Matt Gifford

If you’ve been following Nashville’s meteoric rise to It City status, you’ve surely heard about its famous hot chicken—fried chicken smothered with enough cayenne pepper to make your ears smoke. As the legend goes, in the early 20th century, a jilted lover overspiced Thornton Prince III’s chicken to punish him for his ramblin’ ways. This revenge backfired, however, because Prince loved the taste and eventually founded a successful restaurant based on the recipe, which his family still operates today.

Native Nashvillians and tourists alike have come to know and love this delicacy over the last decade, but members of Music City’s Black community have been braving the spice for generations. No matter when you learned about this iconic fare, Rachel Louise Martin’s Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story will enlighten you about its complex past.

This isn’t a recipe book, nor is it merely a culinary history of the spicy dish. In Hot, Hot Chicken, Martin traces Prince’s lineage back to the Civil War, illustrating the experiences of Black people in antebellum Tennessee along the way. She outlines how Prince’s grandparents were likely enslaved at a plantation south of Nashville. Pre-Emancipation records are spotty, and many details have been lost to time, but they may have lived in the Black refugee camps that formed on the outskirts of the city during the Civil War. Records of African Americans became more detailed after the war and show that the Princes went on to become sharecroppers and house servants, washing white Nashvillians’ clothes before becoming fledgling restaurateurs.

Alongside the Princes’ family history, Martin draws on her meticulous research to demonstrate what life was like for other Black people in Nashville during the Reconstruction, Jim Crow and civil rights eras through today. As she progresses through the city’s past, she explains how city planners isolated Black citizens in bleak slums without plumbing or electricity. White landlords exploited the people living in these neighborhoods, but entrepreneurs such as Prince and his brother found a way out of poverty by preparing and selling food.

As Martin scours a historical record designed to exclude Black Americans, she admirably pieces together tales from individuals known and unknown. Her tone is both ebullient and reverent as she unearths the lives of Black people across the South, handling their history with care. Hot, Hot Chicken is an eye-opening, ingenious history that makes Nashville come alive in ways that transcend its downtown honky tonks—and will leave you with a newfound respect for the sizzling food on your plate.

Hot, Hot Chicken is an eye-opening, ingenious history that makes Nashville come alive in ways that transcend its downtown honky tonks.

Why can’t we have nice things? Depending on your lot in life, you may ponder this from time to time. Things like easy access to health care, fair public utilities, unions that provide job security and protect worker rights—these are all societal gains that many other nations have achieved. So why can’t the United States, the wealthiest nation on the planet, provide these and other amenities to every citizen?

This is the question that Heather McGee, former director of the think tank Demos, asks in The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. She ably moves through some of the largest infrastructural deficiencies in the U.S. and explains how a zero-sum mindset, combined with the constant plague of systemic racism, have led to fewer amenities for all.

McGhee’s anecdotes about the past read like cautionary parables for the future. For instance, throughout the 1920s, the Works Progress Administration built hundreds of public swimming pools across the nation to provide relief from the summer sun. But after federal courts ruled that segregated swimming was unconstitutional, many cities opted to fill their grandest pools with concrete rather than allow Black swimmers to use them. And so no one got relief from the heat.

McGhee unpacks how this kind of thinking shows up in every sector of society. Businesses have stoked racial mistrust to divide unions in their factories, using social capital to turn workers against collective bargaining. Years of accumulated racial resentment have kneecapped attempts to provide universal healthcare coverage, from Harry Truman’s era to Barack Obama’s. State-subsidized college tuition and affordable housing were vilified as handouts for the undeserving poor, which led to absurdly high tuition rates and the housing market crash of 2008.

Supported by remarkable data-driven research and thoughtful interviews with those directly affected by these issues, McGhee paints a powerful picture of the societal shortfalls all around us. There is a greater, more just America available to us, and McGhee brings its potential to light.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The Sum of Us is excellent on audiobook, read by the author.

