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Juneteenth: A reading list

June 16, 2022
A collage of books about the Black American experience.

Last year, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making Juneteenth a federal holiday — the first time a new federal holiday has been introduced since Martin Luther King Jr. Day became one in 1983. While many Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth for decades (or even a century), for others the holiday on June 19 is still new and there is much to learn about what it is and what it signifies.

Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved people there that they were free, some two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation. Sometimes called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, the holiday has a rich history of celebration, remembrance and education that is continuing today on a larger, national scale. VCU News asked faculty, as well as staff from VCU Libraries, to suggest books that help readers understand and celebrate Juneteenth and all that it represents.

‘We Are Each Other's Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy’ 

By Natalie Baszile

Book cover for ‘We Are Each Other's Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy’

“We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy” is a collection of essays, poems, photographs, conversations, quotes and first-person stories that examine the Black American farmers’ experiences from Emancipation to present day. Through this anthology, Baszile gives voice to the struggles and challenges of Black farmers, while also celebrating their resilience, perseverance and pride.

Readers also get the opportunity to see the ways in which Black farmers use the land to discuss race relations, create identities, showcase the harvest as a healing tool and explain how it passed down through generations. I recommend this book as it is filled with rich history (past and present), it speaks to the importance of land ownership for Black Americans and it does not rely on one type of farming story. “We Are Each Other’s Harvest” is an inspiring book that informs, encourages and serves as a guide to the future legacy of Black American farmers.  

—Grace Gipson, Ph.D., assistant professor of African American studies

‘Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction’

By Eric Foner

Book cover for ‘Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction’

Foner is a distinguished professor who has focused his career on the Civil War and post-war eras. In this book, he aims to counter the national collective memory regarding Emancipation and Reconstruction. In regards to Emancipation, the national memory narrates it as if it was a gift from Abraham Lincoln to African Americans. Foner shows how African Americans were central to Emancipation through taking political action and emancipating themselves.

Reconstruction is not well-remembered at all. Foner shows how it was a revolutionary moment of freedom and equality. What is unique about this book is that it includes many primary sources, both written and visual (photographs, drawings, etchings), in particular, primary sources created by African Americans themselves. The sources allow the reader to interpret their meaning themselves and to compare those interpretations with Foner’s. The primary sources are particularly useful for teachers who might want to use them in their own teaching.

—Gabriel Reich, Ph.D., associate professor of teaching and learning

‘African American Culture: An Encyclopedia of People, Traditions, and Customs’

Edited by Omari L. Dyson, Judson L. Jeffries and Kevin L. Brooks

Book cover for ‘African American Culture: An Encyclopedia of People, Traditions, and Customs’

Here’s one to keep on hand, whether you’re reading “On Juneteenth,” “Beloved,” “Forever Free” or “The Blacker the Berry.” Take a look at “African American Culture: An Encyclopedia of People, Traditions, and Customs” for background information and further reading suggestions about topics you want to understand more deeply. This encyclopedia features major figures from Melvin Van Peebles to Arthur Ashe, Marian Anderson to Malcolm X, plus topical entries about subjects like the Great Migration or Juneteenth. Check out VCU Libraries’ electronic copy from wherever you are.

—John Glover, humanities research librarian and associate professor, VCU Libraries

‘Beloved’

By Toni Morrison

‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents’

By Isabel Wilkerson

The book cover of \"Beloved\"

Juneteenth recognizes historic Black resistance, resilience and victories, as well as ongoing struggles for justice. This Juneteenth I recommend (re)reading Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “Beloved,” along with Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfictional 2020 book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” as one way to learn more about how our history continues to impact our present.

In “Beloved, Morrison explores U.S. slavery and racism from the perspective of the enslaved as readers bear witness to the injustices endured not by rendering her characters passive victims, but by focusing our attention on how they exercised their agency within a slaveholding (and post-slavery) dominant culture that refused(es) to acknowledge the humanity of Black Americans. Wilkerson’s “Caste” also takes us on an eye-opening historical journey that reveals how our hidden caste system creates a fear of racial difference that has divided, and continues to divide, Americans. Both texts encourage us to better understand the challenges we face in our contemporary moment.

—Shelli Fowler, Ph.D., associate professor of English

‘Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor’

By Christopher Brooks and Robert Sims

Book cover for ‘Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor’

Performing in a country rife with racism and segregation, the tenor Roland Hayes was the first African American man to reach international fame as a concert performer and one of the few artists who could sell out Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall and Covent Garden. His trailblazing career carved the way for a host of African American artists, including Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.

