U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Black Panther Party Reading List: An Education

A few years ago, I saw the Black Panther Party reading list floating around on facebook. Because it was facebook, I decided to verify its history. According to itsabouttimebpp.com ( a treasure trove for those interested in Panther history) it was a suggested list for new members in 1968.

Some of these books were unfamiliar to me, or books I didn’t necessarily intend on reading. But others were integral to my own development as a scholar interested in race and intellectual history.

I first read John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom as a textbook in my early African American history survey my sophomore year of college. I much preferred buying individual texts and monographs, even then, but I loved my Franklin textbook. I covered it in post it note annotations. I still remember that shiny new book smell it carried for weeks into the semester. And sometimes, I would just flip through the volume, excited to read and learn and think more. Though I considered myself interested in African American history before I took the class, it was my first prolonged engagement with many ideas integral to African American history. And I can’t help wonder how many scholars of African American history, or American history writ large, are still being introduced to African American history through Franklin’s text (which has, of course, gone through many revisions). I can’t know why the Panthers chose to read Franklin’s text, or what they saw in it, but as one of the first major surveys written by an African American historian, I can see why it might be appealing.

I first read Native Son by Richard Wright as a first year MA student at South Carolina. I had enrolled in an African American literature seminar against my advisors advice (“they don’t use evidence like we do”, he said of English). Though my relationship to Native Son has changed over the years, in that first reading I saw for the first time the ways in which fiction-the novel-could shift my perspective on history-a history of the “urban crisis” that I was interested in at the time. Now, I can see that taking that class, and reading Native Son, among other works, was the first step in transforming my methodological interests. Now, my interests are in prison literature, a radical departure from my early interest in social history, a departure made possible by Richard Wright.

I first read (parts of, I won’t lie) Dubois’ Black Reconstruction after our very own Robert Greene mentioned it often in seminar. I would have 5 seminars with him during my time at Carolina, and in each, he encouraged me to read Dubois Reconstruction. It transformed my perspective on reconstruction, something we talked a lot about in Columbia, South Carolina, But it also transformed my perspective on history. Of course, I knew, that many writers and scholars and artists of color had been erased from “the canon” and the scholarship. But to know that Dubois wrote a history of reconstruction that would still be ground breaking to a student of African American history all these years later was remarkable.

I read the Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward the summer I left Carolina. I was suffering from homesickness and for some unknown reason, I decided to cure it with exclusively reading about the South that summer (and eating a lot of cheese straws). Woodward had been mentioned in nearly every class on Southern history I had taken, seeming to haunt our work, though it was never assigned. That summer I read a lot of southern literature (ranging from James Agee to Dorothy Allison to Rick Bragg), but Woodward’s book was profoundly influential. Not simply because I could see my own lineage as a budding southern historian more clearly, but because I could see the ways in which the discipline itself had shifted over time. Woodward didn’t use footnotes like historians now use footnotes. Some parts of the strange little book border on polemic. But there was no question, at the time, that it was history. It serves as a nice reminder that as firmly entrenched as disciplinary norms and boundaries may seem, they have not always existed and they won’t always exist.

I read Fanon during my second year in a Ph.D program, at a time when I was feeling cynical about the purpose of scholarship and history, feeling bored reading monograph after monograph. This feeling didn’t end until I decided to change disciplines, but Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and A Dying Colonialism gave me a brief reprieve. History does, and could, matter. And it’s not necessarily defined by the historian. This seems basic-and I of course got a whole lot more out of Fanon-but this feeling of significance, and of seeing my work in a new light, is what strikes me now.

My experience with some of the books on the Black Panther Party reading list-as a white, cisgendered woman in academia- is clearly very different from the experience of the intended audience of this list. But these books weren’t just books I enjoyed reading, but were instead foundational and transformative. I can’t help but wonder how each of these books transformed the Panthers.