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History, American: America and Race: A Bibliography for UK History Undergraduates

Left: Native Americans at U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., Sept. 1936. Center: Civil rights march on Washington, D.C., 1965. Right: Roy Takano [i.e., Takeno] and Mayor, town hall meeting, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943.

 

America and Race: A Bibliography for UK History Undergraduates

 The America and Race bibliography project presents works that provide accessible historical insights into conceptions of race, the social construction of difference, and the freedom struggles that have attempted to dismantle white supremacy. The project adopts a broad chronological span from early America to the contemporary United States, and includes Atlantic, global, national, and regional approaches. The titles that appear below are recommendations for critical engagement, rather than endorsements.  

This bibliography provides a resource for undergraduates across the UK who are delving deeper into their study of the history of American racism, be it in self-directed further reading, independent revision or preliminary dissertation research. Module designers may also wish to use this list. The bibliography categories are organised chronologically, with more thematic categories at the end.  

The scholarly books and articles on this list are generally available in research libraries, including university libraries accessible to undergraduates, and the publicly accessible British Library, Institute of Historical Research, National Library of Scotland, and National Library of Wales. Northern Irish readers without university affiliation may be able to access the National Library of Ireland in Dublin. Check www.worldcat.org for the nearest copies. Whenever an open access resource exists, the link has been provided.

The following is a highlights edition of the bibliography, which has been curated from an extended bibliography of more than 1,000 titles. Both editions are available as PDF files at https://www.rai.ox.ac.uk/america-and-race-bibliography.

General Topics

The history of race and racism in America has always been a lived experience, and studying it is as much about empathy as it is about knowledge. This bibliography begins with a selection of memoirs in the hope of keeping people at the centre of this story and allowing them to speak for themselves. Through autobiographical writing, people of colour have often found space to express themselves in a system that otherwise restricted this. The individual voices that come through in memoirs, diaries and autobiographies provide counternarratives to historical monographs, where a focus on the bigger picture often risks drowning out idiosyncrasies and a sense of the vitality and variation of human existence. The breadth of these texts reminds us that people’s lives were not solely defined by the regime that oppressed them. Nevertheless, the genre is governed by conventions, contains biases, and is not immune to outside pressures. As such, memoirs, like monographs, should be read critically.

You can frame your historical studies in an anti-racist way by thinking critically about sources and categories. The following titles model how to read sources against the grain and recognise silences in the archive. This is essential work for the historian, especially in the study of race and racism. It is equally crucial to interrogate the concept of race itself throughout your work, questioning exactly what this means and how the concept has been deployed. Intersectional approaches help the historian recognise that race and racism intersect with other markers of identity and forms of oppression, such as those based on gender and class. The pieces highlighted below are useful inspiration for how to incorporate anti-racist methodologies and frameworks into your historical practice.

Race is not an element of human biology (like breathing oxygen or reproducing sexually); nor is it even an idea (like the speed of light or the value of Pi) that can be plausibly imagined to live an eternal life of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology. It came into existence at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons and is subject to change for similar reasons.’ So wrote Barbara Jeanne Fields in her pathbreaking 1990 article. The works in this section examine how an anti-Black racial ideology formed in early America, with particular attention to the revolutionary period, and why it persisted, and how it has changed over time.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, African American intellectuals wrote critiques of white supremacy and the unequal privileges enjoyed by those individuals who could claim possession of white identity. In the final decades of the twentieth century, there was a surge of interdisciplinary studies that analysed the social construction of ‘whiteness’ and the larger societal structures that were based upon white privilege. Among other topics, Critical White Theory scholars discussed the role of white identity in creating and preserving unequal social, political, and economic systems that were predicated on racial hierarchies. 

Modern American Topics I

In the context of long abolitionist movements around the Atlantic world, the American Civil War became a war to end slavery, but failed to finally answer the question of how millions of free Black people would fit into the post-emancipation United States. The study of these subjects considers whether a nation stuck inside a racist ideology could sustain a form of modern citizenship based on equal rights. 

Following the American Revolution, US settlers and policymakers expanded into Indigenous homelands throughout the continent. In doing so, they undertook systematic campaigns of dispossession and destruction, which historians such as Jeffrey Ostler have deemed genocidal. These ranged from federal policies of mass removal and large-scale acts of violence to ‘civilization’ schemes and processes of legal and social erasure through reclassification as ‘vanished’ Indians or ‘free people of colour’. Yet, as this body of work shows, from East to West Indigenous people found ways to resist American empire and sustain sovereign Native Nations that endure to the present day. How did Indigenous Americans experience and resist US settler colonialism in the long nineteenth century?