Heather McGee moves through some of the largest infrastructural deficiencies in the U.S. and explains how systemic racism has led to fewer amenities for all.

Our national conversation about anti-Black racism made 2020 a pivotal year—painful for many, cathartic for others, memorable to all. Now a new year brings new opportunities to listen to Black voices and stories. Pick up one of these titles to deepen your knowledge of our country’s past, and join the chorus of voices advocating for a better future.

Ida B. the Queen

Ida B. Wells gets the royal treatment in Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells, written by Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter.

From the 1890s through the early 20th century, Wells was a pioneering activist and journalist who fought racism by publicizing heinous acts of violence toward Black Americans during the Jim Crow era. Crafted with empathy for and intimate knowledge of this American icon, the book recounts Wells’ many groundbreaking achievements, which caused the FBI to dub her a “dangerous negro agitator” in her time. Unlike in a typical biography, however, Duster integrates her own perspective of her great-grandmother into this narrative, inspecting her family’s legacy along the way. Duster also outlines the cultural impact Wells had on her contemporaries, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, and draws a throughline from Wells’ defiant voice at the turn of the 20th century to the struggle for Black lives today.

In addition to its compelling content, this book is also drop-dead gorgeous. Vibrant illustrations of Wells and other important history makers, such as Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Malcolm X and Bree Newsome, add even more color to their colorful lives. Wells was righteously indignant and wise beyond her era, and Duster translates her drive to today’s racial discourse with insight and grace.

★ Four Hundred Souls

If you’re looking for a single work that spans the entirety of the Black experience in America, pick up a copy of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. This comprehensive meditation on Black history in the United States features 90 noteworthy Black authors and poets ruminating on the last 400 years—beginning with the date of the first recorded arrival of enslaved people from Africa on these shores.

Each author reflects on five years in America, focusing on a different “person, place, thing, idea, or event”—such as Phillis Wheatley, Oregon, cotton, queer sexuality and the war on drugs. At the end of each 40-year section, a poet captures that historical period in verse. With contributions from huge names in the community of Black thought leaders, such as Nikole Hannah-Jones, Isabel Wilkerson, Angela Davis and Jamelle Bouie, just to name a few, the scope of the writing is immense and powerful, the content both celebratory and harrowing.

You may feel drawn to this book because of its heavy-hitting roster of big names, but look forward to widening your familiarity with more up-and-coming writers, too. With so many authors and topics represented in these pages, you’re sure to gain new insight about every tumultuous period in our nation’s history.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Four Hundred Souls is the year’s most astounding full-cast audiobook production. Go behind the scenes with Kendi, Blain and the producers.

Julian Bond’s Time to Teach

One valuable yet often overlooked leader in the fight for Black equality is finally getting his due in Julian Bond’s Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. The late author’s lectures from his prolific teaching career, assembled here for the first time, are full of firsthand lessons from his direct involvement in the civil rights movement.

As one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Bond participated in myriad sit-ins and protests in the Southern United States and even worked directly with Martin Luther King Jr. Later he became an elected member of both the Georgia House of Representatives and the Georgia Senate and then began teaching at institutions such as Harvard, the University of Virginia and American University. As a lifelong activist, Bond not only protested for Black civil rights but was also an early advocate for LGBTQ rights and rights for disabled people, long before any legislation, courts or popular thought addressed these needs.

Reflecting his storied life of activism, Bond’s lectures offer a road map of the history of the United States and white supremacy, covering the formation of the NAACP, the treatment of Black soldiers through World War II, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and other milestones. Along the way, he meticulously details the daily efforts to build and expand the Southern civil rights movement throughout the 20th century, highlighting the contributions of many underrecognized individuals.

During his life, Bond wanted to educate the world about the history of the Black experience, as well as about the nuts and bolts of starting and maintaining a protest movement. With this posthumous collection, and with the help of the editors who assembled it, he can finally share his teachings with the broad audience he deserves.

