I started college with a single plan: to take writing and pop-culture history classes so I could become a music writer. But fall semester of my junior year, I randomly enrolled in a course called “Race, Ethnicity, and Popular Media” that would start the most important educational (and personal) journey of my life.
On the first day of class, my professor explained the difference between race and ethnicity, which was a distinction I had never even considered before (I learned that race is related to a person’s physical characteristics, like skin color, while ethnicity is associated with cultural factors like shared histories or languages). Race theory—an area of study devoted to the ways we identify and interact with race—was new to me, but it completely shifted how I dissected and understood my identity as a half black, half white woman.
Over the course of the semester, we picked apart contemporary events and media through the lens of race and racism. We talked about President Obama (particularly his relationship with the black community before and after his election) and the dialogue around “Obamacare” with as much vigor as we argued over Beyoncé and her performance of sexuality as a black woman in a post–Josephine Baker world. It was the first time I read writers like the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, The Atlantic Monthly reporter Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the performance scholar Daphne Brooks. It was my earliest exposure to modern philosopher Cornel West’s seminars, and to the terrible history of blackface minstrelsy.
From then on, I took as many race theory courses as possible and was assigned books that realigned the way I look at movies, read the news, and listen to music. My life became one big history lesson on the way humans interact with race, and these texts were my guidebooks. They helped me understand how mixed-race people have been historically viewed, and find ways to express my confusion over how to identify myself, or even act, on a daily basis. The most important thing I discovered was that I didn’t have to act a certain way at all.
This is a mini-syllabus I’ve compiled as an introduction to race theory. A few of the books were assigned to me in my college classes. These titles are mostly focused on African-American/Africana studies, but race theory is meant to address how we think about all races (the lack of wider exploration was a weakness in my coursework, and on this list). That being said, these aren’t the only books on race theory. They were a gateway to exploring what race means to me, and hopefully they can do the same for you, too. First up…
LITERALLY EVERYTHING by bell hooks
bell hooks is a feminist, scholar, activist, and author who has written thoughtful and powerful books on race, gender, class, education, art, pop culture—SO MANY IMPORTANT THINGS—and I am obsessed with them all. I devour her writing while either nodding vigorously in agreement with her thoughts on the given topic, or internally arguing with her opinions on the same subject. (That’s an important thing to keep in mind with the books on this list: You don’t have to agree with them; they’re there to inform your own thoughts.) hooks is a wonderful writer and thinker; she offers her personal experiences with her critiques, and in a tone that is accessible and not too intimidating. My favorite book of hers (that I’ve read so far) is Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992, South End Press). There’s a GREAT critique of Madonna called “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” that completely changed the way I thought of the white pop stars I grew up worshipping. It helped me understand the problems with copping styles from underrepresented communities, like the vogue culture Madonna appropriated from poor black and Latino/a LGBT artists.
The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why It Matters by Tricia Rose (2008, Basic Civitas Books)
I might be as obsessed with Tricia Rose as I am with bell hooks. She is a professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, and she writes passionately about the history of hip hop. In this book, she takes on important arguments about its place in pop culture, including the various arguments for and against the genre’s rise in popularity with both black and non-black audiences. My favorite part is when she goes in on hip hop’s white listeners, noting that the majority of people purchasing hip hop albums are white. There is nothing wrong with being a non-POC who loves hip hop! But it’s important to know its history and be aware of the way you view and/or talk about it. If you love hip hop, read this book.
Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen (2012, W.W. Norton & Company)
Nothing unsettled me more than learning about the terrible and inescapable history of blackface minstrelsy, which is the performance of black stereotypes—first by white entertainers wearing burnt cork on their faces, and later by black people as a means of making a living. Did you know that one of the earliest forms of American pop culture was white people wearing blackface and imitating black slaves? It’s so gross and awful. I remember being shocked that (1) it was a thing that happened and (2) I hadn’t read a single word about it in any of my American history textbooks. Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen are Chicago-based writers who tell the history of minstrelsy while acknowledging the places it still exists. (Knowing about blackface minstrelsy makes it difficult for me to watch old movies like Gone with the Wind or listen to Iggy Azalea.) It was heart-wrenching to learn how the lingering effects and concerns of blackface minstrelsy led Dave Chappelle to abandon his TV show, after questioning what white audience members were really laughing at during his sketches that explored blackness in modern America. I still reference Austen and Taylor’s book when I’m writing about race and pop culture. Don’t let this history be dismissed or forgotten!