What role did racial ideologies play in the construction of the United States empire project? Historians have explored this question in a number of ways. They have examined the processes of racializing colonial subjects undertaken by military officials, civilian governors, missionaries, and anthropologists used to justify colonial state-making. Recent works have probed the complex intersections of imperial race-making with other exceptionalising ideologies such as gender, religion, nationalism, and sexuality – and how they were utilised by US anti-imperialists to oppose the acquisition of new territories and incorporation of non-white peoples. Historians have also shown how empire-building was itself transformed by ideas about race in the United States, for instance in Chinese Exclusion and immigration restriction, Jim Crow and race science, Progressivism and public health, labour relations, environmentalism, and ‘the Indian question’. Imperial racial ideologies were adapted to patterns of anticolonial resistance, while Black anti-colonialism decisively shaped US foreign relations from the inter-war period through the Cold War. How has empire shaped not only US international affairs, but also approaches to disaster and debt relief in US overseas territories and immigration policy? What are the ongoing legacies of empire in domestic culture and race-making? 

Race and racism in the United States and United Kingdom have always been connected. Before the American Revolution, the British government and British subjects instituted slavery in their North American colonies (see the previous category "Slavery and Race"), and since then both racist ideas and anti-racist activists have travelled back and forth across the Atlantic, from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King to Black Lives Matter. While the history of race in Britain is a different story to the history of race in the United States, these transatlantic connections are crucial for understanding race in both contexts.   

Across the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a system called Jim Crow developed in the United States. It built on existing practice, drew on new ideas, and imposed a white supremacist order buttressed by state and local law, as well as by mob violence. The infamous system encompassed segregation and race-based disenfranchisement, and the period also saw an attendant rise in lynchings and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The term ‘Jim Crow’ refers specifically to the system that evolved in the Southern states, but white supremacy was a feature of life across America, and Black people were not the only racialised group that both suffered and resisted oppression and violence during this era. Please see the extended bibliography for works which address the experiences of Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and other groups during this period. 

Thematic Topics

People of colour in America have, for centuries, turned to art, music, film and fashion, as a means of self-expression within a system that attempted to limit who and what they should be. The cultural output of communities of colour has, at times, directly addressed the white gaze, entering into a dialogue and becoming an act of rebellion. At other times, it has attempted to exist in isolation from white America, becoming a refuge for many. Studying the arts and popular culture produced by communities of colour reveals a story of joy, creativity and resistance, that provides a necessary and welcome counternarrative to the one of oppression, racialisation and trauma upon which our focus so often falls. The readings below showcase and discuss the cultural output of non-white communities, whilst Kitwana’s work takes the example of hip-hop to address broader questions of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. 

Black people in the Americas, from the era of the Atlantic Slave Trade to the present, have theorized about the causes and conditions of racial oppression, the pathways to freedom and equality, the question of collective identity, and many other topics. The history of Black intellectual life both recovers the thinking of people often deemed unthinking and reveals how Black cultural formations and political movements have recast foundational ideas of nation, race, gender, class, religion, culture and history itself. The varied avenues which Black people in the Americas have travelled in forming and expressing their ideas calls into question traditional understandings of the sources of thought and of the social category of the intellectual. 

These readings raise important questions about how medical and scientific knowledge has historically served to demarcate racial boundaries. They also raise questions about how Black and white healers have historically claimed medical authority, and to what extent people of African descent have been able to resist the imposition of medical knowledge that embedded ideas about racial inferiority.

The structures and practice of law have played important roles in defining race, particularly at the intersections of slavery, freedom and citizenship. Legal history is now a leading method for understanding historical processes of racializing people. It also explores how poor, displaced, and disenfranchised people navigated the sharp imbalances of power in legal systems and sometimes managed to achieve their ends, whether that be formal freedom from slavery, or the access to equal schools. The historians featured here consider law, whether reactionary or progressive, to be inseparable from the society in which it is practiced.

Inspired by an ethos of democratic inclusion, the founding historiography of American immigration established a normative theory based on a model of assimilation, emphasising the breakdown of immigrant cultures and their assimilation into the dominant Anglo-culture. New analytical frameworks from labour and transnational history have shown that immigrant communities exerted an ongoing influence in the receiving and sending societies. This literature emphasises the porousness of international borders and the legal, cultural and political ‘gatekeeping’ strategies this produced – be it deportation, exclusion or border policing. Many of these works take a comparative, diasporic approach to the production of racial differences, national belonging, and citizenship. Scholars in this field have also grappled with the utility of ‘ethnicity’ as a concept for understanding identity formation among immigrant groups, especially its tendency to elide questions of race and racism in the history of immigration.

