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Ten Documentaries and Ten Books on Race in America

Daniel Hautzinger

While protests continue throughout the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and as Americans consider the profound influence racism  has had on all sectors of American life and society, WTTW and WFMT Vice President of Community Engagement Tim Russell was asked by a friend: If you had to recommend ten books to read about race and racism in America, what would they be? Russell went a step further and made two lists, one of books and one of PBS documentaries, drawing on his own personal engagement with these works. 

Here are Tim's lists.

PBS Documentaries

Slavery by Another Name

WTTW and WFMT's Tim RussellTim RussellBased upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon, this documentary excavates the history of forced labor of prisoners, mostly Black men, after the Emancipation Proclamation. "It provides a different perspective," says Russell, "showing that a slave culture created through intimidation endured after slavery ended."

American Experience — Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years

"This is one of the films I feel most strongly about," says Russell. "I really, really value it." The series tells the story of the civil rights struggle in depth from the perspective of the ordinary people who took part. "It reminds me of watching films in school and then discussing them in class, and getting such a broad view of history from those lessons." Now, Russell is the one trying to use documentaries to help educators and parents deepen children's learning, in his role as WTTW's Vice President of Community Engagement. 

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

"If you can only watch one thing, this might be it," says Russell. "It gives you the whole broad scope of African American history. I could easily have filled this list with programs just by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., but this is the one that I feel encompasses the most." It chronicles the full sweep of African American history, from the origins of slavery on the African continent right up to today.

American Experience — Freedom Riders

"I would put Stanley Nelson up there with Ken Burns as a PBS documentarian," says Russell—his list includes four of Nelson's films. "He lays out an entire journey so well in all his films." Freedom Riders follows the journey of Black and white activists who traveled throughout the South together on buses and trains in 1961, flouting Jim Crow and segregation laws and facing mob violence with nonviolence resistance. 

BOSS: The Black Experience in Business

Another film from Stanley Nelson, this documentary explores the rich legacy of black entrepreneurship from the era of slavery to today, a history that many people don't think of or know about, says Russell. It features numerous Chicagoans, including the Sengstacke family behind the Chicago Defender, John H. Johnson of Ebony and Jet, and John Rogers of Ariel Investments. Their example lives on today in young entrepreneurs whom you can meet in some short WTTW profiles.

Independent Lens — The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

"Most people, including many in the African American community, see the Black Panthers as revolutionary radicals, almost like what would now be called terrorists," says Russell. "But Stanley Nelson shows that their work began in helping their communities, through food pantries or programs feeding children at before and after school. They became viewed as a dangerous organization because they were about defending, uplifting, and taking care of their own. Within some segments of non-Black America, that's seen as isolationism, but when other groups do the same thing it's viewed as a positive."

DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis

"Growing up in Oberlin, Ohio, we had to take an Oberlin history class," says Russell. "In both school and church there, we always learned about Black history throughout the year, and it never just focused on slavery or civil rights. This WTTW documentary does a similar thing for Chicago. If I was an educator, I would probably make it required viewing. Chicago has such a strong legacy that it is able to feature these important national figures in various fields, but all in the context of Chicago."

Independent Lens — Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Another Stanley Nelson film, Tell Them We Are Rising explores the essential (and often overlooked) role historically black colleges and universities have played in shaping black life, creating a black middle class and dismantling segregation. 

Independent Lens — I Am Not Your Negro

"I especially appreciate in this film how it intertwines Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers despite their very different approaches to civil rights," says Russell. "It shows how Dr. King became a bit more radical over his life, while Malcolm X moved a bit more central as their thought sort of intertwined, and it also focuses on Evers, who is often forgotten."

Slavery and the Making of America

"This offers another perspective on slavery, different from Slavery by Another Name," says Russell. "It shows the role slavery played in terms of building wealth in this country, not just in the South but the North, too. In that way, it has similarities to the 1619 Project, but before that existed."


The Ground on Which I Stand by August Wilson

"August Wilson covers many aspects of Black culture in his ten plays of The Pittsburgh Cycle, each of which covers a different decade of the nineteenth century," says Russell. "I didn't include any of his plays, because then they would have been all ten works! But I like The Ground on Which I Stand, which is a speech he made, because it talks about the role of African Americans in theater and culture. And hopefully reading it leads someone to his plays."

And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

"I wanted to cover a broad spectrum of literature and include things like poetry, as with this book by Maya Angelou," says Russell. You can both read Angelou's poetry and stream an American Masters documentary of the same name about the multifaceted artist's life. Plus, read an interview with the Chicago-based producers of the documentary. 

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

"There are so many books I could have included," says Russell, "from Cornel West's Race Matters to Frederick Douglass's autobiography and so many other books. But I was hoping to get a broad sample of experiences," and The Souls of Black Folk is a seminal work.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is from Lorain, Ohio, which is right outside Russell's hometown of Oberlin, so it's fitting that she is the sole author of a work of fiction on his list. "I got to meet Toni Morrison while I was at Oberlin College," he says. "She came and spoke to a class that I was in, which was really amazing, and Beloved is such a powerful story."

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

"I love James Baldwin," says Russell, as is evident from his inclusion of I Am Not Your Negro on his list of films. "So I had to include something by him," like the two essays in The Fire Next Time. You can also hear Baldwin's own voice in an archival interview with WTTW's John Callaway and Studs Terkel.

Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African American Writing edited by Deirdre Mullane

Crossing the Danger Water is similar to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross in its scope, encompassing a wide range of African American history. It's an anthology of various writers encompassing everything from letters to poetry to the confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas. "It covers a whole journey through African American history through the eyes of many different authors," says Russell. "It's very wide-ranging, so if you have the time to sit down with it for a while you can get a strong sense of the Black experience up until the early 1990s." 

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

As he mentioned in his discussion of the James Baldwin-based film I Am Not Your Negro, Russell finds Malcolm X fascinating, especially the way he and Martin Luther King, Jr. influenced and drove each other. "I'm more partial to nonfiction and the realism involved than fiction," he says.

Alex Haley also wrote Roots, which was turned into a groundbreaking television series. You can hear him discuss the process of writing Roots with WTTW's John Callaway in an archival interview.

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver

"Eldridge Cleaver was actually in prison when he wrote this book," says Russell. "In it, he talks about how society and being black in a sense created who he is," and how he transformed from a convicted criminal into a Malcolm X and Marx admirer.

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker

While In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens isn't just about poetry, Russell says he wanted to include it in part because of its essays on poetry's power, to showcase a wide range of Black culture. 

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

"Howard Thurman has a connection to Oberlin," where Russell grew up, he says. "[In the 1920s,] he was a pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, where I went growing up and where my mom still goes. In Jesus and the Disinherited, he writes about the role of Black theology and Jesus's life as a peaceful revolutionary. Dr. King used a lot of Thurman's writings on nonviolence and interconnectedness. I could have included Dr. King in this list, but I wanted to showcase someone who was still around while Dr. King was active but had written these important books before the civil rights era."