Black History Month invites us all to explore and celebrate the contributions that African Americans have made not just to our country but to our community here in Memphis. When we open ourselves up to listen and deeply examine the varying journeys and perspectives of Black Americans, we allow ourselves the opportunity to learn something new and renew our commitment to forging a more compassionate and equitable society.
So in that spirit, I asked 8 Memphians to share a book, article, or documentary that provided new insight into an issue or has guided their approach to their work in the community.
“The book I’d recommend is Richard Wright’s Native Son. I read it many years ago as a child. This book is profound and will likely change the way one thinks about crime, racism, Jim Crow, and inequality. The protagonist is young and black. He faces a problem that is at once deeply disturbing and of his own making. It’s hard not to blame the protagonist for the evil that transpires. Then again, what else is he to do? It’s also hard to blame racism. Then again, this strange turn of events wouldn’t happen if he was white. This story is creative, tough, and riveting”.
– Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris
I always refer people to Zandria Robinson’s book (This Ain’t Chicago:Race, Class & Religion in the Post-Soul South), Wanda Rushing’s book (Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South), Preston Lauterbach’s book (Beale Street Dynasty), and his essential essay, Memphis Burning.
— Wendi C. Thomas, Journalist, Editor MLK50 Justice Through Journalism
Many people know superficial snippets of King’s vision but few have dived deep into his thoughts in his own words. Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community? was the last book he wrote before he was assassinated in Memphis. Allow yourself to drink in his radical ideas on how to eliminate poverty and challenge yourself to truly, as signs said just after his death, “Honor King: End Racism.”
— Laura Faith Kebede, Journalist, Chalkbeat Tennessee
This article from the Daily Memphian hits home because of both the neighborhood it talks about (Historic Orange Mound) and the folks leading the work (look like me and of the same generation). Both orgs are doing something to respect the rich black experience here in Memphis while creating space for a new one as well. I can’t wait to see what both do, especially since the Orange Mound community is the one I serve as principal.
— Steven Ward, Principal, Journey Community Schools (Formerly Aspire Public Schools)
The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli
My family started The Defender papers so for me, it is a personal history story alongside another perspective on the African American experience. It chronicles how the printing of news for black people by black people offered informed citizens and strengthened their voice.
—Pat Mitchell-Worley, Executive Director, Stax Music Academy
“Torn Between Representation and Justice” by Kayla V. Warr
“To me, this article speaks to it how it takes more than a familiar face to move the needle in terms of legislation relating to representation and identity politics—especially considering the history of our Vice President involvements with marijuana-related incarcerations, the anti-truancy program which largely affects single parents, and her track record surrounding trans rights. I believe it is important that when we say things like Black Lives Matter, that we hold our local and national legislators accountable for the harm they may cause to disenfranchised communities”
— Jordan Dodson, Local Artist and Activist. Senior, Music Business Major at the University of Memphis. (They/Them)
This series is significant because it tells the story of the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis from the perspective of the men who were in it. It highlights the stories of the wives and children of the men as well, humanizing them in a way history books never have.
— Eso Tolson, Artist, Brand Consultant – Cheers Creative
Becoming: Michelle Obama is truly inspirational because it reminds you that your past hurts and the way you grew up don’t define what you can and will become. It charges the readers to begin to think about what it really means to dream, to expand and to push yourself beyond your family’s standard. I believe that’s where Memphis’ momentum is coming from— the community leaders are not allowing the past to entrap us. We are actively working towards change and recreating ways to move the needle for the betterment of our city.
Walter Mosley’s Known to Evil has a theme of redemption and the act of rebuilding your life. This novel speaks to all young men who’ve gotten in some real trouble that seemingly haunts them for the rest of their lives. Too many times in Memphis we see our black boys’ journeys begin in juvenile detention and end in the penal farm with no advocate to show them how to break the cycle. Mosley teaches us that with self-determination and self-awareness this cycle can be broken and this pipeline can be staunched. I’m encouraged by Mr. Mosley’s story that it is never too late to change or rebuild yourself. We are the product of all of our experiences and we can find value and lessons in these experiences rather they be positive or negative. — Joi Taylor, Choose901 Alumni Coordinator
And lastly, a suggestion of my own: African Americans in Memphis by Earnestine Lovelle Jenkins
Anyone who has been fortunate enough to have a conversation with Earnestine Jenkins, professor of art history at the University of Memphis, knows that she is a fountain of information on a wealth of topics, and she speaks with unswerving honesty about them. In her writing, she’s skilled in summarizing topics that can be overwhelming, giving you a factual base from which you can choose to dive deeper if you want. The book African Americans In Memphis succinctly covers the 1800s to 1950s, highlighting important people, places, and events that have shaped our city.