Extraordinary Histories

An opportunity to reflect on the numerous events and figures in American history, Black History Month is more than a month; it is an expansive and growing history of America. The recommended books below highlight poignant historical moments and social movements and exemplary leaders at the front of societal change. Just a sample of the breadth of titles we publish in African American history, and on ethnic studies, more broadly, these titles foster greater understanding of national and world history.

Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party
By Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.

In Oakland, California, in 1966, community college students Bobby Seale and Huey Newton armed themselves, began patrolling the police, and promised to prevent police brutality. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement that called for full citizenship rights for blacks within the United States, the Black Panther Party rejected the legitimacy of the U.S. government and positioned itself as part of a global struggle against American imperialism. In the face of intense repression, the Party flourished, becoming the center of a revolutionary movement with offices in sixty-eight U.S. cities and powerful allies around the world. The notions of self-reliance and self-determination were at the core of the Panther’s beliefs, but the Party’s legacy has been largely misunderstood.

With Black Against Empire, historian Waldo E. Martin and sociologist Joshua Bloom provide the most comprehensive, unvarnished examination of the Party and its place in the larger scope of revolutionary and political tides swirling in the tumultuous 1960s. A book Bobby Seale called “profoundly important,” this bold, engrossing, and richly detailed history cuts through the mythology to reveal the political dynamics that drove the explosive growth of this revolutionary movement.

Selected as San Francisco’s 2017 One City One Book.

Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City
By Tyina L. Steptoe

Beginning after World War I, the city of Houston was transformed from a black-and-white frontier town into one of the most ethnically and racially diverse urban areas in the United States. Tyina L. Steptoe’s award-winning Houston Bound draws on social and cultural history to show how, despite Anglo attempts to fix racial categories through Jim Crow laws, converging migrations—particularly those of Mexicans and Creoles—complicated ideas of blackness and whiteness and introduced different understandings about race. This migration history also examines these racial complexities through music and sound to trace the emergence of Houston’s blues and jazz scenes in the 1920s as well as the hybrid forms of these genres that arose when migrants forged shared social space and carved out new communities and politics.

Winner of the Urban History Association’s 2016 Kenneth Jackson Award, the Western History Association’s 2017 W. Turrentine-Jackson Award, and the Friends of the Texas Room’s 2017 Julia Ideson Award.

Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life
By Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria Robinson

When you think of a map of the United States, what do you see? Now think of the Seattle that begot Jimi Hendrix. The Dallas that shaped Erykah Badu. The Holly Springs, Mississippi, that compelled Ida B. Wells to activism against lynching. The Birmingham where Martin Luther King, Jr., penned his most famous missive. Now how do you see the United States?

Chocolate Cities offers a new cartography of the United States—a “Black Map” that more accurately reflects the lived experiences and the future of Black life in America. Drawing on cultural sources such as film, music, fiction, and plays, and on traditional resources like Census data, oral histories, ethnographies, and health and wealth data, the book offers a new perspective for analyzing, mapping, and understanding the ebbs and flows of the Black American experience—all in the cities, towns, neighborhoods, and communities that Black Americans have created and defended. Black maps are consequentially different from our current geographical understanding of race and place in America. And as the United States moves toward a majority minority society, Chocolate Cities provides a broad and necessary assessment of how racial and ethnic minorities make and change America’s social, economic, and political landscape.

Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge
By James Naremore

Considered by the Chicago Tribune as “one of America’s very best filmmakers” and by The New York Times as “the nation’s least-known great filmmaker and most gifted black director,” Charles Burnett is a crucial figure in the history of American cinema and often regarded as the most influential member of the L.A. Rebellion group of African American filmmakers. The first book devoted to Burnett, James Naremore provides a close critical study of all Burnett’s major pictures for movies and television, including Killer of SheepTo Sleep with AngerThe Glass ShieldNightjohnThe WeddingNat Turner: A Troublesome Property, and Warming by the Devil’s Fire. Having accessed new information and rarely seen material, Naremore shows that Burnett’s career has developed against the odds and that his artistry, social criticism, humor, and commitment to what he calls “symbolic knowledge” have given his work enduring value for American culture.

Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels
By Christina Zanfagna

In the 1990s, Los Angeles was home to numerous radical social and environmental eruptions. In the face of several major earthquakes and floods, riots and economic insecurity, policebrutality and mass incarceration, some young black Angelenos turned to holy hip hop—a movement merging Christianity and hip hop culture—to “save” themselves and the city. Converting street corners to open-air churches and gangsta rap beats into anthems of praise, holy hip hoppers used gospel rap to navigate complicated social and spiritual realities and to transform the Southland’s fractured terrains into musical Zions. Armed with beats, rhymes, and bibles, they journeyed through black Lutheran congregations, prison ministries, African churches, reggae dancehalls, hip hop clubs, Nation of Islam meetings, and Black Lives Matter marches. Zanfagna’s fascinating ethnography provides a contemporary and unique view of black LA, offering a much-needed perspective on how music and religion intertwine in people’s everyday experiences.

The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption
By Nikki Jones 

In The Chosen Ones, sociologist and feminist scholar Nikki Jones shares the compelling story of a group of Black men living in San Francisco’s historically Black neighborhood, the Fillmore. Against all odds, these men work to atone for past crimes by reaching out to other Black men, young and old, with the hope of guiding them toward a better life. Yet despite their genuine efforts, they struggle to find a new place in their old neighborhood. With a poignant yet hopeful voice, Jones illustrates how neighborhood politics, everyday interactions with the police, and conservative Black gender ideologies shape the men’s ability to make good and forgive themselves—and how the double-edged sword of community shapes the work of redemption.

Forthcoming June 2018; preorder today.

Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century
By Barbara Ransby 

In the wake of the murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the exoneration of his killer, three black women activists launched a hashtag and social-media platform, Black Lives Matter, which would become the rubric for a larger movement. To many, especially those in the media, Black Lives Matter appeared to burst onto the national political landscape out of thin air.

But as historian and esteemed activist Barbara Ransby shows in her highly-anticipated Making All Black Lives Matter, the movement has roots in prison abolition, anti-police violence, black youth movements, and radical mobilizations across the country dating back at least a decade. Ransby interviewed more than a dozen of the movements principal organizers and activists, and she provides a detailed review of its extensive coverage in mainstream and social media. A critical history of the present, Making All Black Lives Matter offers one of the first overviews of Black Lives Matter and explores the challenges and possible future for this growing and influential movement.

Forthcoming September 2018; preorder today.

Beyoncé, Creoles, and Modern Blackness

By Tyina Steptoe, author of Houston Bound

Beyoncé is a black woman. This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news; after all, the 34-year-old, Houston-born entertainer has one of the most recognizable faces in the world. Yet, since the release of the video for her song “Formation” on February 6, an avalanche of tweets and think pieces have heralded the arrival of an unapologetically black Beyoncé.

Set in New Orleans, the “Formation” video features a platinum braid wearing, hot sauce-loving black woman who adores afros and her “Negro nose.” Helmed by award-winning director Melina Masoukas, the clip also prominently features images associated with the Black Live Matter movement. In one scene, a group of militarized police officers stand in front of a dancing, unarmed black boy. Another shot shows a wall tagged with the words “Stop shooting us.” These are not words or images typically associated with Queen Bey.

One day later, Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance featured a bevy of black female back-up dancers dressed like Black Panthers in berets and afros. Some of the women later posed with a sign that read “Justice 4 Mario Woods.” Woods was a young African American man slain by police officers in San Francisco on December 2, so the display indelibly links Beyoncé to recent protests against police killings. Some white fans reacted angrily. By Monday morning, the hashtag #BoycottBeyonce circulated on social media, and one group of detractors planned a boycott (though that didn’t quite pan out in the way they’d hoped.) “Saturday Night Live” spoofed negative white reaction with a video called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” To her fans and critics, it was clear that Beyoncé has made her racial identity and modern racial politics central to her public image in 2016.

While watching clips of the video and TV performance, I was struck by one particular aspect of the new song – Beyoncé’s rejection of a monolithic blackness. In the lyrics to “Formation,” Beyoncé does more than proclaim black pride during a particularly tense period of race relations. She also highlights the diversity that has historically existed among African Americans.

My daddy Alabama
Mama Louisiana
You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.