Supplemental Viewing: Bamboozled by Spike Lee (2000)
The week I was introduced to the history of blackface minstrelsy was a doozy because it ended with an emotional viewing of this Spike Lee film, which depicts how minstrelsy continues to thrive and destroy black Americans. In the movie, a black TV producer tries to give his boss the “urban” show he continuously asks for by making a blackface minstrel show. The show becomes popular, and the responses are mind-blowing and all too real. Prepare yourself, and reserve an extra hour after the movie’s over to sit and let everything you’re feeling soak in. It made me think hard about Hollywood’s portrayals of black people, and what it means to perform race.
Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 by Tim Brooks (2004, University of Illinois Press)
This is a hefty, dense book, but if you’re a music history nerd like me it’s worth the effort! Brooks, a former president of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, goes deep on the early recording industry and the black artists who pioneered it without much credit. If you decide to pass on reading this book, I highly recommend checking out the music of Bert Williams, Noble Sissle, and Eubie Blake no matter what! They were black performers who began their careers when minstrelsy was at the height of its popularity, and their relationships with it were interesting and contentious. Definitely catch up on the history of blackface minstrelsy before diving into this massive text, for more context as to why these sounds were lost in the first place.
Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture by Shayne Lee (2010, Hamilton Books)
Shayne Lee is a sociology professor at Tulane University. His book about depictions of black women in the media has some problems—especially because it favors modesty over sexual expression—but most of his analysis, on how black women have had to struggle with or compromise their sexuality in the public sphere, is on point. Where does the critique of Beyoncé’s “hypersexuality” come from? Why would she credit her confident stage performances to an alter ego named Sasha Fierce, instead of just owning them? This book is definitely not perfect, but it’s worth exploring for answers to those questions.
Dangerous Curves by Isabel Molina-Guzmán (2004, NYU Press)
One of the biggest regrets I have about college is that I did not take more race theory classes that went beyond the black/white dichotomy, because a perspective that is intersectional (meaning one that considers how racism, sexism, classism, and other systems of oppression intersect) is crucial. Isabel Molina-Guzmán is a professor of Communications and Latina/o Studies at the University of Illinois. If you want to dive deeper into Latina/o studies (like I do!), her analysis of Latinas’ visibility in pop culture is a good place to start. It offers critique on contemporary representations of Latinas—like how women like Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Vergara are often described or portrayed as being “fiery” or “spicy.”
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929, Knopf)
This one goes out to all my fellow mixed kids, but will be of interest to anyone who is curious about the history of the “tragic mulatto” trope, i.e. not being white or black enough. Larsen was one of the most important writers of the biracial experience during the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote this novella about two childhood friends who are both mixed: As they get older, one lives her life passing as white, while the other passes as black.
The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics by Fredrick C. Harris (2012, Oxford University Press)
Fredrick C. Harris, a professor of political science at Columbia University, wrote this book on the history of black politicians in the U.S., and how they’ve approached their relationships to black communities from positions of power that have mostly been held by white men. I don’t keep up with intricate dealings of political parties, so jumping into this discussion was overwhelming at first. Harris’s book offers clear entry points into black politics in America, and made me realize how often political conversations with friends and family members are really about race—especially when someone is talking about the Obama administration.
“Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (August 2012, The Atlantic)
Political and cultural journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those writers you have to know about when it comes to smart takes on race relations in the United States. He has deep knowledge on racism in the U.S.—now, and in the past—and offers smart solutions along with his critiques. This wonderful article was required reading in a couple of my classes, and through it I stumbled upon the rest of his astute and incisive writing on being black in America. Coates dives into what it means to be a black public figure who is (unfairly) viewed as representing the black community at large while having to also appeal to white America. It was published in August 2012 (six months after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death in Florida by George Zimmerman, who would later be acquitted for the killing) and it resonates as strongly as ever. ♦