11 Best Books About American Culture Update 05/2022

You know what I learned in history class? Several dates, wars, guns, and white guys. You know what I like more than those things? Food, fashion, holidays, elections, toys, and so on. War isn’t the only thing I don’t want to know about, but when I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want to read about it. There’s a lot you can learn about the big picture by reading about the little picture things, because they’re not that small after all.

Observing people’s habits isn’t just interesting on their own; it also tells us a lot about where they are in space and time. Wartime leads to propaganda, new jobs and industries, and new ways of making things. When you live at a certain latitude, your clothes tend to be more swimsuit, fur coat, or Bermuda shorts. The food, dance, and music that immigrants and refugees bring with them mix with the things that are already there. You learn about cultural and microhistory to help you understand and relate to the big events your teacher asked you about to help you study for the AP test. Each of these books about American cultural history should make you want to read more.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee

It’s true: I said this was a list of American cultural histories, and the first thing I talked about was Chinese food. It’s not just American Chinese food that’s the main thing here. It’s also not just about Chinese Chinese food, or Chinese American food. I read this book as part of our Read Harder challenge task #11, and it did not let me down at all. Come for the big reveal (!!) of who actually came up with the idea for fortune cookies. Stay for some crazy stories, like how, legally, soy sauce doesn’t have to have soy in it.

The Power of Style: How Fashion and Beauty Are Being Used to Reclaim Cultures by Christian Allaire

When I saw this cover, I couldn’t help but drool. I haven’t worn non-stretchy clothes since 2019. Surely you’ve seen at least one incident or scandal when a clothing designer has been called out for cultural appropriation (such as headdresses), misrepresentation (such as calling a print “Navajo”), or insensitivity (putting a Black child model in a shirt that says “little monkey” is not a good look). Allaire talks about a wide range of fashion, hair, and makeup history, artists, designers, and more. He talks about how people who have had their cultures taken away, diluted, or misappropriated are taking back the things that belong to them.

Exploring American Girlhood Through 50 Historic Treasures by Ashley E. Remer and Tiffany R. Isselhardt

People who live with me for a week might not hear me talk about American Girl, Polly Pockets, or paper dolls. I’m not talking about the rubber ones. I love a good toy that I can use to let my imagination run wild with, and there’s a special place in my heart for anything that’s geared toward girls and girlishness. This isn’t because I’m attached to a gender binary or believe in gender essentialism, but because I don’t like the idea that feminISM is defined by being anti-feminine. Princesses, dolls, and dresses are so cool and fun! Do not like them. Don’t wear them! Do not insult them. There were Spice Girls and Girl Power when I was young, too. In any case, this book isn’t just about toys. There are also monuments and dresses, and books and other things that you can look at.

I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land by Alaina E. Roberts

There’s been a problem with geography in the United States since a lot of refugees came over and didn’t ask for asylum. Instead, they just took over. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so this book only covers a small part of it. It looks at how the “40 acres and a mule” offer given to newly freed slaves and “Indian Territory” and the long-running dispute between Native and white imperialists over land and property and ownership. In the United States, we tend to think of racial and cultural conflict or collaboration as a White people vs. [Insert minority group here] issue, not as a two marginalized groups having a conversation with each other.

Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America by Jay Feldman

These words aren’t easy to say. This book looks intimidating, but it will also make you a great dinner party guest or news reader/writer because you’ll have so many tools for understanding political arguments and current events. Here, no politician is left unchecked. It is one of those books that is so relevant now that it was almost out of date when it came out in 2011. Privacy and security concerns have kept rising. We need to write a second one, Uncle Jay. (No, really, he’s my uncle.)

Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way by Caseen Gaines

If you say that Hamilton was the first time that black people were allowed on Broadway, I don’t want to hear that from you. If you agree that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work is important to Broadway history, you should know that it’s not the first or the last thing to happen. This book goes back to the Harlem Renaissance and talks about Black-created, Black-starring, Black-centric Shuffle Along, which premiered in 1921 and was a big hit. After you read this book, check out Sissle and Blake Sing “Shuffle Along,” which is a real recording from a long time ago, as well. There are at least three racial slurs in the titles of some of the songs.

Twelve-Cent Archie by Bart Beaty

In the past, I was given my first Betty and Veronica digest by a friend because she and I both needed something to read while her mom took us to the pumpkin patch outside of town (I am hashtag blessed to have so many friends who understand that sitting together and reading in silence still counts as a social visit with each other). A few years ago, I bought a book for 12 cents. It still brings back a lot of memories, right? There are 100 microhistories here that talk about different aspects of the cultural impact of the Riverdale gang and how they helped to create the ur-American teenager. That’s only ten years old. They want to write about the next decade of “Archie.” Who’s going to do that?

Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems by Dominique Christina and Tyehimba Jess

The best thing about fiction or nonfiction that I like is when people or groups who have been mistreated in the past are given a little more dignity by the people who write about them. In this book of poems, they write about the name of the slave woman who was one of many medical subjects who were forced to do gynecological research by J. Marion Sims, who is now being called the “father of gynecology.” The techniques and speculum that he came up with are still used today. He couldn’t have done it without the help of enslaved women who had no choice but to help him.

The Snatch Racket: The Kidnapping Epidemic That Terrorized 1930s America by Carolyn Cox

I didn’t even look at the subtitle of this book before I downloaded it because the title was so “blinks eyes rapidly.” It turns out that that is the real name for what happened in the 1930s, because the Lindbergh baby was just one of a number of kidnappings. That cover looks like it’s straight out of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s home library, though, doesn’t it? Even though kidnapping is bad, it’s true that it’s a bad thing.

From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front by Elizabeth R. Escobedo

Edward James Olmos and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies don’t wear zoot suits all the time. There is a lot more to zoot suits than that. A lot of people talk about the United States and World War II as if Rosie the Riveter was a representative of all women. This book, on the other hand, focuses on women. A book by Escobedo talks about what happened when the Mexican American women of the time came home from the war. They give firsthand accounts of what happened to their sons when they came back.

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