Six days after George Floyd died while in police custody, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch wrote of the “multiple incidents of deadly violence against black people. . . that have left us feeling demoralized and distraught, aghast, and angry.” Bunch, who is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, extolled Americans to address racism at this pivotal moment. Building on the Secretary’s statement, this week the Smithsonian Institution announced a major initiative, “Race, Community and Our Shared Future.” Backed by a $25 million donation from the Bank of America, the project, says Bunch, will “help our nation to better understand the challenges that arise from racism.”

In concert with that effort, the African American History Museum debuted an online teaching tool, “Talking About Race,” as an impetus for prompting difficult conversations about race. The museum’s interim director, Spencer Crew, voiced the frustration of black protestors taking to the city streets to make an “important statement . . . about the way we have been treated, about the way we worry about traversing this society and the worry that somehow we might be singled out because of our color.”

While thousands continue to assemble in the streets demanding change, a new awareness is growing as many white Americans seek to practice antiracism and give voice and power to marginalized communities. As a result, the New York Times reported that titles like How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race have surged to the top of the nation’s best-seller lists.

Within that framework, Smithsonian magazine invited a cast of Smithsonian scholars, historians, curators, scientists, researchers and museum directors to make recommendations of meaningful readings, podcasts, websites and books that have informed their own quest to understand racism as it affects all persons of color across the nation and the types of bias that permeate their own lives. (See “Twelve Books to Help Children Understand Race, Antiracism and Protest” by Smithsonian educators Candra Flanagan and Anna Forgerson Hindley for more inspiration.)

We offer this list of titles old and new with links to By buying a product through this link, Smithsonian magazine may earn a commission; one hundred percent of our profits support research and scholarship at the Smithsonian Institution.


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"Seeing White," "Call Your Girlfriend" and "Code Switch" deliver good listening on complex topics. Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

Seeing WhiteI recommend “Seeing White” because it provides a look at how whiteness was created and is maintained to continue racial inequality during different times in our country’s history. It allows us to see behind the narratives in our textbooks and puts them in a racial context that is often ignored. Melanie Adams, director, Anacostia Community Museum

Call Your GirlfriendThey are a black woman and a white Jewish woman who are dear friends with shared values, and their backgrounds and discussions mirror that of my dearest friendship with a black woman. While race is not the primary topic in some episodes, they bring direct and honest feminist and anti-racist perspectives to every issue they discuss, making the show a valuable learning tool, as well as a healthy model for interracial friendships. Stacey Havard, biologist, Marine Invasions Lab, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Code Switch In an accessible style, co-hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby cover a wide range of topics, including joyful dives into pop culture and nuanced examinations of little-known histories. Dig into four years’ worth of complex stories about race, told by many different voices. The team has gathered a set of episodes that are good for listening and discussing with kids. —Rebecca Fenton, curator, Smithsonian Folklife Festival


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Websites like "Project Implicit" offered by Harvard University and "The 1619 Project" from the New York Times have proven transformative in what they reveal. boonchai wedmakawand, Getty Images

The 1619 Project The New York Times' transformative 1619 Project educated a wide audience and prompted thoughtful discussions on the history and legacies of slavery and race in the nation. I was honored to curate and write the special broadsheet section, featuring material culture to help readers connect the past to the present. Mary N. Elliott, curator of American slavery, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Project Implicit I led a team at the Smithsonian to put together a proposal for the MacArthur Foundation's 100 & Change grant in 2016—the focus of our proposal was combating bigotry. That process led me to take a deeper look at my own role in the systemic racism in our country. I took the implicit bias test offered by Harvard and it was jarring. I realized for the first time that my intellectual and physiological responses to people of another race were not the same. It set me on the long path of re-education. —Halle Butvin, director of special projects, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage


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Check out films that deliver on topics like the Chicano experience in I am Joaquín and the quest for social justice in Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy, based on Bryan Stevenson's award-winning memoir. Mr.Wuttisak Promchoo, Getty Images

