the fierce urgency of now…Black History reads for teens

In Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech he presses the American people to confront racism, to recognize “the fierce urgency of now” at that juncture of history. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off,” King says, “or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

His prophetic words were underscored just two weeks later when a bomb was detonated in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four precious, young, Black girls there for Sunday services.
For them, “now” was already too late.

Almost 60 years on, America still must grapple with “the fierce urgency of now,” must stanch the flow of multifaceted losses inflicted on Black Americans by overt and systemic racism.
White Americans need to cultivate an attitude of learning, a determination to open our eyes and minds to the story of race in America, to the crushing structural racism Black Americans have faced and still face, as well as the losses to our own humanity that stem from this oppression.

Recently I’ve been working on a chronological listing of Black History titles, and by doing so I’ve been able to see moments, aspects, and figures of Black history and the story of race in America that I have either overlooked or given scant attention in my blogging.
I am attempting to target those areas in my research and reading these days and the books on today’s list reflect that. Today’s titles document four important components of Black History and are best suited to ages 14 and up. Each makes an excellent adult read as well.
At the end of the post you’ll find a link to my Black History page
where almost 200 reviewed-and-recommended titles suitable for a wide age range are listed.

First on today’s list– books detailing the horrors of slavery.

In late January of this year, the white police chief of a small Georgia city resigned after a June recording from his body cam was discovered. In the recording this man says, “I know there were a lot of [slaves] mistreated; I don’t have any doubt about that. But for the most part, it seems to me like they furnished them a house to live in, they furnished them clothes to put on their back, they furnished them food to put on their table, and all they had to do was f—ing work.”

Although this man’s egregious and utterly misinformed ideas about slavery are extreme, a large number of Americans maintain some level of belief in the benevolence of slavery, or have troublingly complacent attitudes towards this grotesque, centuries-long practice in the Americas. Many children’s books about slavery focus primarily on escape stories, which are important. Too few, however, lay out for teens the abhorrent details of chattel slavery. Today I have three books that unmask these realities.

To Be a Slave, written by Julius Lester with paintings by Tom Feelings
originally published in 1968; 30th anniversary edition in 1998 by Puffin Books
160 pages

Winner of a Newbery Honor in 1969, this is a powerful compendium of excerpts from slave narratives with bridging commentary by Lester. These narratives were either written by formerly enslaved persons themselves or recorded in one of two major efforts to document their stories, first by northern abolition groups in the years just prior to the Civil War, and later by the Federal Writer’s Project which collected thousands of ex-slave narratives during the 1930s.

Here we read grievous accounts of capture, of surviving the horrors of the Middle Passage, of being put up for auction and watching helplessly one’s wife and children auctioned and carried off, of the grinding, day-to-day realities and brutal punishments of plantation life, of varied attempts at resistance to this inhumanity, of the ecstatic joy of emancipation and the cold reality of survival post-emanicipation. In short, we experience as vicariously as possible what it was to be a slave.

“To the sound of the whip and the shrieks of black men and women, the slave owner and America grew wealthy,” Lester remarks, “Yet it is all the more remarkable that even now the two hundred years of slavery are looked upon matter-of-factly and not as a time of unrelieved horror.” This pivotal title attempts to subvert that complacency. The introductory Author and Illustrator reflections are important additional pieces so don’t skip over them. Suggested age range: 14 to adult.

The Middle Passage: White Ships|Black Cargo, by Tom Feelings
originally published in 1995; updated with additional text in 2017 by Dial Books
80 pages

This is certainly the most emotionally-hardhitting book on the list today. Created by Tom Feelings, a distinguished, Black, fine artist, the core of the book is a sequence of 64 drawings narrating the terrifying brutality of the Middle Passage — the captives’ journey by ship from the coast of Africa to the Americas. Unaccompanied by any words of explanation, the haunting images land with stunning force on our imagination and soul.

Feelings’ soft charcoal images sweep over us in murky shadow and diffused light. We look, then look closer as though to make sense of what we are seeing. No attempt is made to soften the atrocities, barbarism, and gross inhumanity of this nightmare. Rather, Feelings focuses his lens on shocking ferocity, overwhelming sorrow, sexual assault, and numerous deaths that were all part of this ordeal. Throughout, the solemn humanity of those being tormented remains. These are not brute animals but soulful persons.

For the updated edition, several compelling introductions and essays are included which augment our understanding of this gallery: Tom Feelings’ original introduction eloquently describes the way he arrived at this project, the extraordinary process he undertook to create these pieces, and his hopes for its healing possibilities; Kadir Nelson shares the way he first encountered this work and how it impacted his art, and provides a helpful critique of Feelings’ artistic choices; Tom Feelings’ son relates the way he experienced this twenty-year-long effort of his father; and a lengthy, enlightening historical note by scholar Sylviane A. Diouf unpacks the origins of the transatlantic slave trade and the truly abhorrent realities of the Middle Passage. It’s a stunning offering. Suggested for ages 15 thru adult.