Confessional identity shaped how European colonisers of North America understood human difference, from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Catholic and Protestant competition and evangelism was a major driver of their colonial projects. The process of defining who belonged to a confessional group and which protections must be extended to members contributed to the construction of racial difference. At the same time, a wide range of religions have been central to both personal and organised anti-racist resistance, from Indian removal and Atlantic slavery to the present day. As the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr illustrates, anti-racist activists have also insisted that America live up to its Christian creed in terms of treating all Americans as equals.

Historical study of the intersection between race and sexuality encompasses several projects. Some of this work is recuperative; it seeks to uncover the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning people of colour, which have often been neglected or covered up. Another theme of this scholarship is how sexual identity has taken on political meaning in different historical contexts. Saidiya Hartman, for instance, employs an approach she calls ‘critical fabulation’ to imagine what queer Black women’s lives might have looked like beyond the small traces in the archive, and in what ways their sexuality was a mode of resistance to compulsory heterosexuality. The rise of gay liberationist movements in the 1970s and 1980s joined Black Power as a target of conservative backlash. Gay rights activist often drew inspiration from the long history of civil rights protest, and even made use of civil rights statutes in lobbying for change. However, the two movements did not exist in complete harmony, and elements of the gay rights movement were often racist, just as elements of the Black power movement were renowned for being homophobic.

Early American Topics

How did Europeans conceive of Native American bodies and articulate human difference in the first stages of colonialism in America? In this early period before ‘race’ came to take on its more modern connotations, white authors made observations about complexion, language, foodways, and ‘customs’ such as clothing or social organization. The scholars cited here have sought to investigate cross-cultural historical encounters through the lens of the European imagination and the socio-political construction of racism that developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but also through Native perspectives, acknowledging that the history of settler colonialism continues to affect Indigenous communities today.

In the early Spanish Americas, ideas about race were shaped at the intersection of many factors that determined a person’s identity and identification, including religion, social reputation, ethnicity, skin colour, and legal status, as well as Iberian concepts of blood purity and lineage. The history of encounters between diverse Indigenous peoples, Black Africans, Spaniards (Iberian-born peninsulars and American-born creoles), and mestizos (people of mixed ancestry) reveals how race could be interpreted, imposed, and negotiated. There is no single history of race in early Spanish America; rather, race is an important concept to think with to understand histories of identity formation, intolerance, and colonial violence, among many other topics. 

The French presence in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America encompassed Newfoundland, the St Lawrence Valley, the Mississippi corridor, Louisiana and the Caribbean. In most of these regions, settlers found themselves greatly outnumbered by indigenous polities around them (especially by comparison to English settlers on the Atlantic seaboard) and thus actively fostered social, diplomatic and commercial relationships with Native peoples. Over time, however, the French became increasingly engaged in the enslavement of Native Americans, Africans and African-descended people in these territories. Concepts such as métissage, creolization and cultural hybridity that scholars have used to understand racial identity formation in early French North America must, therefore, be set alongside white supremacy as an emerging ideology of colonial settlement. Students will benefit from thinking comparatively across the wide and diverse geography of early French America to consider the roles of gender, slavery and Native power in shaping new ideas of racial difference. 

This section, which has been subject to extensive historiographical debate among historians, explores the regime of slavery from its 1619 origins in British North America, through the creation of the United States, the antebellum (or pre-war) era of enslavement and the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-65). The construction and consolidation of racial difference as a marker of enslavement during this period provided the foundations for systems of racial subjugation thereafter. The works in this category span a range of thematic issues, including the lives of enslaved people and how they resisted the regime, the role played by gender in shaping experiences of enslavement, and the role of slavery in the social, political and economic development of the United States.  

People of African descent resisted enslavement from the very beginning of the process to slave emancipation. Historian Hilary Beckles, for example, has argued that slave resistance in the British Caribbean should be considered as a two-hundred-year war between enslaved persons and slaveowners. Resistance could range from day to day acts of defiance to larger collective action including marronage, revolts and revolution. Most recently, historians have begun to properly situate the Haitian Revolution in the wider context of the Age of Revolutions. Others have also begun to pay more attention to other major slave revolts and their significant impact on the wider interconnected Atlantic World slave system. Vincent Brown’s recent book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, for example, conceives the 1760 Tacky’s Revolt as a slave war that fundamentally reshaped ideas of race and belonging in the British Empire. To what extent has the study of slave resistance helped to shed light on how enslaved persons understood the system of racial slavery? 

Modern American Topics II

The fight against white supremacy in the United States has a long history, from resistance to slavery to the present day. Historical literature has, however, focused overwhelmingly on the 1960s, often putting forward a declensionist narrative that sees a peaceful, effective ‘Civil Rights Movement’ followed by a violent, ineffective Black Power movement. In fact, the Black freedom struggle was long and varied, and ultimately a combination of pressures forced the US federal government to outlaw segregation and disenfranchisement in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though this was by no means the end of the fight. Moreover, Black protests against racism were accompanied by, and allied with, protests by many other groups against many different forms of oppression, both within and beyond the United States.  

