Books About America and Race in the 20th Century Teens Should Read


Robinson Lee, Editor in Chief

As the U.S. as a whole continues to grapple with issues of systemic racism, books have been at the forefront of how Americans have tried to learn about what to do and what can be done to confront these issues. Books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi has gained the spotlight, and these are books worthy of critically delving into as well, but any sophisticated analysis of the racial issues in the U.S. requires backtracking a few steps to assess how we got to where we are in the first place. 

Teenagers are experiencing a pivotal moment in the U.S. with issues including Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, immigration reform, and cultural appropriation at the forefront. Given these facts, I would propose to high school students who are interested in looking more deeply into issues of race to read two pivotal books to understanding race in America: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King Jr.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X details the life and experiences of titular human rights activist El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz better known as Malcolm X. One of the most essential tasks that X’s autobiography accomplishes is contextualizing his ideals and beliefs within the framework of his own life. 

The autobiography details how pervasive and crushing white supremacy was to Black America through the 1920s and 1940s, with legal segregation being only the tip of the iceberg. X vividly recalls how his father was likely killed by white supremacists for his adherence to the Black pride and self-reliance ideals of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, only for his father’s death to be determined as a supposed suicide in a streetcar accident. X endured further traumatic experiences early in his life: having his family split up by state officials after his mother was committed to an institution, the complete rejection of Black Americans in what would be widely perceived as respectable careers at the time, and the personal experience of engaging and witnessing Harlem’s world of crime. All of this painted a picture of a world devoid of any opportunities for Black Americans and became fertile soil for resenting wider America. 

X also provides context on how athletics and entertainment were some of the few careers that Black Americans could feel fulfilled in without having to put on a face, as well as how the contributions of Black Americans were not even brought up in his education or life. According to X, the only time a Black person was brought up in his schooling was when his teacher was making a joke about how big Black feet were. 

I am not doing the autobiography justice here with all of the details and complexities that its pages embody: but by reading X’s book, one begins to understand that the very visceral experiences of white supremacy and exclusion, along with the legal and social subjugation of Black Americans that was prevalent at the time, became the foundation that would lead him to his initial beliefs of complete separation from white America, Black empowerment, and Black advancement “by any means necessary.” 

Another essential aspect of the autobiography is that as X recalls his life, you are also seeing him during a time of compelling transformation. Haley and X started to write and compile X’s autobiography when X was beginning to have doubts about the ideals of the Nation of Islam and the reputation of Elijah Muhammad. While X has continuously maintained black pride and empowerment as a central idea in his life, you see throughout the later chapters of the book that he faces exclusion and separation from the Nation of Islam and his eventual journey to Mecca, how he reassesses and transforms his ideas towards becoming oriented towards racial unity, self-defense, and a focus on human rights. 

The dynamic nature of X’s journey not only through retelling his life but within the struggles he faces near the end of the book breaks the illusion of a static legacy that surface-level coverages of X’s life dwell on. It’s easy to dismiss X as a “militant Black Nationalist” when calling him as such is an oversimplification of what he represents and the work he has strived to accomplish. Reading about his life from his own central perspective is essential in understanding how devastating racial oppression was in early 20th century America, and helps inform the patterns of continuity that exist between the struggles for racial justice then and now. 

The second recommendation is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last published book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, and it is fascinating as it details King’s perspectives right before his Poor Peoples’ Campaigns and after the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Los Angeles Watts Riots 1965. While King’s ideas and themes of hope still resonate in his book, he addresses the real uncertainties of the Civil Rights Movement through his 1967 writings. A multitude of Black Americans at his time of writing were discontent with the continuing violence and segregation being de-facto enforced even as laws that outlawed racial discrimination were being implemented. Most notably, he cites the Watts Riot as the continued result of such discontent and the continued lack of attention by America’s leaders to the grievances of Black America. King condemns the violence that occurred in the wake of the Watts Riot, but also cites that his ideals of nonviolent protest cannot be uniformly expected given the circumstances of poverty and economic exploitation millions of Black Americans faced. To King, rioting is a cry of desperation and despair when it seems like the rest of the country won’t listen to the concerns of the most downtrodden. 

In the same passionate vein, King also cites that one of the most mountainous barriers to racial progress has been what he describes as white backlash, which is part of the title in the third chapter of the book. What King cites as white backlash is the surfacing of long-existing prejudices and hostilities towards changes that confront racism. It materializes both through the ambivalence of racial issues and outward attempts to continue to socially and legally disenfranchise people of color, and at its worst, perpetuates a long legacy of hate-based violence. Though, I am again not doing King justice here with these scant details. King covers much more than the phenomenon of discontent, riots, and white backlash, but these aspects that he readily speaks about over 50 years ago still resonate with the struggles of today.

The primary reason why these two books should be read by teens is that a lot of the details and circumstances X and King write about are not just a reflection of the foundations of the America we see today, but also insight into how one can look to make progress within the struggles for racial justice in our present time. Through both of these men’s writings, one can see how Black pride has served as the foundation for Black empowerment and why there is such an emphasis on consolidating Black economic power through benefitting Black-owned businesses. One can also see how the cycle of violence spurred by racial hatred works in tandem with violence due to visceral discontent and desperation to devastate America as a whole. Notably, reading both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. side-by-side breaks the shallow façade—the oversimplification of their goals and ideologies—that these figures were juxtaposed to each other. Rather, each of these men resolved to challenge the discriminatory status quo through the means that were readily available in each of their lives to advocate for Black empowerment and unity. From a personal perspective, I’ve found that reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X has been fundamental in how I’ve contextualized my place and history in America as an Asian American and in the formation of my identity as a Korean Chinese American. I hope this short preview can compel you to consider reading these books as, perhaps, you are faced with your own questions on history, identity, and race in America.


Photo courtesy of Mike Von