African American History Top Ten Booklist

John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom

The attempt to chronicle the African American past goes back to the 18th century. Free Black intellectuals traced the evolution of Black people in ways that contributed to the abolitionist movement and instilled a sense of identity for their free and enslaved brethren. By the late 19th century, professionally trained historians began to emerge, W.E.B. Du Bois being first among them. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, still the largest and most significant organization for the promotion of Black history. This association produced the earliest historical monographs. Their work also inaugurated an attempt to wield these formal tools in service to the continued assault against Jim Crow. Their efforts passed down to others in the twentieth century. By the 1980s, what some have dubbed the golden age of Black historiography, hundreds of Black historians began to rewrite the African American past. The tension between approaches resonant in mainstream American historiography and Black history remains. The idea has always suggested that something can be gained from a vantage point, drawn from the lives of African American works. This is a small sampling of this work.

1. Vincent Harding, There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America]. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

This books renders the African American experience as an epic journey of resistance, likening the latter to a river.

2. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruction Democracy in America, 1860-1880 New York: Russel and Russel, 1935.

Du Bois rewrites the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction amid the attempts to negate Black participation in both and the need to engage theories of the Left.

3. Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Morrow, 1984.

Giddings’ narrative history of Black women in America is one of the first of its kind, a product of the shift in Black women’s consciousness in the wake of the feminist movement.

4. Carter G. Woodson, The Negro in our History. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1922.

Woodson’s is one of the first textbook histories of the Black experience that was widely used in schools.

5. Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton, 1985.

Part of the push to examine the lives of enslaved women, White’s work offers much evidence that their experiences were nuanced and unique.

6. George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race in America, 1619 to 1880. New York: Putnam, 1885.

Williams’ two volume, thousand page work is often considered the first formal historical study of African America.

7. Cedric Robinson, Black Movements in America. New York: Routledge, 1997.

A short volume that considers African American experiences through the lens of mass movements for freedom.

8. Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

A consideration of Black women’s lives after the end of the Civil War and through the tumultuous years of Reconstruction and the Nadir.

9. William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1873.

An example of the kinds of “compendium” histories that were popular in the nineteenth century.

10. John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Knopf, 1947.

The still dominant text in use in college classrooms, has gone through successive editions and considers the journey of African Americans from a liberal perspective.