I am Joaquín As an activist during the height of the Chicano Movement, I found myself in pursuit of a collective cultural identity to which I could attach my own lived experience and that of my ancestors. “I am Joaquín,” the poem by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales is the subject of this film, directed by Luis Valdez and written by Gonzales, one of the giants of the Chicano Movement. The film provided the concise cultural orientation I was yearning for, and validated the call to action to which I had already committed myself. Eduardo Díaz, director, Smithsonian Latino Center

Just Mercy The film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name, is being released for free during the entire month of June on various streaming platforms. The movie, along with Stevenson’s book and the wider work of the Equal Justice Initiative, which fights for racial justice and educates people about the history and continuing legacies of the same, is a must-watch, must-read combination. Paul Gardullo, director of the Center for the Study of Global Slavery, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Killer of Sheep To create the movie, writer and director Charles Burnett spent much of 1977 working with a shoestring budget on weekends near his home in Watts, a predominantly African American neighborhood in south Los Angeles. The result is a masterpiece that transforms vignettes of ordinary life into beautifully rendered reflections on race and our shared humanity. James Deutsch, curator of folklife and popular culture, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

A Class Divided This 1970 film, directed by William Peters, looks at the roots of discrimination through an experiment conducted by Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher in an all-white town in Iowa. She divided her class into two groups, one group for students whose eyes were blue and another for students whose eyes were brown. In 1984, Elliott's students returned as adults to reflect on the lasting impact their experiment had on their lives. Businesses, government agencies, labor organizations and correction facilities also used Elliott's experiment as an exercise to better understand the impact of implicit bias, discrimination and race. Aaron Bryant, curator of photography, visual culture and contemporary history, National Museum of African American History and Culture


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American: An Autobiography by Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., (above) chronicles the life of a U.S. Air Force General facing challenging racial barriers. Toni Frissell/MPI/Getty Images

American: An Autobiography by Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. U.S. Air Force general and commander of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (1912- 2002) was the first African American to hold the position of general officer in the United States Air Force. His autobiography chronicles Davis following in his father's footsteps in breaking racial barriers, as Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. was the first African American general in the United States Army. Ellen Stofan, director, National Air and Space Museum

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight This Pulitzer Prize-winning biography is a thoroughly engaging story that enables the reader to consider the impact of slavery, emancipation and Reconstruction though the lens of Douglass’ compelling personal history. Ann M. Shumard, senior curator of photographs, National Portrait Gallery

Hawai'iʻs Story by Hawai'iʻs Queen by Liliuokalani, the Queen of Hawaii This selection offers a historical look at race and politics from a Native Hawaiian perspective. Queen Liliu'okalani was treated vastly different on her trip to England as she was in the United States. The book is in her own words so there is no mistaking the opinion. Her devaluation as a human, based on the color of her skin in the United States still continues today in 2020. Kālewa Correa, curator of Hawai'i and the Pacific, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator by Doris Rich Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. She overcame huge obstacles to learn to fly, and then toured the country demonstrating flying and encouraging others to fly. Russ Lee, curator of aeronautics, National Air and Space Museum


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Invisible Man by Ralph W. Ellison (above) joins other titles like Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower and The Book of Night Women as important reads in the understanding of an unjust world. David Attie/Getty Images

Invisible Man by Ralph W. Ellison This is the book that you must read to understand what it means to be black in America. This is a tale of how one college-bound black young man learned to withstand daily assaults against his being. Writing a classical epic journey in the first person, Ellison takes the reader through the lived experience of his hero from the black and white racism of the Jim Crow South through the no less brutal racism and lies of mid-century Harlem in the North. Ellison comes to the conclusion that the hero must exist according to his identity—invisibly and below the ground, within the illumination of truth and cannot exist above ground in America. Buy a copy and read and re-read it. And listen to actor Joe Morton’s recording of it on Audiobooks. —Cathleen Lewis, curator, National Air and Space Museum

