activist Audre Lorde poses for a photograph during her 1983 residency at the Atlantic Centre for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

Audre Lorde, African American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist asks readers to not be silent on important issues. This short, rousing read is crucial for everyone according to Thomonique Moore, a 2016 graduate of Howard University, founder of Books&Shit book club, and an incoming Masters’ candidate at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.

“In this essay, Lorde explains to readers the importance of overcoming our fears and speaking out about the injustices that are plaguing us and the people around us. She challenges us to not live our lives in silence, or we risk never changing the things around us,” Moore said.Read it here>>

“The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Associated PressCoates is the author of several books including ‘Between the World and Me’ and ‘The Water Dancer.’

This essay from the award-winning journalist’s book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” details how Trump, during his presidency, employed the notion of whiteness and white supremacy to pick apart the legacy of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama.

Moore said it was crucial reading to understand the current political environment we’re in.

Read it here>>

“Just Walk on By” by Brent Staples

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for The New York TimesDirector Roger Ross Williams and New York Times writer Brent Staples speak in 2019 in Park City, Utah.

In this essay, Brent Staples, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The New York Times, hones in on the experience of racism against Black people in public spaces, especially on the role of white women in contributing to the view that Black men are threatening figures.

For Crystal M. Fleming, associate professor of sociology and Africana Studies at SUNY Stony Brook, his essay is especially relevant right now.

“We see the relevance of his critique in the recent incident in New York City, wherein a white woman named Amy Cooper infamously called the police and lied, claiming that a Black man – Christian Cooper – threatened her life in Central Park. Although the experience that Staples describes took place decades ago, the social dynamics have largely remained the same,” Fleming told Business Insider.

Read it here>>

“I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman” by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty ImagesTressie McMillan Cottom at the 70th National Book Awards Ceremony & Benefit Dinner in November 2019.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an author, associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty affiliate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society. In this essay, Cottom shares her gut-wrenching experience of racism within the healthcare system.

Fleming called this piece an “excellent primer on intersectionality” between racism and sexism, calling Cottom one of the most influential sociologists and writers in the US today.Read it here>>

“A Report from Occupied Territory” by James Baldwin

Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty ImagesJames Baldwin lived from 1924 to 1987.

Baldwin’s “A Report from Occupied Territory” was originally published in The Nation in 1966. It takes a hard look at violence against Black people in the US, specifically police brutality.

“Baldwin’s work remains essential to understanding the depth and breadth of anti-black racism in our society. This essay – which touches on issues of racialized violence, policing and the role of the law in reproducing inequality – is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to understand just how much has not changed with regard to police violence and anti-Black racism in our country,” Fleming told Business Insider.Read it here>>

“I’m From Philly. 30 Years Later, I’m Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing” by Gene Demby

JC Olivera/Getty ImagesGene Demby pictured here with his colleague NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates in 2019.

On May 13, 1985, a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the MOVE compound in Philadelphia, which housed members of the MOVE, a black liberation group founded in 1972 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Eleven people, including five children, died in the airstrike. In this essay, Gene Demby, co-host and correspondent for NPR’s Code Switch team, tries to wrap his head around the shocking instance of police violence against Black people.

“I would argue that the fact that police were authorised to literally bomb Black citizens in their own homes, in their own country, is directly relevant to current conversations about militarised police and the growing movement to defund and abolish policing,” Fleming said.Read it here>>

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