In the 1960s, student activists across the United States participated in sit-ins, strikes, rallies, and protests with the goal of having colleges and universities establish institutional support for the study of the lives, history, and culture of black people. This movement, both inspired by and an offshoot of the Civil Rights Movement, resulted in an increased number of syllabi including work that addressed the particular concerns of African Americans and the first department of black studies, which was inaugurated at San Francisco State University in 1968.
African American Studies examines the experience of people of African descent in the United States and the Black diaspora, both throughout history and in the present. Unbound by but indebted to critical methodologies from disciplines like English, history, sociology, law, and political science, African American Studies centers black people. It examines social, legal, and economic structures, and also our fundamental understandings of concepts like space, place, the human, belonging, and community.
This non-exhaustive list of readings in African American Studies highlights the vibrant history of the discipline, introduces readers to central questions in the field, and showcases its bright future.
Philip D. Morgan, “Origins of American Slavery.” OAH Magazine of History (2005)
A concise but thorough overview of how American slavery fits into larger historical processes of the subjugation of black people, Philip Morgan’s description of slavery as an international institution looks at the institution’s centrality in shaping global trends throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By placing American slavery in a global context, Morgan explains how the expanding scale of capitalism and a long-standing perception of black inferiority converged to produce an instantiation of slavery that stands out as peculiarly heinous.
Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics (1987)
Hortense Spillers argues that discourses around blackness and gender during slavery continue to determine the ways in which black bodies are read in the United States. By focusing on black women, Spillers contends that we get it wrong when we only view slavery through the experience of enslaved people who identified as male. The machinations of enslavement as an institution fundamentally relied on fully disarticulating black women from the categories of “woman” and “human.”
Spillers goes on to argue that critiques of black community that make a lack of black fathers in black communities a talking point ignore the ways in which structures of power (particularly the law) well beyond the control of African Americans destabilized the conceptions of gender and the frames of genealogy upon which those critiques depend.
Stephen Best, “Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive.” Representations (2011)
Ostensibly a review essay of articles that appear in a special issue of Representations on “New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual,” Stephen Best argues that black people have often been understood as object rather than subjects. Best cites a case in which a photograph of two young black boys from the nineteenth century was advertised as rare at an estate sale. It was later discovered that copies of the photograph could be found at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and on eBay. Best addresses the paradox of the archival turn in studies of slavery: How can we claim to know that which cannot be known? That is, whether evidence can be found in the archive or not?
Anthony B. Pinn, “Black Bodies in Pain and Ecstasy: Terror, Subjectivity, and the Nature of Black Religion.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions (2003)
Anthony Pinn argues that black religion, a capacious term that he purposefully deploys to reference a range of religious and spiritual practices beyond Christianity, plays a key role in African Americans’ struggle for what he calls complex subjectivity, a mode of being defined by ambiguity and multidimensionality. If dominant society defined black people by their corporeality during slavery, Pinn argues that black religion, which is an experience mediated by and through the black body, constitutes an important site of resistance against oppression. It contains an aesthetic, both in performance and style, that must be more prominently considered by the field of black religious studies.
Harvey Young, “The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching.” Theatre Journal (2005)
Lynching, a phenomenon of extra-juridical violence used as a tool of social control, continues to be a lesser acknowledged practice in American history. Harvey Young analyzes what it meant for white participants in lynching spectacles to either steal or purchase the body parts of those who had been unjustly hanged, burned, castrated, and otherwise victimized and killed in public. Young asks what it means for white people to treat black bodies as souvenirs, fetish object, and remains.
Michael A. Gomez, “Of Du Bois and Diaspora: The Challenge of African American Studies.” Journal of Black Studies (2004)
In a special issue of Journal of Black Studies celebrating 30 years of African American studies, Michael Gomez focuses on “double consciousness,” W. E. B. Du Bois’ term for the experience of African Americans who must simultaneously identify with blackness and Americanness. The nation signified in the latter term oppresses people based on the former term. Gomez makes a case for black intellectuals in the field of African American studies to more thoughtfully engage a larger diasporic approach with their work. Because the study of black people in America is a diasporic project about dispersal, loss, and community building, Gomez’s call for African American studies to take the diasporic turn seriously continues to influence the field.