Stolen into Slavery: The True Story of Solomon Northup, Free Black Man, by Judith and Dennis Fradin
published in 2012 by National Geographic
120 pages

In 2013 the film Twelve Years a Slave was released and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film tells the story of Solomon Northup and is based on Northup’s autobiographical book of the same title, written in 1853.  This book, Stolen into Slavery, tells that same story in a version accessible to ages 14 and up.

Northup hailed from New York. He was a free Black man, married with children, who worked as a carpenter and hotel carriage driver. He was also a talented violinist and earned extra income through gigging. One horrific day, at age 32, he was kidnapped, imprisoned, horrifically beaten, then shipped to the South and sold into slavery.

For the next twelve years, Northup lived a true nightmare, enduring a grotesque degree of violence while hoping and secretly working to alert his wife and lawyers to his whereabouts.  His risky decisions to write a letter and entrust it to a Canadian abolitionist he encountered finally resulted in his being set free. The beastly nature of white violence towards Black persons, the capricious designations of enslaved and free, are strikingly portrayed in this heartbreaking narrative.

Next up — Reconstruction.
This short period of time between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the presidential election of 1876 had the potential to move equal rights forward but tragically was laid waste by the potent forces of white supremacy. I learned an enormous amount from this next title about that time period, chock full of Black Codes, Radical Republicans, duplicity, violence, political maneuvering and pivotal courtroom proceedings. Having read it, I am a bit shocked at how little I knew about this important era.

Unpunished Murder: Massacre at Colfax and the Quest for Justice, by Lawrence Goldstone
published in 2018 by Scholastic
226 + back matter

And right off I’ll tell you that despite the rather sensationalist title and cover image, the content of this book is largely a careful, lucid history of U.S. political events and Supreme Court decisions during Reconstruction. Goldstone is also the author of Stolen Justice which likewise studies the negative impacts of key Supreme Court decisions on civil rights. Here he takes on a wide sweep of Constitutional history, providing context for and demonstrating the enormous importance of the 1873 Colfax massacre and the ensuing United States vs. Cruikshank Supreme Court decision that ushered Jim Crow into the South.

He begins with a clear exposition of the debates and intentions of those who wrote, argued about, and ratified the U.S. Constitution, filling in details that I had never heard before. In the process, he elaborates on the established system of federal courts and concept of judicial review. He takes a long look at the Dred Scott case, the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the formation of the Radical Republicans who pressed the cause of justice and equality for Black Americans including passing the 14th and 15th Amendments, and the various chief justices of the Supreme Court. He highlights the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan and unfolds at length the political turmoil and violence in the South during Reconstruction — a fraught tug-of-war between Southern Democrat “Redeemers” seeking to maintain white supremacy and Republicans arguing to varying degrees for the rights of newly-freed Blacks.

All of this serves as context for his account of the vicious, cold-blooded massacre of at least 100 unarmed African Americans in the tiny town of Colfax, Louisiana and the ensuing 1877 Supreme Court decision that gutted the 14th and 15th Amendments’ protection of Black citizens, ushering in decades of unimpeded states’ rights and enabling Jim Crow laws and other legal forms of black subjugation to spring up extensively in the South as well as across the country.

It’s not a pretty book, I’ll grant you that. The design could surely have been made more appealing, but for the right readers it’s a gold mine.  I’d recommend it to ages 14 through adult and particularly those in the following categories 1) students reading it in tandem with an adult for a homeschool politics/history course, 2) those engaged in civil rights activism and/or with an interest in law or politics, 3) any adult wanting to better understand the role of the Supreme Court in the progress/regress of Civil Rights, 4) readers looking for a history of white supremacy in the U.S. It’s an unusually informative book; I certainly feel more grounded in U.S. history after finishing it. There are also many eerie parallels to the current uptick in militant white supremacy and our nation’s ongoing fight for racial equity, so the book reverberates with relevance.

I’ll also just note that young readers, especially, may be confused that in this era Republican politicians were the ones demanding equal rights for Black Americans while the Democrats were the party of Southern slaveholders.  It feels backwards to the current political maps. That’s because Southern Democrats eventually fled their party when it began advocating for civil rights during the FDR period and beyond, and essentially the racial platforms of the two parties were flipped with the political results we see today. If there was any question that race and politics have been inextricably fused since the dawn of the Republic, this book sets that to rest.

The third event covered in today’s collection is Emmett Till’s murder.
As I have almost entirely focused through the years on readers ages 12 and down, I have not included these weighty books before. Yet seeking to grasp the impact of his death on Black America is critical.