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James While historians have been revealing just how foundational the institution of slavery was to the United States and the degree to which its economy was enmeshed in the transatlantic slave trade, James’ searing historical novel brings the reader inside the harrowing and desperate lives of a group of enslaved African women working on a Jamaican sugar plantation during the 18th century. Cécile R Ganteaume, curator, National Museum of the American Indian

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler This science fiction parable uproots the typically white, masculine genre to create an Afro-centrist story incorporating elements of history, present, future, technology and magic. Butler takes us on a journey of survival as climate change and economic crises lead to the social strife of the 2020s. Through these new contexts the author analyzes contemporary issues, especially race-, gender-, class- and ability-based discrimination, and offers strategies for surviving an unjust world on one’s own terms. Destined to become a dystopian classic, deeply applicable to our world today, this novel offers a new context to the discrimination faced by black women in North America. —Nikolas Christen, 2019 volunteer, Teen Earth Optimism, National Museum of Natural History


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A library of nonfiction offerings from the NFL player Michael Bennett to historians like Richard Gergel, Matthew Frye Jacobson and Daina Ramey Berry bring revealing stories to light. Taqwa Gad / EyeEm, Getty Images

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Spanning more than 400 years, this classic bottom-up peoples’ history, a 2015 recipient of the American Book Award and the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature, radically reframes U.S. history and explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative. Michael Atwood Mason, director, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Jasmine Syedullah, Lama Rod Owens, and Rev. angel Kyodo Williams These essays examine the intersections of Buddhism, blackness and queer life. The writers vividly argue that activism must be fiercely rooted in love in order to overcome racial injustice and white supremacy. Adriel Luis, curator of digital and emerging practice, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire, translated by Joan Pinkham This short and iconic book recognizes colonial encounters as brutal processes of domination and race-making. The colonizers' sense of superiority depends on the “Othering” of the colonized. “The idea of the barbaric Negro is a European invention” to justify cruelty and prejudice. Oppressive violence and the intentional dehumanizing of the colonized, a process Césaire calls “thingification”, uphold colonial structures. Like Frantz Fanon after him, Césaire outlines the physical, cultural, economic and psychological violence of colonization, including how their use of unrelenting torture and hatred “decivilize” the colonizers themselves. Although this work is thought of as applying to the “Third World," the United States is a colonized space. Ariana Curtis, curator of Latinx studies, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith This is an eloquent, accessible and smart corrective to some of the main tropes about “Indians” in American culture and history. Smith is a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. His witty, and even laugh-out-loud funny, writing will help readers unpack why Indian identities and histories are “often overlooked, misunderstood, misrepresented” in our imaginations, history books and popular media. Diana Marsh, research anthropologist, National Museum of Natural History

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin Sports fans will recognize Michael Bennett as a former Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks defensive end and an early supporter of Colin Kaepernick's protests against systemic racism and police brutality. While a typical athlete's book might stick with a formula about hard work and overcoming challenges en route to a championship, Bennett intertwines details about racism in football with his experiences becoming a vocal leader for intersectionality, feminism and social justice. —Sherri Sheu, research associate, National Museum of American History

The Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny at Freeman Field by Lt. Col. James C. Warren This memoir tells the first-person, eyewitness account of the Freeman Field Mutiny in which the Tuskegee Airmen of the 477th Bombardment Group organized actions of civil disobedience to fight against racism in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Mike Hankins, curator of U.S. Air Force history, National Air and Space Museum

American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard While many celebrated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the so-called “new world,” historian David Stannard published a harrowing account of what actually happened to hundreds of millions of native people and indigenous nations of the Americas. American Holocaust relentlessly details how the ideology of racism traveled from Europe to the Americas. It’s a book that exemplifies a quote by William Faulkner that has become all too familiar for our times: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Theodore S. Gonzalves, curator, National Museum of American History

