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NPR Arts & Life

How Black Lives Have Always Mattered: A Reading List

This year, Black History Month carries a special significance, because America is marking not just the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, but also the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. It was propelled into reality through the heroic witness of non-violent demonstrations in Selma, Alabama and across the nation.

But the freedom dreams of enslaved Africans, southern sharecroppers and northern militants too often remain muted in the popular imagination of our own times. Black political radicalism fueled America's democratic imagination, even as institutions of white supremacy, Jim Crow, and racial and economic exploitation remained determined to extinguish the flames of black liberation and rebellion.

Several recent history books help illuminate the historical contradictions that Black History Month exemplifies, namely, how a nation founded on racial slavery became both a beacon for radical hope and a defender of racial segregation and economic injustice.

The common denominator coursing through the collective veins of these works is the importance of radical black political self-determination in the face of state violence and institutional racism. Crucially, they all go against the grain of contemporary discussions of race and democracy by illustrating how what we've charitably described as "contradictions" — slavery, racism, Jim Crow, racial inequality — are in fact some of the central building blocks of American democracy.

Importantly, and hopefully, they remind us of the way in which black-led social justice movements — from anti-slavery to civil rights — offer a powerful alternative vision of American society, one free of bondage, racial and economic injustice, and institutional exploitation. This emancipatory vision adds substance to the symbolism attached to Black History by illustrating exactly how and why black lives have always mattered in America's past, present, and future.

Peniel E. Joseph is a professor of history at Tufts University and the author ofDark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. You can follow him on Twitter @PenielJoseph.

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