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First Word

Broaden your bookshelf

Northeastern University professors recommend books that inform today’s conversations about identity.

Rashida Richardson
Assistant Professor of Law and Political Science

The poet Claudia Rankine’s Just Us: An American Conversation (2020) speaks to conflicts of identity without falling into identity politics — there’s a passage about her struggles to understand issues within the Latinx community as a Black person, for example. I also love the way it uses citations. There will be a poem, essay, or statement on one page, then on the opposite she’ll provide supporting evidence — an academic source, social media posts. I sent people screenshots as I was reading it; I couldn’t help myself. 

Marilyn Minus
Chair & Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

I was surprised to find myself relating to Ulysses S. Grant when reading Grant (2017), Ron Chernow’s biography. The Civil War general turned president, who came from an abolitionist family, struggled with the fact that he married into a family that owned slaves. Growing up in the Bahamas, with a mother who’s Indian and Scottish and a father who’s Black, I had to deal with differences in my own sense of self. Sometimes, as you navigate who you are, you have to consider the perspectives around you. 

Régine Jean-Charles
Director of Africana Studies; Dean’s Professor of Culture and Social Justice; Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

I was reluctant to read Octavia Butler as an undergrad because I wasn’t a science fiction person. But some friends sold me on it — “this is a Black feminist text!” — and I was completely hooked. Kindred (1979) is part of an innovative canon of Black feminist thinking on race and gender justice, along with work by Black women authors like Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, and Marie NDiaye, who poke and prod at the idea of tradition. 

Nicole Aljoe
Professor of English and Africana Studies

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016), a wonderful pendant to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, offers a personal, visceral response to the feelings of enslavement. We tend to focus on slavery and its ramifications from a U.S. perspective. Homegoing gives us a new perspective, highlighting the international aspects of the slave trade and demonstrating its global effects. Gyasi shows that the complexity we want to claim for 21st century society is rooted 300 years in the past.

Amílcar Antonio Barreto
Chair & Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies; Professor of International Affairs and Political Science

Most scholars in my field examine that which we intentionally commemorate. Ali Behdad’s A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States (2005) flips the script, examining painful chapters in our past we work hard to forget, and asking us to reconsider what we think we know about our families, our countries, and our identities. I have an Albanian friend who refuses to take a DNA test for fear it may reveal he’s part Serbian (the “enemy,” as he puts it). What would happen to his identity were he to uncover an “unsavory” truth about his familial past? 

Candice Delmas
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Science

W.E.B. Du Bois provides an astute and penetrating analysis of blackness and white supremacy that continues to illuminate the present. From The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920), his defense of an interracial democratic polity is more relevant than ever, arguing that racial justice cannot be achieved through “color-blindness.” Against the idea that the progress of some groups means the decline of others, Du Bois shows that everyone stands to gain from genuine democratic inclusion and participation.

Linda Blum
Professor of Sociology

Dawn Marie Dow’s Mothering While Black (2019) demonstrates the unique pressure Black mothers face because of negative stereotypes of their own identities, having to meet economic expectations while also displaying that they, too, are good mothers. Mothers are often judged and pitted against one another along lines of class, race, ethnicity, and religion. If we want to get back the ground we’re losing in the fight for gender equality, we have to break down these boundaries together.

Carla Kaplan
Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature; Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Netflix is releasing a film of Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novella Passing (1929) this fall, which makes this a perfect time to read Larsen’s slim story. Larsen’s novel was ahead of its time in contesting the idea of race and depicting attempts to regulate racial categories as deadly. Passing weaves together a story of racial passing and same-sex desire, revealing the complex ways in which race, gender, and sexuality constitute our identities and how our longings and desires exceed all social outlets available for their satisfaction.

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