Performing the African American spirituals he was raised on, Hayes’s voice was marked with a unique sonority that easily navigated French, German and Italian art songs. A multiculturalist both on and off the stage, he counted among his friends George Washington Carver, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ezra Pound, Pearl Buck, Dwight Eisenhower and Langston Hughes. This engaging biography spans the history of Hayes’ life and career and the legacy he left behind as a musician and a champion of African American rights. It is an authentic, panoramic portrait of a man who was as complex as the music he performed.

—Christopher Brooks, Ph.D., professor of anthropology

‘The Underground Railroad’

By Colson Whitehead

Book cover for ‘The Underground Railroad’

Set in the antebellum South, Colson Whitehead’s celebrated “The Underground Railroad” is a poignant meditation on history and constructions of race and freedom. Whitehead tells the story of Cora, a courageous enslaved woman who determines to escape the horrors of slavery. In Whitehead’s reimagining, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad system, comprised of a rundown boxcar pulled by a steam locomotive along secret underground tunnels. Through the various stops on the railroad, Cora and her fugitive companion Caesar encounter new environments that initially appear promising but later reveal insidious plans that target the Black community. Whitehead uncovers “the veil of freedom,” as Cora navigates a climate of anti-Blackness that is antagonistic to her well-being and liberation. 

“The Underground Railroad” presents resonant questions about the meaning and cost of freedom that are particularly urgent in the Black Lives Matter era. It is an excellent and powerful read for commemorating Juneteenth. 

—Shermaine M. Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor of English

‘On Juneteenth’

By Annette Gordon-Reed

“On Juneteenth,” a lean and accessible book, is not only about the holiday celebrating Emancipation. It is much more than that. It’s part history, part memoir. Author Annette Gordon-Reed is from East Texas, a land of plantations and lynchings. She’s a historian of slavery and the early American republic. “On Juneteenth is a series of essays that explore Texas, the South, colonialism, racism, Jim Crow and integration through her personal lens and that reveals our collective story in unflinching language and clear storytelling.

Book cover for ‘On Juneteenth’

Before Gordon-Reed visited VCU as VCU Libraries Black History Month speaker in 2022, I had read other works she authored and co-authored and listened to her lectures online. But I could not stop talking about On Juneteenth'' with my husband, colleagues, anyone who asked me “what are you reading?”

I taught U.S. history for a decade before becoming an academic librarian and then completed a master’s in history in the mid-2000s. I have always searched for the voices and the stories of those not represented in the textbook to provide a more comprehensive understanding of our history. In a comprehensible and thoroughly researched way, Gordon-Reed helps provide the rest of the story.  Or rather helps us know that we do not always have the complete story. As she writes on Page 110 in “On Juneteenth”: “We should refrain from idealizing human beings. We can accept what we think are the good things they did — and there will always be differences of opinion about what ‘good’ means — and not treat them as if they define the entire person. That may be hard to do with myths and legends, but the attempt to recognize and grapple with the humanity and, thus, the fallibility of people in the past — and the present — must be made.  That is the stuff of history, too.”   

—Irene Herold, Ph.D., dean of libraries and university librarian

Further reading

The faculty and staff above also recommended these books, plus a couple of film/TV shows to boot:

  • “A Mercy” by Toni Morrison
  • “An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States” by Kyle T. Mays
  • “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” by Zora Neale Hurston
  • “Black-Brown Solidarity: Racial Politics in the New Gulf South” by John D Ma´rquez
  • “Black Reconstruction in America” by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine 
  • “Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems” by Danez Smith 
  • “Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps” by Amy Murrell Taylor
  • “Follow Your Heart: Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues” by Joe Evans and Christopher Brooks
  • “Four Hundred Souls” edited by Keisha Blain and Ibram X. Kendi
  • “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century” by William A. Darity and Kirsten Mullen
  • “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America — Episode 4: ‘Freedom’" [Netflix, television series]
  • “I Never Walked Alone: An Autobiography of an American Singer” by Shirley Verrett and Christopher Brooks
  • “Juneteenth” by Ralph Ellison
  • “Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation” by Damian Duffy; illustrations by John Jennings
  • “Miss Juneteenth” [film]
  • “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi
  • “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Silverstein
  • “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race” edited by Jesmyn Ward 
  • “The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction: 1948-1985” by James Baldwin
  • “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee
  • “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

By Elinor Frisa

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