by Annette Gordon-Reed (W.W. Norton and Company) The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings is perhaps the single most scandalous relationship in American history. For an imbalance of power, it beats even Clinton/Lewinsky by a good margin, and many will have a hard time reconciling Jefferson’s commitment to freedom with the fact of his legal ownership of his mistress. Still, it is difficult not to be fascinated by Jefferson and Hemings while still wondering about the sort of reality Sally Hemings must have lived. Gordon-Reed is both a historian and legal scholar, and her book is just as impeccably researched as you would expect. The writing may be a bit scholarly for the tastes of some, but it is well worth a read.
Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga by Pamela Newkirk (Harper) In the opening years of the 20th century, a human being was displayed in the Monkey House of the New York Zoological Gardens. Ota Benga was a pygmy from the Congo who was first brought to the United States in 1904 to be exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair before being displayed in New York. Spectacle is a fascinating but painful look at racism and colonialism, as well as the evolution of science.
Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (Broadway Books) A tense narrative nonfiction about the days after Hurricane Katrina, when Memorial Medical Center was abandoned and staff were left to care for dozens of seriously ill patients on their own. Fink does an amazing job dropping the reader right into the rapidly deteriorating conditions, under which some of the remaining patients died after being given large doses of morphine.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor) We Should All Be Feminists has appeared in other forms before—first as a TED Talk, then as a digital-only short–but Adichie’s thoughts on feminism are now available in print for the first time. Her powerful piece explores not only why she is a feminist, but why everyone should be. Adichie is concise but impactful, encouraging readers to adopt a policy of inclusion and support rather than exclusion and hate.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) New York Times columnist Charles Blow grew up in poverty in a 1970s antebellum South not yet altered by the civil rights movement. Sexually abused by his uncle, Blow grows up in shroud of depression, isolated in his despair and with anger that only intensifies as he grows older. In this emotional memoir, Blow confronts his past, illuminating the struggle presented by his own conflicting sexual identity and our nation’s deep-seated racism.
by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau) Coates presents a brutal analysis of the current state of race relations in America in the form of a letter to his young son. His words are at once inspiring and heartbreaking—he pulls from both America’s and his own personal history to weave together an argument that not only are we not in the post-racial society we tell ourselves we are, but we are actually quite far from it. Given some of the events of the past few years, Coates’ words should be taken as a letter to all Americans, not just his son.
Respect by David Ritz (Little Brown and Company) Ritz’s role as ghostwriter of Aretha Franklin’s earlier autobiography provides him a unique position from which to write a more definitive version of the singer’s fascinating and tumultuous life. Rich with intimate personal details and perspective contributed by Franklin’s sisters and confidantes, Ritz’s portrait gives new reasons to admire Franklin’s artistry in crafting an astounding body of work in the midst of profound personal and professional challenges. Franklin, and this rendering of her, is an inspiration.