For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
I read this quote long before my love affair with historical non-fiction began and long before I understood what it meant. I read it as a child when I was still memorizing things for the sake of a grade or to pass a test. I read about pain and atrocities in history that made me sad briefly, but it wasn’t until I began to mature that I began to understand sorrow.
My sophomore year of high school was when I began to grasp the importance of history. My AP European History teacher, who did nothing more than assign pages from a textbook, had us read about the Congress of Vienna where a group of white men in a room carved Africa into pieces like slices of cake and proceed to pass those pieces out to all who were present. No Africans were present. That was the first time I ever felt sorrow over something I read. It wouldn’t be the last. This was a defining moment for me as my appetite for history and knowledge has only grown. I no longer waited for reading to be assigned, I sought it out on my own.
The first historical non-fiction text I read for “pleasure” was King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. As I read it, I was shocked and appalled at all the gory details of what took place during that period in the Congo. There were moments where tears came to my eyes—sometimes from sadness, sometimes from rage. But this didn’t stop me as I have read many more books that have shaken me to my core since, a few of them being:
- Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon
- Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South by Kenneth M. Stampp
- Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete by William C. Rhoden
- The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson and David J. Garrow
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
History tends to repeat itself. The men who marched in Charlottesville holding Tiki Torches weren’t the first to do it. White robes with matching hoods were replaced by polo shirts, khaki pants, and penny loafers. Every event, every slur, every hate-filled stare transcends where we are presently, and it’s because of historical nonfiction I can contextualize circumstances and better understand how we got to where we are.
It is easy to understand why historical non-fiction isn’t the most popular genre, a lot of history is hard to stomach. But I read it because I want to be ready, because, when I read you, baby, please believe I’m going to have these RECEIPTS! Will you?
Alisha Brown is an academic coach in Dallas, TX who can usually be found on Twitter.