Black history is so much more than the collective memory of trauma. It would be fundamentally wrong, if not outright degrading, to conclude that that the identities of black men and women are simply limited to their resilience. These four books showcase the rich spectrum of black identity.
The sacrifices that black women make in order to practice resistance and seek social and political freedom are too often diminished by the expectation of selfless service. However, in DaMaris B. Hill’s poetry collection A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, she utilizes the powerful narratives of black women from history such as Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer, alongside rarely celebrated figures relegated to the shadows, to give these women a chance to exist beyond the roles of activist or martyr. By utilizing biographical research and black-and-white archival photos, in conjunction with her verse, Hill creates an intimate atmosphere that allows for a rich exploration of fully formed heroines. Hill recognizes that these women don’t have to be perfect representations of freedom fighters in order to garner respect, sympathy and admiration. While racism and bigotry may have bound these women physically, mentally and/or emotionally, their narratives are not bound by struggle. For Hill, these women are not anyone’s mules: They are soothsayers, truth-tellers, mavericks and revolutionaries.
For author, professor and acclaimed academic Emily Bernard, facing adversities as a black woman in America has spawned the invaluable and hard-won ability to take control of her own narrative. Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine consists of 12 personal essays brimming with equal parts hope and fury, joy and pain. Whether exploring the delicate dynamics of her interracial marriage, the haunting memory of being stabbed by a white man while she was a graduate student at Yale or the process of adopting her twin daughters from Ethiopia, Bernard’s writing is intimate, honest and unafraid of diving into gray areas. Although society at large may deem the black body—and by extension, blackness—as synonymous with suffering, Bernard’s collection doesn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes scars are proof of life beyond the state of survival.
The official start of the civil rights movement is often linked to the day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Yet in Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel highlights a horrifying case of racial violence and brutality that propelled President Truman to directly address civil rights issues, namely the violence facing black veterans returning from World War II. On February 12, 1946, decorated black veteran Sgt. Isaac Woodard was on his way home to South Carolina via a Greyhound bus. Following a disagreement with the bus driver, Woodard was removed from the bus in Batesburg, South Carolina, by the town’s two-man police unit. Without allowing Woodward to finish explaining his side of the events, Chief Lynwood Shull struck Woodard in the head with his police baton, placed the veteran under arrest, repeatedly beat him to the point of unconsciousness and left him in a county jail cell overnight. Woodard was beaten so severely that the violence resulted in permanent blindness. Gergel’s reconstruction of this moment in history is both enraging and heartbreaking. With a clear-eyed view of the ripple effect of shocking acts of violence, Gergel traces how the blinding of Woodard ignited black communities, the NAACP and sympathetic allies to seek justice and demand that Truman take action. Combining research and a deep knowledge of the country’s legal system, Gergel exposes America’s longstanding legacy of brutalizing black bodies to preserve a vision of America fueled by the destructive force of white supremacy.
Despite their scars, not all historical heroines should be considered tragic figures. For black women at the turn of the 20th century, their struggles involved indignities faced not only because of the color of their skin but also because of their gender. Yet the double-edged sword of being both black and female couldn’t keep some women from pursuing self-autonomy and self-governance, as chronicled in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. Guggenheim fellow, author and Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman sheds light on women who refused to conform to societal bonds and malicious institutions that were determined to keep them downtrodden, enslaved and hopeless. For Hartman, the purpose of this meticulously researched collection is not to wallow in despair, but to celebrate and lift up the plethora of black women who are largely absent from history books. Hartman argues that by rejecting the expectations of their gender and race, these women are unrecognized revolutionaries who were committed to self-discovery in spite of the obstacles obstructing their paths.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Emily Bernard for Black Is the Body.