Content warning: This article mentions sexual assault.
We get it: it can be hard to find time to read when midterms are coming up. Especially when you’re in a STEM program, it can feel like there’s always so much to read about your subject that you don’t have time for anything else.
But that doesn’t need to put limits on your Black History Month reading list — no matter your field, you can probably find plenty of excellent subject-specific reading material by Black authors and about the experiences of Black people in science, both as scientists and as people affected by our understanding of it. And if you don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered. Here are The Varsity’s recommendations for four books that you should add to your reading list — not just during Black History Month, but anytime in the year.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s The Disordered Cosmos
Theoretical physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s wide-ranging book The Disordered Cosmos was one of the hottest science books of last year, making best-of-year lists from Kirkus Reviews, Smithsonian Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly, just to name a few. In it, the author blends together physics and identity as she talks about her research into subatomic particles, her identity as a queer agender Black woman, and her relationship to the Jewish faith.
Its strength is in how it refuses to leave anything out. It’s a fantastic constellation of what intersectionality should look like. Nowhere is this clearer than when Prescod-Weinstein talks about identity and justice: she talks about barriers for Black scientists in physics, being queer in a world of binaries, the way society treats survivors of sexual assault, and what it means to be both Black and Jewish.
Since her memoir was published, Prescod-Weinstein has experienced a meteoric rise in fame, with interviews and profiles in major press outlets. We can be sure to see more of her in the future.
Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code
The Princeton academic Ruha Benjamin established herself as a powerful thinker in critical technology studies in her 2019 book Race after Technology: Abolitionist tools for the New Jim Code.
In the tightly packed but still readable 200 pages, Benjamin exposes the ways in which technology can uphold and even enhance systemic racism; from algorithms used by police to predict crimes that target Black people to facial recognition technologies that fail to recognize Black faces. Her focus is not just on racism but on racist design, and she presents a forceful argument for its widespread presence and societal harm.
Drawing parallels between her own work and that of prison abolitionists, Benjamin argues that we need a more democratic and transparent process for how we design new technologies — and that racialized people need to have a seat at the table as we do so.
Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid and A Terrible Thing to Waste
Harriet A. Washington is a bioethicist with a truly prodigious list of accomplishments. She has published in a score of important scientific journals and held various research and teaching positions at top-tier universities, namely Columbia University and Harvard University. She also writes incisive popular science books that have enthralled audiences and critics alike.
In 2007, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book, Medical Apartheid, which traced the history of scientific racism in medical research. From infamous medical experiments of the past like the Tuskegee experiments, a study infamous for how poorly the Black subjects were treated, to lesser-known contemporary cases of ambiguous consent, Washington brings the mistreatment of Black people by science right up to the present day.
Washington provides plenty of modern examples, like the case of Norplant, an experimental contraceptive that was selectively marketed to Black teenage women in Baltimore in the early ’90s. This astonishing feat of racist social engineering was highly controversial — but that didn’t stop lawmakers from encouraging its use for low-income women.
In 2019, Washington revisited anti-Black racism in America from a different perspective in A Terrible Thing to Waste. This book is about how communities of colour in the United States have been exposed to toxic pollutants much more than white communities, impacting racial health disparities for decades.
Here again, Washington goes beyond the familiar. She doesn’t stop at cases that have made the news, like the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan. She dredges up examples of corporate dumping, government negligence, and systemic neighbourhood deprivation that have filled the bodies of racialized people with heavy metals and chemicals known to affect brain function. And she makes it clear that white communities have it better; she highlights a 2008 paper showing that low-income white communities live in cleaner neighbourhoods than Black households that earn 50,000–60,000 USD.
Put together, Washington’s books show how medical science has historically profited off of anti-Black racism, although contemporary research can also shed light on the health effects medical racism causes in Black communities.