I’ve been a fan of history ever since the first page of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Back when all I knew about Christopher Columbus was that he bumped into the Americas while looking for India, Zinn provides more context his first encounter with the Arawaks in the form of an entry from Columbus’ own log:

They willingly traded everything they owned … . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. … They would make fine servants … . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

That story would’ve kept me awake in history class. 

So much of the history we celebrate amounts to a moment in someone’s life: the first to do x, the speech this person gave, without any of the little details that show historical figures as real people. How can we emulate our heroes if we don’t really know anything about them? To that end, I’d like to share four books that I’ve read and enjoyed that also give much needed depth to our history.  

Levels of the Game by John McPhee

A tennis match. This book is about a tennis match. And I read it in two days. If you saw me in the street and asked me to recommend one book, it would be this one and that’s all I’d say. Because the idea that anyone could make a book about a tennis match interesting is absurd to non-tennis players, but Mr. McPhee did it. That’s because the book is about more than the 1968 match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in Forest Hills, New York. It’s about race, class, upbringing, competition, and respect. But it’s told in the context of a tennis match. 

Deep Like the Rivers (Education in the Slave Quarter Community 1831-1865) by Thomas L. Webber

What do you know about the people who were held as slaves in the United States? Not about the circumstances, the people. It’s too bad you can’t talk to them and ask them. But, people did. The Federal Writers project created work for out of work writers during the Depression and one of the things these writers did was interview former slaves. Some of those interviews led to this book, which describes, often in their own words, how the black people held as slaves lived and taught their community out of sight of the white slave owners and those who worked for them. Based on what’s commonly known, you might expect it to be a sad book. It’s not. 

Locking up our Own by James Forman, Jr.

A mostly black city. A mostly black police force. A black mayor. A rash of violence thanks to crack. How did they handle it? Hold on to your hat…

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice by Thomas F. Jackson

My favorite pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. are the ones of him sitting on the table with a pool cue behind his back about to take a shot and the one of him and his family in a two-door car that appears to be a pony car. After years of seeing only the I Have a Dream speech, these were surprising. I wouldn’t have thought that the person who gave the speech was some cool guy, but apparently he was both. Likewise, this biography presents a different King than we’re used to – instead of the person whose legacy is remembered as saying we should judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, King’s ideas evolve. Near the end of his life he was coming to realize that economics, not race, was the issue we should be concerned about. This book covers that transition.

I hope you get a chance to read one or more of these. I’m sure they’ll keep you awake, whether you’re in class or on your bed. If you do, let me know what you thought!