★ A Shot in the Moonlight

Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by a mob outside your house, calling your name, accusing you of crimes that you didn’t commit. Then imagine that they start throwing explosives and firing guns at your house, at your family. You defend yourself and your home as best you can, and one of the assailants dies from the intervening fight. Suddenly you find yourself, a Black man, a formerly enslaved person, fleeing through 1890s Kentucky, trying to stay out of the hands of lynch mobs. With the Ku Klux Klan and newspapers calling for your execution, you’re forced to put your life in the hands of a lawyer who fought to uphold slavery.

This complicated tale is masterfully told in Ben Montgomery’s A Shot in the Moonlight: How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Soldier Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South. Montgomery, the Tampa Bay Times journalist who covered the Dozier School for Boys (which would later inspire Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys), guides us through the events that took place on the night of January 21, 1897, at the home of George Dining.

A Shot in the Moonlight reads like a riveting thriller, with multiple moving pieces and conflicting perspectives, but historical artifacts such as newspaper excerpts and first-person accounts also give it journalistic depth. Set during an era when being Black and accused of a crime was almost a guaranteed death sentence, this gripping history offers hope through the actions of an unlikely cast of characters who sought to save a man from a cruel and vindictive fate.

Soul City

If you’re looking for something lower octane that still offers an intriguing exploration of what could have been, take a trip to Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia. Author Thomas Healy tells the story of Soul City, North Carolina, an intentional community founded in the 1970s by the Black lawyer Floyd McKissick, aimed at helping Black people achieve the American dream. While not an exclusively Black community, Soul City was intended to be a place for Black people to grow, prosper economically and exercise their hard-won civil rights outside of segregated cities.

Envisioning a city whose main streets were named after the likes of Nat Turner, John Brown and Dred Scott, McKissick lobbied for help from the federal government to pursue his municipal dream, and surprisingly, the Nixon administration eventually granted him the seed money. However, despite years of effort, the town is now little more than a blip on the historical radar. And by some dark irony, Soul City’s largest industry today is the operation of a for-profit prison. 

So what happened? Was Soul City doomed from the beginning, like so many ambitious utopian experiments? As Healy shows, it’s not that simple. Soul City’s bumpy background is littered with statewide backlash, legislative resistance and financial undercutting, which prevented the project from flourishing. This chronicle of what went wrong, and who wanted it to go wrong, outlines both missteps by the city’s planners as well as outside obstacles that contributed to the experiment’s failure. Even so, McKissick’s shining vision for Soul City will inspire readers to dream of what kinds of communities we could create next.

The Black Panther Party

For education that’s easy on the eyes, snag The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History by David F. Walker (The Life of Frederick Douglass). Beautifully illustrated by Marcus Kwame Anderson and supremely informative, this graphic novel offers a digestible history of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party, correcting many negative assumptions about them while still addressing their flaws.

The book especially excels in illuminating the motives of the party’s founders, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. Their original aims were to improve community security, defy the tactics of racist police departments, provide free community breakfast and offer support to underserved youth. However, the party’s faulty decision-making, along with efforts by police institutions and the FBI to sabotage the party every step of the way, led to its ultimate unraveling.

A breeze to read and a feast for the eyes (and mind), this book is perfect for every burgeoning revolutionary.

A new year brings new opportunities to listen to Black voices and stories. Pick up one of these titles to deepen your knowledge of our country’s past, and join the chorus of voices advocating for a better future.

Five new books celebrate the perseverance, perspicacity and power of black Americans.

How should we talk about black history in a time like ours? Today’s political landscape definitely prompts discussion, debate and introspection, and it may warrant speaking bluntly about the state of things. When it comes to race, it’s hard to say if the world is more apt to listen to a benevolent voice or a belligerent demand, but luckily, these books have a little bit of both. As we reflect on the rich contributions of black Americans this month, the following titles make for compelling, relevant and worthy conversation starters.