Sarah Haley, “Like I Was a Man: Chain Gangs, Gender, and the Domestic Carceral Sphere in Jim Crow Georgia.” Signs (2013)
Sarah Haley argues that the prison industrial complex has been an important site in which racialized conceptions of gender have been consolidated. Focusing on a comprehensive and historic prison reform act passed in Georgia in 1908 that forced imprisoned black women onto chain gangs and introduced a system of parole that compelled black women released from prison to become domestic servants in white homes, Haley argues that these reforms illustrate how black women were stripped of their gender. Incarcerated black women were obligated to perform both domestic labor that was gendered as female and hard physical labor that was gendered as male, but also, as a result of this un-gendering, they were legislated out of the category of the human.
Daryl Michael Scott, “How Black Nationalism Became Sui Generis.” Fire!!! (2012)
Daryl Michael Scott’s exploration of the vicissitudes of black nationalism that developed over the course of the early and mid-twentieth century negotiates a tension between black nationalism and other forms of nationalism. While “nationalism” on its own may be problematic, “black nationalism” has described everything from black separatism and sovereignty to an imperium in imperio in which black people could self-determine without founding a new nation to a generic notion of racial solidarity among black people in a Pan-African context. The idea continues to have critical purchase in academia.
Scott meticulously traces the genealogy of the term, from the work of the Communist Party USA in the 1920’s to the rhetoric of black artists and activists in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. He ultimately argues that too many actually disparate ideologies about how to achieve racial uplift have been flattened out and occluded by a rather sweeping use of “black nationalism” to describe divergent ideologies.
Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement.” Off Our Backs (1979)
Written in the mid-1970s by a group of black feminists under a name that pays homage to the first successful slave revolt led by a black woman, this statement marks an important precursor to Kimberlé Crenshaw Williams’ work on intersectionality in the succeeding decades. The Combahee River Collective argues against any program for social justice that does not account for how structures of oppression are “interlocking,” affecting people of various identity categories differently. Though this intersectional approach to understanding oppression may seem commonplace now, the Combahee River Collective’s race-conscious and socialist model of feminism marks an epochal shift in thought about what we now call “identity politics.”
Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review (1993)
Cheryl Harris explores the extent to which whiteness became a form of property that had to be protected by juridical and legislative means. As she argues, whiteness became valuable when white people could not be reduced to property under slavery. Given this, it is not only the cultural legacy of enslavement that has kept black people oppressed in the United States, but also a legal system that has continued to treat whiteness as the norm. That system actively excludes people of color from the purview of equal rights and protections while also affording economic benefits exclusively or disproportionately to white Americans.
The article ends by addressing how affirmative action would challenge the property interest in whiteness, but only if it actively operates as a corrective to structural injustices by redistributing power and resources to those that have been historically denied access in the United States.
Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History.” The Journal of American History (2010)
As we continue to live in an age of mass incarceration, Thompson’s article reminds us of the lasting legacy of what the writer Michelle Alexander has provocatively called “The New Jim Crow.” Thompson argues that the exploding incarceration rates that we see in the late twentieth century correlate strongly with African Americans’ continued struggles for equal citizenship after the passages of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Thompson’s meticulous research reveals that, over the course of the postwar period, urban spaces became increasingly criminalized. Local laws and law enforcement officials targeted communities of color and increased criminal sentences for various infractions.
Alexander G. Wehiliye, “After Man.” American Literary History (2008)
African American studies has long been charged with being too parochial in scope, attending solely to the concerns of one minority group in the United States. Wehiliye contends that black studies contributes to an understanding of the category of the human by filling in the gaps of a category that did not consider blackness as a constitutive part of its makeup and imagining other ways of being human.
