For Your Holiday Reading List

Black Bookshelf: New reads explore everything from hip-hop and politics to passing for white.

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Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics, Lester K. Spence,  (University of Minnesota Press)

The American tradition of political protest songs runs rich and deep. Think of Billie Holiday ("Strange Fruit"), Woody Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land"), Pete Seeger ("If I Had a Hammer"), Bob Dylan ("Blowin' in the Wind") and James Brown ("Say it Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud"), to name only a few. According to Spence, much of hip-hop falls right into this cultural heritage -- from the very beginning, hip-hop artists were criticizing the way things were and calling for change. Some of them delighted people; some of them frightened people. But whether hip-hop did the one or the other, it became a powerful cultural and political force.

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, Daniel Sharfstein (Penguin Press)

The memory of "passing" is fading with the passing of "passing" itself. But we need to remember who did it, why they did it, exactly how it was done and -- perhaps most important of all -- what it meant for our understanding of racial categories. In this eye-opening book, Sharfstein follows three families as they moved from black to white and, in so doing, offers a kind of secret history of racial identity in the United States.

A Theory of African American Offending: Race, Racism, and Crime, James Unnever and Shaun L. Gabbidon (Routledge)

It's a sad fact, but young African-American males are several times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested, convicted and incarcerated. As of 2004, a shocking 21 percent of black males who did not attend college were in jail; 60 percent of black male dropouts in their 30s had spent time in prison. Why the disparity? Theories abound: upbringing, culture, social context, poverty, the media, racial profiling, drugs, etc. Unnever and Gabbidon take a fresh look at the data and offer a new perspective, one that may just surprise you.

The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in the Age of Enlightenment, Andrew Curran (Johns Hopkins University Press)

How did Africans become "black"? Much of the story has to do with the attempts of proto-scientists in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment to understand the "kinds" of humans in terms of skin color and gross morphology. To these men, humans could be clearly broken down into "races," each with its own biological features. They set about cataloging these features with, well, very dubious results. Yet even if what they said about the "races" was false, they helped to establish the idea of "race-as-biology." In this wonderful book, Curran explains just how they did it.

Marshall T. Poe, who teaches history at the University of Iowa, is editor-in-chief of the New Books Network.

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