Understanding – and Overcoming – Slavery’s Long Legacy of Inequality
Summer reading is mostly supposed to be light books that go with beaches and barbeques. I’m recommending three books that, while not light, will have the paradoxical effect of making you feel better about these difficult times!
How can that be, you might ask. We are approaching the 400th anniversary of the earliest arrival of Africans in North America, at Jamestown in 1619. That event marked the beginning of the codification of American inequality in law and custom — the absolute opposite of what we eventually wrote in our Declaration of Independence, but chillingly present in the Constitution, which declared that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
The 400 Years of Inequality Committee has called on the USA to prepare for and observe this anniversary — an anniversary of 400 years of division that have created an apartheid society. The committee includes faculty, staff, and students from The New School, and representatives of our founding partner organizations, the University of Orange (NJ), the Voices of a People’s History Foundation, and ONE DC.
We need a new social infrastructure to carry us through the challenges of climate change, decaying physical infrastructure, rapidly evolving jobs, underperforming schools, uneven access to health care, and lack of affordable housing. What we need is to move from inequality to equality, from some people being counted as three-fifths to all being counted as five-fifths.
Starting now, we can prepare for the anniversary by deepening our understanding of our history, and then building new coalitions to work across divides to define and address our common needs.
2018 is the time to prepare for the 400th anniversary. At The New School, we will be holding our second “400 Years of Inequality Curriculum Disruption” October 12-18, during which faculty and students will be invited to look at these issues from the angle of their coursework. At this link, you can see some of the exciting ways faculty participated last year.
Activists on our committee have found that this deep dive into history and coalition politics has given us a focus and clarity about present times that we have found very helpful. We invite you to join us on this journey! These three books are the ones that have grounded our perspective:
Voices of a People’s History by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove
Learning the history of inequality is an important part of preparing for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. Voices of a People’s History is a wonderful collection of documents about American history. As Howard Zinn said, “I wanted my readers to experience how at key moments in history some of the bravest and most effective political acts were the sounds of the human voice itself.”
Reading the book out loud with a group is a remarkable experience — it makes the history come alive and links readers to the generations of struggle that have come before our times. At this link, you can see a group reading selections to one another, as well as several individuals reading, too. One young woman, after reading the Seneca Falls Declaration for Women’s Rights, jumped up and down cheering! Try it — you’ll like it!
Thanks to the publisher, Seven Stories Press, use this link so that you can get a copy at 50 percent off! It’s a great book to read to yourself and to read to others. Good ways to use and enjoy it include:
- Read and post. Select a short passage and record yourself reading it. Post it to social media with the hashtag #400yearsofinequality.
- Read with friends, family and colleagues. Bring the book to a family or group meeting and invite people to select a short passage that they would like to read aloud. Ask participants to share why they picked that passage. After the readings, people can talk about what they’ve experienced while reading and listening. These are heartfelt stories and people will be enriched by this experience.
- Use with a class. The Voices of a People’s History Foundation has lots of educational materials to help teachers use the book with their students at all levels.
- Organize a performance. Lots of organizations have given performances using readings from the book. Visit the Voices of a People’s History site to see examples of this.
Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People’s Power, By Ernest Thompson and Mindy Thompson Fullilove
Struggles for equality and freedom are always place-based, for to make them real they must be experienced, rooted, evident, and active, and shared by all friends and community members.
The life of my father, Ernest Thompson, is inseparable from the story of Orange, New Jersey, where he and subsequent generations of our family have organized, first to desegregate the local schools by building strong coalitions and political power for the black community that ultimately served all the people of Orange, and now to foster community initiatives dedicated to realizing Orange as a just and beautiful city.
Reviewer Randy Shaw said of the 2018 edition, “Despite 50th anniversary stories on the Civil Rights movement and new African-American history museums, many stories of African-Americans overcoming urban racism in the north remain little known. That makes this book on Ernest Thompson, a great community and social justice organizer, particularly important.” You can get the book here.
The Third Reconstruction, by Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II
This spring, Reverend Barber has a Poor People’s Campaign that has rallied at statehouses across the US. This movement grew out of organizing in North Carolina, when during the summer of 2013 Barber led more than a 100,000 people at rallies across North Carolina to protest restrictions to voting access and an extreme makeover of state government. These protests — the largest state government-focused civil disobedience campaign in American history — came to be known as Moral Mondays and have since blossomed in states as diverse as Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York. This book is essential reading for understanding how to fight the many faces of inequality that divide and oppress us in these times.You can get the book here.
Dr. Mindy Fullilove is a professor Urban Health and Policy at The New School and the author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It. This article was originally published by Urban Matters.