It would take an exceedingly hardened patriot to feel celebratory this July 4. There’s so much evidence of how broken America is — our justice system, our healthcare system, certain politicians’ mental functioning — that it’s hard to whoop it up, mask or no.
So maybe instead of celebration, introspection. The following books won’t restore anyone’s flagging faith in our country, but no American history book worth its salt would do that anyway. What the books below do, splendidly, is expand the reader’s understanding of what and whom American history contains, and to whom it belongs. They remind us that patriotism is simply love of country, and love — strong, lasting love — requires questioning, listening, growth, change, contrition, and reparation.
I count it among one of my chief fortunes to have attended a lecture by Howard Zinn, and among my worst to have spent more time thinking about my then-boyfriend than the riveting historian at the podium. Howard Zinn passed away in 2010, and the posthumous 2015 edition of his seminal A People’s History of the United States (2015) is slightly out of date with the Trump era; nevertheless, Zinn’s focus on labor rights, Indigenous, Latinx, and women’s history, the LGBTQ+ movement, the civil rights movement and subsequent struggles for justice for Black Americans, and antiwar movements remain both required reading and an essential blueprint for what an inclusive national history can look like.
Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) are veteran scholars of Indigenous history. All the Real Indians Died Off takes on 21 pervasive and harmful stereotypes of Native Americans, such as rampant alcoholism in Native communities; victimhood; their reliance on social assistance; and Indian casino wealth. Critics point out that this isn’t a comprehensively detailed history, and it’s true: this is a quick read, a historical corrective and fine starting point for discussion and deeper research.
This is such an oldie, but it is consistently cited by educators, historians, and social justice activists as an accessible, warts-and-all approach to US history. Loewen is funny and clever while punching American exceptionalism right in the nuts, showing how facts support a reading of American history where atrocity, corruption, and white supremacy exist alongside achievements like religious freedom and the civil rights movement. It may sound like a no-brainer, but a lot of Americans still grow up believing that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, and that New World history begins with Columbus. Lies My Teacher Told Me entertainingly dismantles the lies in our shared history, making this a speedy must-read for Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs.
Acclaimed scholar Gates’s newest book delves into the periods of Reconstruction and Redemption, the latter a term for the institutional white backlash to the success of Reconstruction that included the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. Making no bones about the parallels between Obama’s presidency (Reconstruction) and Trump’s administration (Redemption), Gates explores how Redemption-era ideology continues to inform how Americans understand and act upon racist ideas. Fascinating and beautifully written, Stony the Road is an excellent resource for readers new to Reconstruction and those who wish to place this exceptional period and its aftermath in the context of today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s impossible to understand American history in its totality without considering our country’s tumultuous relationship with labor practices and unions. Historian Erik Loomis’s wonderful, chronological approach to America labor history examines 10 pivotal strikes over roughly 200 years, including the pioneering unionizing work of women workers and Black slaves, and how the anti-union fervor of the 1980s continues to negatively impact workers’ rights.
A huge undertaking, Harvest of Empire explores 500 years of Latinx history in the United States. González focuses on American empire, and how US relations (and machinations) have destabilized Latin American countries and spurred immigration to the US. González does a great job of demonstrating the Latinx roots in America’s foundation and development, and his discussion of how Latinx pop cultural influences are appropriated and Anglicized is really compelling.
Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore considers the legacy of America’s foundational values — political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people — in this excellent book. Examining US history from the colonies to Trump, Lepore masterfully weaves in and out of large-scale narratives (slavery, the Civil War, Vietnam, etc.) and riveting biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Margaret Fuller, and others. If a straightforward, beautifully written, eyes-wide-open accounting of US history is what you’re after, These Truths is a great pick.
If you enjoy presidential histories, try Dunbar’s National Book Award-nominated Never Caught, which chronicles the successful escape of Ona Judge, one of the nine slaves George Washington brought with him when he was elected president. Washington went to great lengths to recover Judge, and Dunbar’s revelations about the first president’s machinations to hold onto his slaves despite a Philadelphia law barring ownership past six months are fascinating, adding nuance to the noble, cherry tree legend most of us learn in school.
Part of the reason we study history is to make better, more just policy decisions in the present. Civil rights activist and Pod Save the People host DeRay Mckessen’s On the Other Side of Freedom builds on his knowledge of racial oppression to design a pragmatic, political program for freedom. Mckesson makes a convincing case for how Americans’ static understanding of racial history — that racism is located in the pre-civil rights past — has stunted our country’s willingness and ability to address the deep-seated injustices that lead to economic and physical violence against Black people. That all sounds very weedy, but Mckesson is a veteran educator and speaker who turns complicated concepts into relatable, galvanizing, and often personal prose. If you’re waiting on your copy of How to Be an Antiracist, On the Other Side of Freedom is an excellent (and Ibram X. Kendi-approved) place to start your antiracist education.