Kanye West doesn’t care about books.
If he hadn’t said as much in a 2009 Reuters interview, where he labeled himself a “proud nonreader of books,” we’d still know about his breathless commitment to ignorance just by listening to his latest rants blaming black people for crime, the Democratic Party and—most disgusting of all—slavery:
At one point during the conversation, Kanye said, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... for 400 years? That sound like a choice.
“Like … you was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all?” he asked incredulously.
Kanye gone, y’all.
And those who aren’t ready to accept it are reaching out, flashing their cameras in a desperate attempt to get him out of the sunken place. When John Legend tried to school him in love, Ye simply plastered screenshots of Legend’s text messages all over his infamous Twitter feed as proof that he’s being “attacked” and folks are trying to “manipulate” him with facts.
If there’s one thing my amazing black female therapist has taught me over our months of work, it’s how to recognize a brick wall. Kanye isn’t ready to learn or grow or read.
Open letters from fans begging the old Kanye to come back will go unanswered. Self-reflection will continue to evade him. And, so, this list of “Essential Books to Not Be Kanye West About American Slavery” isn’t for him. He should read them. Maybe, when he’s ready, he will, but it’s definitely not for him right now.
Right now, this list is for anyone who’s ever thought, “If I were alive during slavery, I would’ve ... ”
It’s for anyone who spent his or her hard-earned money on those laughable “I’m not my ancestors; you will catch these hands” T-shirts.
It’s for anyone who is “tired of all these slave movies” when there’s been, like, three in the past decade and you still can’t name a single enslaved person beyond Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
It’s for anyone who’s ever thought, “If the Haitians [pronounced like Cher does in Clueless] could get free, why couldn’t we?”
It’s for anyone who was a grown adult before they ever learned that there was a woman named Ona “Oney” Judge who escaped from the first president of the United States, lived to tell about it and remained free even after George Washington relentlessly pursued her.
If you didn’t know about Oney until just now? This list is definitely for you. Because it was for me, first.
I was 27 before I accidentally found out about Oney on Google while researching for the novel I wrote that reimagines the ending of American slavery.
The more I read about the history of enslaved people in America, the daily acts of resistance, both violent and nonviolent (in the form of feigning illnesses, breaking tools, “forgetting” essentials), the angrier I became that this critical information had been erased from my curriculums, diluted and falsified with illustrations of smiling black folks picking cotton, and ideas about “kind” enslavers who treated those they enslaved “like family.”
There is no excuse for Kanye West. Even if his English-professor mother hadn’t taught him about slavery (which I’m sure she did); even if he hadn’t received a personal guided tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opened (which he definitely did), he could still afford to pay a tutor to teach him Slavery 101.
That’s not all of our story, though. So this list is for those of us who know what we don’t know and want to change that. This is for those who are angry enough about the intentional misinformation about slavery that we’ve all ingested—angry enough to act or, at the very least, to read.
May these books show you that the shame of slavery was never on black people to hold, but the glory to come is ours:
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
This award-winning book by African-American history professor Dunbar tells you everything you need to know about Oney’s powerful survival story.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs
This is one of the first-ever slave narratives, and it was originally published in parts in a newspaper before publication was halted because the graphic nature of her enslavement, rape and torture was thought too awful for the sensibilities of white readers. If you’re looking to understand the specific ways in which racism and sexism intersected to oppress black women and girls during slavery, this is the book to read.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
This textbook —by The Root’s chairman—is thorough and begins with the first black person to reach the shores of what would become America—not an enslaved person, but a conquistador. The TV series based on the book is also streaming and is an excellent companion to help you retain all the knowledge of the history of us in America.
On Lynchings, by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Journalist and anti-lynching pioneer Ida B. Wells-Barnett was dogged in her coverage of the lynchings taking place to terrorize black people after the Civil War. If you don’t understand why it would take black families 228 years (pdf) to amass the wealth that white families have in 2018, read this book. Also, Wells-Barnett is a hero; if you’d like to contribute to a statue being built in her honor, you can donate here.
Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi
To understand where our anti-black and ahistorical understandings of slavery came from, read award-winning historian Kendi’s New York Times best-selling book.
Black Reconstruction in America, by W.E.B. Du Bois
Public intellectual Du Bois corrects the white historical record of the Reconstruction era about why black folks couldn’t advance even after emancipation. With this book from 1935, Du Bois explains how the advancements of black folks were intentionally sabotaged during and after slavery.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael W. Twitty
In this award-winning book—which was just named Book of the Year by the James Beard Awards, making him the first African American to earn the honor—chef, culinary historian and The Root 100 honoree Twitty traces the roots of his enslaved and enslaver ancestors to tell the story of America and how the remnants of slavery season everything in modern life, including the food we eat. The TED fellow has also paid homage to his ancestors with 16-hour days picking cotton to understand and appreciate their struggle, a practice that would cut down on the production of Kanyes, significantly.
Celia, a Slave, by Melton A. McLaurin
Celia was 14 years old when she killed her enslaver, Robert Newsom, in 1850. This heartbreaking survival story details more examples of how enslaved people and even children resisted slavery.