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin This book does a masterful job teasing out the many ways technology—far from being neutral and outside of society—is deeply embedded in it. Benjamin shows not only how “racial logics enter the design of technology but how race itself operates as a tool of vision and division with often deadly results.” The book empowers readers to not only question their own bias, but those within the technological systems that they use. Joshua Bell, curator of globalization, National Museum of Natural History

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence by Geoffrey Canada Race-biased policing culture in America presumes justification in an unyielding trope of outlaw citizens, mostly male youth of color, who are locked into an identity with gun violence. Confining stereotypes are smashed to bits in this searing narrative detailing the author’s seemingly no-exit South Bronx childhood, amidst an industry-sponsored plague of urban handgun saturation, and the adulthood he grew up to. The author’s career has been dedicated to co-building innovative educational and community institutions, especially Harlem Children’s Zone—a locus of holistic youth opportunity deeply engaged in collaborating on transforming its own community, one of many such organizations across America that today are providing the reliable place-based change needed to enable eradication of benighted late 20th century models of American policing and public order. Kate Christen, senior manager, Conservation Commons

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Lauret Edith Savoy Trace is the most eloquent, moving and insightful exploration of race and the American landscape I have ever encountered. As a woman of African American, Euro-American, and Native American heritage, Lauret Savoy interweaves history, culture, and the environment in a search for the largely eroded paths traced by her ancestors. Jeffrey K. Stine, environmental historian, National Museum of American History

Aristotle and the American Indian by Lewis Hanke The author traces the 16th-century Spanish debate over the essential humanity of the Natives of the New World, whether they had souls and "human rights." Many Dominican missionaries and theologians, notably Bartolome de las Casas, argued vigorously in defence of the Indians, against others who held them as a group to be "Natural Slaves." James Adams, senior historian, National Museum of the American Indian

Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis that Shocked the Nation by Elizabeth Jacoway With meticulous documentation and searing honesty, historian Elizabeth Jacoway describes how bigotry, fear and social silence had long reinforced segregation in Little Rock schools. That effort during the mid-1950s to correct educational inequity led to years of politically inspired violence, attacks on the press, and social tension in the city, but gave encouragement to the civil rights movement nationwide. Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette, historian of science, ethics and mass communication, Smithsonian Institution Archives

The Making of Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account by James Forman For some of us (and you know who you are), this massively detailed account of the left wing of the civil rights movement landed like a Book of Revelations: granular detail of the key events, penetrating insight into the major players, colorful, even gossipy detail of King, Abernathy, Carmichael, all from a key leader of the fabled Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Are there lessons? Who knows, America is hard. Like, really, really hard. Paul Chaat Smith, curator, National Museum of the American Indian

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle In Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, recounts his work with former gang members in the poorest barrio of Los Angeles. In essays that are by turns heart-warming, hilarious and heartbreaking, Boyle advocates for what he calls “kinship”—a means of standing for and with people whom society typically dismisses as “others.” —Terre Ryan, research associate, National Museum of American History

Black Wings: Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History by Von Hardesty Reflecting on the decades of pioneering research conducted at the National Air and Space Museum about African Americans in aerospace history, Black Wings provides an overview of how this community expanded their participation in the military, commercial aviation and on into space. Jeremy Kinney, curator of aeronautics, National Air and Space Museum

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore Long before Michelle Alexander’s iconic The New Jim Crow, Gilmore analyzed the growth of the largest prison-industrial complex in the world—the jails in California. This book is important because it makes two key claims that are impacting scholars and thinkers across various fields. First, Gilmore argues that in California and subsequently in the U.S., jails became geographical solutions to social problems. Specifically, that a U.S. surplus labor force emerged after deindustrialization, globalization and a rise in workplace automation. Instead of developing socially beneficial and community-based opportunities in urban and rural settings for the labor force, these workers were increasingly jailed by proliferating laws that criminalized more and more actions. Second, she sets forth the highly influential definition of racism as the “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death." Orlando Serrano, Jr, manager of youth and teacher programs, National Museum of American History