Daphne Brooks, “‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’: Black Female Soul Singing and the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Catastrophe.” Meridians (2008)
As if anticipating the bevy of scholarly and popular responses to Beyoncé Knowles’s Southern aesthetic in her 2016 visual album, Lemonade, Daphne Brooks argues that the work of Beyoncé (and Mary J. Blige) in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should be read as a convergence of a long-standing set of sociopolitical concerns made that much more visible by the devastating storm. By analyzing Mary J. Blige’s duet with U2 at the Shelter from the Storm telethon, an event meant to raise money for survivors of the hurricane, as a way of opening up space to talk about the political dimensions of desire in Beyoncé’s second solo album, B-Day, Brooks shows how black women’s vocal and visual performances continue to constitute an important site of black resistance.
Dwight McBride, “Can the Queen Speak?: Racial Essentialism, Sexuality, and the Problem of Authority.” Callaloo (1998)
Dwight McBride’s critique of racial essentialist discourse in the work of African American intellectuals argues that African American Studies must more urgently attend to the experience of black queer people if it is going to continue to theorize around concepts like “blackness” or “black community.” Rather than simply call for more inclusion, McBride argues that black gays and lesbians must be represented in ways that accurately portray them and their concerns. This must be done by considering the work of black queer writers and activists like James Baldwin and Essex Hemphill on its own terms.
Jennifer Nash, “Practicing Love: Black Feminism, Love-Politics and Post-Intersectionality.” Meridians (2011)
Love-politics, which Jennifer Nash theorizes as a facet of black feminist politics that makes use of love as an affective mode of relationality that exceeds identity categories and identity politics, uses shared affinity rather than shared oppression to construct deep coalitions. Turning to love, Nash argues, allows for a turning away from the state when seeking redress for oppression and discrimination. Preferring the radical utopianism of imaginary new worlds to the politics of visibility that is a cornerstone of intersectional politics, black feminist love-politics helpfully imagines a political terrain in which the public sphere can be effectively changed.
Walter R. Allen, Channel McLewis, Chantal Jones, and Daniel Harris, “From Bakke to Fisher: African American Students in U.S. Higher Education over Forty Years” RSF: The Russel Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences (2018)
Considering 40 years of quantitative data on college enrollments and degree completion rates among African American students in the context of critical race theory, Walter R. Allen, Channel McLewis, Chantal Jones, and Daniel Harris explain how the inherent anti-blackness in the United States’ system of higher education continues to hamper socioeconomic achievement for African Americans. Though the rates of college enrollment for African Americans have modestly increased since the mid-1970s, these scholars argue that the continued underrepresentation of black students in selective colleges, coupled with black students’ relative over-enrollment in community and for-profit colleges, negatively impact African Americans’ generational accrual of wealth.
Evie Shockley, “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage.” Contemporary Literature (2011)
Noticing a marked increase in the number of historical poems that have been written in the twenty-first century, Evie Shockley argues that the influx of poetry about slavery reveals a continued engagement in black writing with the relationship between language and subjectivity. Focusing on poetic treatments of the Middle Passage, Shockley addresses how contemporary poets like Douglas Kearney (The Black Automaton) and M. NourbeSe Philip (Zong!) reckon with the historical gaps and violent breaks in space and time that the transatlantic slave trade forced upon captured Africans. Shockley makes use of postmodern rhetorical strategies like polyvocality, linguistic fragmentation, and narrative implacability to undermine our understanding of how stories, even those lost to the archive, can be told.
Frank Wilderson, “Social Death and Narrative Aporia in 12 Years a Slave.” Black Camera (2015)
Frank Wilderson takes up 12 Years a Slave (both the slave narrative written by Solomon Northrup, published in 1853, and the recent movie adaptation directed by Steve McQueen) to argue that telling the stories of enslaved people in particular—and black people in general—constitutes both a logical impasse, one characterized by their status as non-human humans, and a fundamental critique of our normative understandings of narrative. Wilderson takes on theories of narratology that claim that the non-human typically becomes human in narrative by way of characterization. Wilderson argues that the figure of the enslaved person—a figure that lives under the threat of gratuitous violence, constant shame, and unguaranteed kinship—operates outside of this realm of narrative.