Getting Away With Murder: The Hate Crime that Helped Spark the Civil Rights Movement, by Chris Crowe
updated edition 2018 by SPEAK, Penguin Random House
144 pages

In his introduction, author Chris Crowe recounts the results of two surveys of U.S. high school history textbooks published between 1990 and 2016. The vast majority did not even mention the name of Emmett Till. White Americans can easily grow up with no knowledge of his death. In contrast Crowe reports that although Till’s murder took place over 65 years ago, many African Americans remember distinctly the time and place where they saw Till’s distressing photo in Jet magazine. His murder and sham trial were a principle lightning rod in the civil rights movement that followed. This is but one example of the gulf that exists between the ways Black and white Americans view and understand ourselves as a nation.

Crowe then launches immediately into the trial of Till’s murderers and their nearly instant acquittal by the all-white jury before pulling back and setting the pieces in place one by one. He paints the backdrop of Till’s relatively-free, northern childhood in 1940s-50s Chicago and the contrasting, simmering hostility in 1955 Mississippi, where an increasingly turbulent climate prevailed following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.

Relying on witness testimony and later interviews, Crowe reports what we know and don’t know about that fateful August day in Money, Mississippi, when a 14-year-old Black boy nonchalantly crossed a racial line considered unpardonable by at least some in the white community. He does not pull any punches in describing the violent, sickening details of the criminal actions that followed and the dreadful condition of Till’s body, discovered days later. One of the famed photos of Till’s battered face is included.  This section of the book is, obviously, the most painful and disturbing to read.

When Till’s self-confessed murderers were found not guilty, the American public, even many white Southerners, even whites in the surrounding communities, were outraged. Confusingly, Crowe states that the trial was one of Southern racism’s “last victories in its war against…racial equality.” This is obviously, tragically, not the case as is apparent even from Crowe’s own final chapter which draws parallels between Till’s death and the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. “[Martin’s] death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement are reminders that our nation has yet to fully realize the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment that all citizens are entitled to ‘equal protection of the laws,'” Crowe says. (To read many more examples of the miscarriage of justice in American courts, read Bryan Stevenson’s excellent book, Just Mercy.)

This is a tremendously sorrowful story. Although we meet a number of beautifully-courageous people along the way, we are confronted again and again with the vile hatred and toxic dangers of white supremacy. The fact that this young boy’s death and trial occurred just three months before Rosa Parks resisted bus segregation and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began — that is no accident. It was a despicable, momentous, triggering moment in civil rights history. I recommend this account for ages 14 through adult and stress that the 2018 update of the book contains important revisions so do look for that edition.

A Wreath for Emmett Till, written by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy
published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
48 pages

Those who are acquainted with the story of Emmett Till as well as the evils of lynching will find much to absorb in this award-winning, deeply-moving poetic tribute as well.

Nelson introduces her work by explaining her decision to craft a poem for young people about lynching including Emmett Till’s death. She goes on to elucidate the particular form she used here — “a heroic crown of sonnets.” It is an intricate structure of fifteen, interlinked pieces.

Each sonnet moves us forward in a somber progression of reflections. Along the way Nelson meditates on the horrors of lynching, the deep pain of Emmett’s mother, the unrealized potential of a life struck down so young, the monsters who carry out such violence, the fruits of living in fear of another race of human beings, and the brutal violence inflicted on Emmett.

Many teens are drawn to the power of poetry. Nelson’s piece is sophisticated, potent, emotional, and would make an excellent choice for reader’s theater. Recommended for ages 14 through adult.

Finally — the tumult of school integration,
brought to us via the memoir of a teen who was among the first to integrate a Southern white high school.
Although the Little Rock Nine have become synonymous with school integration, another group of students in Tennessee integrated their high school a year earlier.

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality, by Jo Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy
published in 2019 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
310 pages

Written in verse, this memoir tells the story of the twelve students who integrated Clinton High School in eastern Tennessee in 1956 from the perspective of 14-year-old Jo Ann Allen.

Two years after Brown vs. Board of Education, a U.S. District Judge in Knoxville ordered integration to move forward in the all-white Clinton High School. Reluctantly, but mostly uneventfully, the school began the process. Almost immediately, however, white segregationists from outside the community arrived to protest, including an extremist named John Kasper. He was easily able to incite large angry crowds. Vile threats and violence were unleashed on these young students and the adults who attempted to support them including the white principal and a white Baptist minister. Rioting and bomb threats by whites finally drew in the National Guard.

How did this story end? Why has the experience of these students in Tennessee been fairly lost to our collective memory? Jo Ann’s riveting, clear-sighted, powerful narrative is a profile in courage and a snapshot of the toxic fruits of extremism. It’s a superb read for ages 13 and up.


Find hundreds more excellent titles on my Black History page here.

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top image by Ekua Holmes