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Today’s Read Harder task is “Read a History About a Period You Know Little About.” This assignment, which seemed straightforward to me when I took it, got more complicated when I sat down to come up with a list of qualifying books. After all, what about books that cover a period I know a fair amount about, but from a perspective I’m unfamiliar with? Or books that address a specific topic that I know very little about over a long period of history – or conversely, microhistories addressing a very narrow subject that I am again woefully unfamiliar with, but taking place during a period I thought I knew well?
In the end, I came up with a list of books whose summaries made me go “Huh. I didn’t know that!” And even though the “forgotten” parts of history are often obscured because they reflect very, very badly on the dominant (white, ablebodied) culture, meaning that most of these are likely to be hard reads, the fact that I struggled to cut this list down rather than build it up is indicative of one of my favorite aspects of history: there’s always more to learn.
Make sure to get your own Read Harder Book Journal from Book Riot to track your reading for the year!
Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
As a white American, I know at least the mainstream African American history that’s taught in schools, though the older I get, the more I realize how little I actually know. How much less, then, do I know about the history of Black people in England? This history dates back to Roman Britain, situating Black Britons as part of the history and culture of the nation rather than rare exceptions.
The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez
This book makes the case that Indian slavery – technically illegal but openly practiced for centuries – was one of the major causes of Native American genocide and one with which we still have not reckoned. Again, I know mainstream (white) American history pretty well. I don’t know about this.
That subtitle! How could I not want to read it? I know very little about Chinese history in general, so there are centuries to dive into here, but Empress Dowager Cixi lived from 1835-1908 (and ruled China from 1861 on), so that’s the period we’re looking at for this one.
The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley
The case this book revolves around – the sterilization of a “promiscuous” socialite by her mother in order to control millions of dollars of her inheritance – took place in 1934, and I’ll admit I’m a 1930s history buff – but I know far less about disability history and reproductive rights than I’d like to, and stories like Britney Spears’s only serve to illuminate how sadly relevant this sort of thing still remains.
Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II by Madhusree Mukerjee
You can’t mention that you like history without having a million World War II books chucked your way – but India is almost never mentioned. This book examines the period between 1940 and 1944 and the devastation Churchill’s decisions wreaked on the subcontinent.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
I love urban history, especially that of my native New York, but books on the topic tend to focus on the 19th century and earlier, and rarely address disturbing aspects like the way American governments at every level codified segregation in our cities throughout most of the 20th century.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
This history of the migration of almost six million Black southerners to other parts of the country over the years 1915-1970 has been on my TBR for ages, and having now read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste has just moved it higher up on the list.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich
The thing about historical events that happen when you’re a child is: you’re too little to understand them, but they’re too recent for you to learn about them in school. So it was for me with the end of the Soviet Union when I was seven. All I’ve ever gotten is a vague sense that America and capitalism are just so gosh-darn superior; I have a feeling it’s a little bit more nuanced than that.
And that’s my list of possible reads! Yours will look different, obviously, given the personal nature of this task, but here’s hoping we all learn something new from it.
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