4 books on race in America everyone should read

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas shares the books that shaped his life.

  • These books, from authors like Toni Morrison and John F. Kennedy, open up a whole new perspective on the American landscape.
  • Read Jose Antonio Vargas' groundbreaking essay on life as an undocumented migrant in The New York Times Magazine.
  • Jose shared his list of 4 books on race in America everyone should read at a recent ScribdChat in San Francisco
  • Vargas' memoir, Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, is out now.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Growing up, no book stimulated me more than Morrison's The Bluest Eye. I was first assigned to read the book in eighth grade and the "why" of the story haunted me. Why was Pecola wishing for blue eyes when she had black ones? Who told her to want blue eyes? Why did she believe them? To this day, I come back to Pecola's story again and again to unlock whatever meaning I can find.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Reading Toni Morrison and other black writers in childhood challenged me to question and find my place in America; it created a space for me to claim. It also opened the door to other writers of color, specifically Latino authors whose works are often even more marginalized. Sandra Cisneros and her seminal work, The House on Mango Street, is a poignant vignette collection that opens up a whole new perspective on the American landscape.

A Nation of Immigrants by President John F. Kennedy

Wherever I go, I carry a copy of President Kennedy's A Nation of Immigrants, a curious book that he started writing during the 1950s, a curious time in American history. This was the postwar era of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, when Black Americans were denied their civil rights and immigration to the country was restricted by what Kennedy described as "discriminatory national-racial quotas." The first time I read this book, I was blown away by the facts surrounding our country's own immigration history, and still am to this day.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Angelou is one of the many authors that I discovered watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and poring over her book club selections. I was particularly drawn to Angelou because she bore a resemblance to my grandmother — they share the same low and rich timbre of voice. Angelou's debut memoir is a beloved modern classic; it's a poetic coming-of-age story about a life lived with grit and grace.




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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.