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversation by Mira Jacobs Jacobs offers a piercing, stimulating and riotous graphic memoir of a first-generation American's experience of living in the U.S., both pre and post 9/11. Jacobs, who is Indian-American, uses her story to reveal how racism is not just systemic, but can also be perpetuated by the people in our lives. Ashleigh D. Coren, women's history content and interpretation curator, National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian's American Women's History Initiative

Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution by Diane McWhorter In her captivating personally profound style, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author recounts the Birmingham movement led by Martin Luther King in 1963. Deeply researched and documented, she also provides a poignant afterword that depicts Alabama as a continuing battleground. David Devorkin, senior curator of space history, National Air and Space Museum

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation by Daina Ramey Berry This author lays out how white people turned African American people into property and then calculated their worth. That same value system and way of thinking is buried in why people of color are forced to struggle today. Katherine Ott, curator of medicine and science, National Museum of American History

Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring by Richard Gergel This book powerfully explores the shocking treatment of Sgt. Woodard, a man too little known, who was central to both Brown v. Board of Education and the integration of the Armed Forces. —Claire Jerry, curator of political history, National Museum of American History

Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions by María Lugones This is a collection of perception-altering essays that observes implicit and explicit racism, sexism and homophobia across the Americas from within acute and often painful experiences had by one of this era's most significant philosophers. The writing is radically experimental at points, blending genres and languages to enact the argument that oppression relies on notions of essentialism held dear by both oppressors and oppressed, that a person can be both, and that freedom will come from painfully acquired "loving perceptions" of one another and a willingness to travel to one another's worlds. Josh Franco, national collector, Archives of American Art

The Everyday Language of White Racism by Jane Hill This book has affected me deeply. It has taught me that no matter how open I am to others, and how inclusive I thought I was being, racism is engrained in me and my language, and it is hurtful to individuals and supports harmful power structures. As a linguist, I thought I was aware of my own language, but Hill peels away layers of language and cultural history to show underlying racism that is truly shocking. Her thoughtful prose allowed me to read and understand, with a sense of outrage that I was part of the problem, but with the sense that if I can’t change the larger problem, I had a clearer path to changing my own behavioral patterns. When I was a professor, this book was required reading for my classes. Since it came out, there has been progress in stemming racist and sexist language, but this book is still a good book for reflection on ourselves and country. Mary Linn, curator of cultural and linguistic revitalization, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota edited by Sun Yung Shin This book is a collection of essays written by Minnesotans of color reflecting on their experiences of race in the state. The essays reject the notion of “Minnesota Nice,” illustrating how racism and white supremacy pervade people of color’s experiences in the Land of Lakes. Crystal Moten, curator of African American History, National Museum of American History

Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson This book shows how Europeans from many countries were considered ethnic others in the 19th century and discriminated for that reason. It gives a nuanced perspective on the changing cultural construct that race is (I love the term "alchemy"). Because it deals with whiteness it might impact the potentially white readers strongly. —Alba Campo Rosillo, research fellow, National Portrait Gallery

Night Riders in Black Folk History by Gladys Marie Fry The narratives and perspectives of African Americans who were terrorized in earlier eras by the KKK and other white supremacist groups detail the role of white supremacist “night riders” in the story-telling traditions of black culture. I chose this book because it illuminates some of the history of white domestic terrorism carried out in the past and unfortunately continuing in the present under the cloak of police actions. Gladys worked on several Smithsonian projects and uncovered the Harriet Powers quilt—one of the earliest African American made quilts in the Smithsonian’s collection. Diana Baird N’Diaye, curator and cultural specialist, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

For those seeking further study, readers might also check out resources from the #Ferguson Syllabus, the Baltimore Syllabus, the Charleston Syllabus, JStor’s Syllabus on Institutionalized Racism and Teaching for Change from D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice. Tools and guidance for personal reflection are available at the National Museum of African American History and Culture's online forum "Talking About Race."

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