Conversations in Black

Begin with Conversations in Black. Ed Gordon has assembled a who’s who of black voices in conversation with each other, discussing the world as they see it in 2020. We have Al Sharpton bouncing thoughts off of Charlamagne Tha God, Jemele Hill dissecting Obama’s legacy with Stacey Abrams, and Killer Mike and Harry Belafonte getting into it with Eric Holder. Together, they discuss the treatment of the black community during the Trump administration, the successes and failures of politicians in addressing racial disparity, reparations, the racial wealth gap and so much more. With so many voices animating the expanse of black experiences today, this is the perfect gateway to richer comprehension and, hopefully, conversation.

The Affirmative Action Puzzle

The past few years have seen renewed discussion of affirmative action, with several state legislatures reversing benefits, colleges rolling back programs and no shortage of incensed think pieces on both sides of the issue. If you’re looking to educate yourself on this complicated subject, look no further than The Affirmative Action Puzzle. Author Melvin I. Urofsky traces the development of affirmative action over the generations, beginning with hypothetical (and ultimately abandoned) motions to grant civil rights and reparations at the close of the Civil War, through the incremental fight to access voting, up to the current debate during the Trump era. With this exhaustive history under your belt, you’ll have no shortage of insights for your next roundtable discussion.

Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words

We all know Rosa Parks as the woman who bravely resisted yielding her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus in 1955, but there’s so much more to the story of this titan of American history—and who better to tell that story than her? In Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words, author Susan Reyburn provides a candid look into Parks’ personal life through previously unreleased letters, documents and photographs. The book is small enough to breeze through in one sitting, and its 96 colorful pages illustrate Parks’ innermost thoughts, fears and triumphs—from her work with the NAACP leading up to the bus boycott, through her years of relative poverty afterward and ending with her eventual glorification, meeting world leaders and seeing the impact of her life’s work upon the world. This courageous woman packed so much into her life, and likewise, the details of her life are packed into this inspiring portrait.

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice

Not all of America’s black heroes won their victories by sitting down. In fact, the athletes profiled in Olympic Pride, American Prejudice ran race after race to cement their names in the history books, at a time when they weren’t allowed to even walk through the front door of many American establishments. In an accessible narrative style, authors Deborah Riley Draper and Travis Thrasher weave together the stories of 18 different runners coming into their prime at the dawn of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and culminating in their powerful performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics—much to the dismay of Adolf Hitler. These athletes came from all walks of life, from college students to dock workers to housewives, and competed on the world stage decades before any meaningful civil rights progress was made in the U.S. These historic track and field stars come to life in full relief on the page, revealing their fears, internal debates and complicated relationships with a power structure that simultaneously exalted and shamed them. How do you represent a country that hates you, and should you even try? It’s a complicated question, and one that is well trod in this book.

These historic track and field stars come to life in full relief on the page, revealing their complicated relationships with a power structure that simultaneously exalted and shamed them.

Driving While Black

It’s a long journey on the road to equality, and it’s a bumpy road, at that. If you’re feeling a little highway weary, I’d recommend pulling over, taking a pit stop and cracking open a copy of Driving While Black by Gretchen Sorin. Like most civil rights, vehicular freedom was a cultural battle that took several extra decades to be actualized for African Americans. Once black Americans began to drive, personal automobiles became instrumental to progressive milestones like the Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955, in which fleets of community vehicles carried activists to and from work in lieu of buses. But dangers still abounded for black Americans behind the wheel, due to segregation, Jim Crow laws and white-supremacist terrorist groups running rampant across America. Driving While Black also chronicles the rise of car culture in tandem with rock ’n’ roll music (Chuck Berry loved his Cadillacs), as well as the vast network of black-friendly establishments outlined in the popular Green Book. Feeling gassed up yet? Grab this book to-go and get to reading.

Today’s political landscape definitely prompts discussion, debate and introspection, and it may warrant speaking bluntly about the state of things. When it comes to race, it’s hard to say if the world is more apt to listen to a benevolent voice or a belligerent demand, but luckily, these books have a little bit of both.

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