The Black Freedom Struggle in the United States, from the outset, had a universal vision and international connections. Seeking global solidarities was a key aspect of Black nationalism, and embryonic Black Power ideology was shaped by Pan-Africanist thinking, for example through the work of Marcus Garvey. Black thinkers and activists conceptualised Black protest in an expansive way, not limiting themselves to seeking reform within the American political system, but harbouring much more radical dreams of freedom, as Robin Kelley’s book shows. Though dismissed and derided by opponents, radical protest was a central feature of Black activism, and often proved to be ahead of its time. For example, the longstanding call for reparations has gained increasing support within and beyond the United States in recent years.  

Recent scholarship has begun to look more closely at the history of conservative backlash that runs parallel to that of civil rights progress. A new wave of historians, led by George Lewis and Kevin Kruse, have begun to take seriously the history of those white Americans who supported, defended or refused to challenge racial hierarchies. What such scholarship has revealed is that racism was deeply intertwined with a host of political, economic and social issues – therein lay its power. In the mid-twentieth century, Americans who sought to turn back civil rights gains and return to some supposed status quo organised a reactionary movement termed ‘massive resistance’. Nonetheless, as the primary source below shows, Black activists continued to demand more of white people, calling out the hypocrisy of white moderates and liberals who professed to be against racial discrimination but shied away from supporting anti-racist action. 

The United States prison population has increased more than 500% in the last four decades. More than two million people are currently incarcerated in America, and many more are still living under the carceral apparatus through probation and parole. Scholars of carceral history are studying what contributed to this massive shift and its effects, and specifically uncovering the anti-Black racism that shaped each part of the criminal-legal system from policing to sentencing to prison. Highlights for this category focus on incarceration; please see the extended bibliography for works on capitalism and urbanisation, many of which are in conversation with the carceral studies literature. 

Further Information

Subject Librarian Image of Bethan Davies, Subject Librarian for American Studies.

For further help on researching US History, Politics and Culture, contact Bethan Davies, the Vere Harmsworth Librarian by:

email: bethan.davies@bodleian.ox.ac.uk 

phone: 01865 282701

 

Vere Harmsworth Library

The Vere Harmsworth Library is Oxford's research library for US History, Politics and Culture. Before planning a visit to consult our collections, please visit our website for the latest details about opening hours, services and other key information. 

Address

Vere Harmsworth Library 

Rothermere American Institute 

1A South Parks Road 

Oxford, OX1 3UB 

Email: vhl@bodleian.ox.uk 

History Faculty Library

If you are a current undergraduate at Oxford, the majority of your reading materials will be held at the History Faculty Library (HFL), based at the Radcliffe Camera. 

For more information about using the HFL, visit their website. 

Further guides and resources

Acknowledgements

The America & Race bibliography project was directed by Sonia Tycko, the Kinder Junior Research Fellow in Atlantic History, and coordinated by Amelia Hart, Research Intern, at the Rothermere American Institute in September–November 2020. Bethan Davies, the Vere Harmsworth Librarian, built the LibGuides page and consulted throughout. We gratefully acknowledge the funding from the RAI; the thoughtful contributions of all survey respondents; the editorial input of Uta Balbier, Stephanie Cavanaugh, Jane Dinwoodie, Yasmin Dualeh, Katherine Fapp, Rivers Gambrell, Sage Goodwin, Joseph la Hausse de Lalouvière, Rachel Herrmann, Natalie Hill, Mara Keire, Sam Klug, Josh Lappen, Tess Little, Nathan Marvin, Claire Massey, Christoph Nitschke, Katherine Paugh, Dexnell Peters, Lydia Plath, Mitch Robertson, Barbara Savage, Adam Smith, Carson Smith, Laura Ellyn Smith, Neil Suchak, Stephen Tuffnell, Grace Watkins, Emily West, Lauren Working, and Kariann Yokota; and the advice of Alice Kelly, Richard Purkiss, Karen Walker and Eve Worth.  

Image credits: Left: Native Americans at U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., Sept. 1936, Library of Congress Call Number: LC-H2- B-11191 [P&P]; Center: Civil rights march on Washington, D.C., 1963 Aug. 28, Library of Congress Call Number: LC-U9- 10364-37 [P&P]; Right: Roy Takano [i.e., Takeno] and Mayor, town hall meeting, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943, Library of Congress Call Number: LOT 10479-4, no. 20 [P&P].

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