As sociologist Zandria Robinson writes, “Beyoncé rides a southern genealogy that traverses the Deep South from Alabama to Louisiana to Texas, back and through, with stops in between.” As she takes us on that journey, Beyoncé reminds us the gumbo blend of cultures that form modern blackness. By asserting that “Texas bama” is a mixture of Negro and Creole, she also makes those two distinct categories. Indeed, Beyoncé is descended from Gulf South societies where those labels have referred to different groups at different times.

The notion that Creoles represent a different racial group from “Negro” has been shaped by the history of southern Louisiana. Most people who identify as Creoles of color are descendants of gens de couleur libre (free people of color), a group with roots in French Louisiana. Gens de couleur libre often had white fathers and enslaved African mothers. Emancipated by their fathers, this mixed-race population formed a separate group in colonial Louisiana. They married one another and formed communities throughout the southern parishes. Some owned land; the wealthier ones even owned slaves. Gens de couleur libre considered themselves to be neither white nor black, but a combination of both races. Their descendants, who referred to themselves as Creoles of color after the Civil War, continued to stress their racial and cultural hybridity.

Beyoncé’s family has roots in that society. The name Beyoncé is derived from her maternal family name, Beyincé. The Beyincé family traces its roots to French Canada, where an ancestor named Jean-Baptiste Marchesseau was born in Quebec in 1782. Before the Civil War, Louisiana-born members of the Beyincé clan lived in Saint James, Iberia, and Vermilion parishes. In a 2015 interview, Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles Lawson (née Beyincé) counted an “enslaved African maternal great-grandmother and paternal grandfather from Bordeaux, France” as part of the family tree.

Like thousands of Creoles of color, members of the Beyincé family migrated to Texas in the twentieth century. Tina Beyincé was born in Galveston after her parents located there sometime after 1940. They joined an exodus of Creoles of color who relocated to the Lone Star State in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Most moved to Houston, where they built a community called Frenchtown in the northern section of the city’s Fifth Ward. The Beyincé family settled in nearby Galveston. For many of the Creoles of color who moved to Texas in the twentieth century, “Creole” and “black” referred to two different groups.

Relations between Texans and Louisianans could be tense. Knowles Lawson told Ebony magazine that black nuns at her Catholic school in Galveston treated her poorly as a girl. Meanwhile, some black Texans claimed that Creoles acted superior. Indeed, as New Orleans native Yaba Blay reminds us, “people who are light skinned, with non-kinky hair and the ability to claim a Creole heritage have had access to educational, occupational, social and political opportunities that darker skinned, kinkier-haired, non-Creole folks have been denied.”

By the late twentieth century, however, “Creole” was less of a racial marker than an ethnic one. Catholicism, French surnames, Creole/Cajun cuisine, and zydeco music defined Creoles, regardless of whether their ancestors were free in 1860. Furthermore, generations of Creoles of color lived in or near black communities. In Houston and Galveston, the groups frequently shared neighborhoods and institutions. They also intermarried, as when Tina Beyincé married Alabama-born Matthew Knowles. The “Texas bama” roots mentioned in “Formation” refer to the merging of two cultures, one from the Anglophone southeast, and another from French Louisiana.

“Formation” isn’t the first time Beyoncé has referred to her Creole roots. Her 2008 song, “Creole,” also asserts this identity:

So all my red bones get on the floor
And all my yellow bones get on the floor
And all my brown bones get on the floor
Then you mix it up and you call it Creole

In both “Creole” and “Formation,” Beyoncé positions herself as a mixture of different places and colors. That heritage, however, does not negate the fact that she is a black woman. Blackness is a broad enough spectrum to encompass a Creole ethnic identity.

But even as modern Creoles proudly assert their identity, they have been largely ignored outside of the Gulf Coast. Americans rarely consider ethnicities within the category of black. When we discuss racial blackness, we tend to portray African Americans as a monolithic group. Beyoncé’s repeated references to her Creole heritage illuminate debates over skin color and privilege, but also the complexities of African American identity. Premiering during Black History Month 2016, “Formation” reminds us of the wide array of cultures, cuisines, colors, and controversies that exist within modern black America.

Tyina L. Steptoe is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arizona.

Houston Bound