You Never Forget Your First: a Biography of George Washington

Alexis Coe

Not only is historian Alexis Coe one of the only women to ever write a biography on George Washington, she’s one of the only female historians to do so in over one hundred years. Drawing back the curtain on one of America’s original “Great Men”, Coe engages with archival sources to reveal the man behind the mythic figure. For example, one of the most popular enduring (and silly) myths is of Washington’s teeth being wooden. The truth is far more ghastly; the teeth came from slaves. Coe’s analysis coupled with her accessible writing style makes this the perfect introduction into presidential biographies for those often intimidated by the male-dominated genre. Her writing challenges us to question as to how men of American history are molded and warped into mythic figures, propped up as infallible figures of god-like proportions. We’re asked to challenge our belief in these figures and how we use their legacy. This biography properly introduces us to George Washington as he was and challenges how we remember and learn about the American Revolution and the men who led it.

Get this book at Loyola University Chicago Library.

Review by Erin Witt

The American Police

Featuring Khalil Gibran Muhammad

On this hour-long episode of NPR podcast Throughline, Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad discusses the historic use of police brutality as a method for condemning and controlling the African American community. Muhammad draws context from his 2011 book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. He describes how slave patrols provided some of the earliest policing in the American colonies. After the Civil War, Southern states passed the Black Codes, which heavily restricted newly-freed slaves. The Black Codes evolved into the Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation and fueled white supremacy. During the Great Migration of the 1920s and 1930s, black Americans fled to the North, hoping for a better life. However, the police in the North refused to help black Americans as they faced violence and discrimination from their white neighbors.

Muhammad demonstrates that the police have a long history of brutality and corruption in America. He concludes by reflecting on the death of George Floyd and offering his thoughts on what long-term changes need to be made to address police brutality in America.

Listen to this Podcast on NPR.

Review by Rachel Madden

Slavery by Another Name

Directed by Sam Pollard

This PBS documentary, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the same name by Douglas A. Blackmon, examines the history of prison labor from the end of the Civil War into the 20th century and how it was designed to perpetuate forced labor along racial lines even after slavery had been abolished. It shows in vivid, gut-wrenching detail how an institution was created to serve a few over the needs and dignity of a great many, told through first-hand accounts, letters, newspapers, and a wide range of other contemporary sources.

Watch this documentary on youtube.

Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

Directed by Julia Marchesi

Henry Louis Gates Jr. presents a vital new four-hour documentary series on Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. The series explores the transformative years following the American Civil War, when the nation struggled to rebuild itself in the face of profound loss, massive destruction, and revolutionary social change. The twelve years that composed the post-war Reconstruction era (1865-77) witnessed a seismic shift in the meaning and makeup of our democracy, with millions of former slaves and free black people seeking out their rightful place as equal citizens under the law. Though tragically short-lived, this bold democratic experiment was, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, a ‘brief moment in the sun’ for African Americans, when they could advance, and achieve, education, exercise their right to vote, and run for and win public office.

Watch this documentary on PBS.

13th

Directed by: Ava DuVernay

What does it mean to be a criminal? This documentary investigates the racial disparities in the United States prison and justice system. A loophole in the 13th amendment that allows criminals to be enslaved, has been used in different iterations over the last 150 years to target communities of color, primarily Black. This documentary puts the criminalization of Black people as a continuation of American Chattel Slavery. The film argues that systemic racism not only exists in the justice system but does extreme damage to communities of color. 13th provides valuable context and exposes the roots of racial disparities in the United States justice system.

Watch this documentary on Netflix.

Hidden Figures

Margot Lee Shetterly, 2016

This book documents and highlights the work of Black women who worked as mathematicians at NACA (which eventually becomes NASA post-WWII). Shetterly chronicles the personal and professional lives of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden as they navigate the plethora of challenges that come with being Black women during the 1940s-70s. Hidden Figures shows how this racism and sexism affected their professional goals of entering the white, male-dominated STEM field. Not ones to bow to societal pressures, these women built successful careers while having fulfilling and busy family lives as well. It beautifully blends rich, flowing prose with historical analysis and insight, making this a perfect introduction for those who haven’t read historical nonfiction before. It also challenges the dominant “white” image of NASA, ensuring that these “Hidden Figures” aren’t relegated to the shadows of history and rightfully brought into the spotlight.

Get this book at Loyola University Chicago Library.

Review by Erin Witt

Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America

Kristian Williams, 2007

A book on the history of police violence. “In this extensively revised and updated edition of his seminal study of policing in the United States, Kristian Williams shows that police brutality isn’t an anomaly, but is built into the very meaning of law enforcement in the United States. From antebellum slave patrols to today’s unarmed youth being gunned down in the streets, “peace keepers” have always used force to shape behavior, repress dissent, and defend the powerful”. 

Get this book at Loyola University Chicago Library.