The Luke Cage Syllabus: A Breakdown of All the Black Literature Featured in Netflix’s Luke Cage

On September 30, 2016, I was excitedly looking forward to discussing Luke Cage and its many allusions to hip hop, which included Notorious B.I.G.’s portrait, Method Man trading hoodies with Luke, and each of the episodes bearing the titles of Gang Starr songs. I was feeling it like I was in the bodega with Method Man and about to rush him for the bullethole-filled hoodie. Of course, my students stared at me as I dared them to get excited too, which is what most students do these days until they watch it and see that I am not telling them to watch the sleepiest, most convoluted show possible. So, before I went back to talk to them on Tuesday morning, I devoured all 13 episodes.

The hip hop allusions and appearances were crushing my entire heart — the opening sample of the Ghetto Brothers; appearances from Faith Evans, Dapper Dan, Fab 5 Freddy, and Jidenna; paraphrasing B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments;” when Luke calls two thugs “Plug One and Plug Two” like De La Soul; Misty Knight referencing Raekwon’s “Ice Cream” and Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” in a particularly poignant monologue; and Method Man chopping it up with Sway and Heather B. My two obsessions entwined on this show — hip hop and books. Books are such a significant part of the dialogue in key scenes, and how often does any show feature a Black man with an affinity for books — as any character, much less the lead?

There are obvious references to Malcolm X and James Baldwin, and Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston make requisite cameos. They should, but the more I watched the show, I kept thinking about how other characters reference history and names, and all I could think was #LukeCageSyllabus #Season1. So, here are some of the books that appear in scenes, and fill in the blanks if you missed some serious Black history moments.

The books on Luke Cage’s bed in episode 1: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book by Julius Lester — a collector of Black folklore, and Attica by the New York State Special Commission on Attica. In this quick scan of books, the first-time viewer sees Luke’s love of history and literature pop out on the screen. On display is his deep understanding of Black life and masculinity, and what it means to be someone who can shift things from the periphery to the center, even if they are incarcerated, is paralleled by those books.

In a scene in Pop’s Barber Shop, Luke debates with Pop and Bobby Fish about some of the more recent descendants of hard-boiled mysteries, including Black pulp fiction masters like Donald Goines and Chester Himes. During that conversation, Luke Cage clutches a copy of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins’ mystery Little Green while Pop extols Goines’ character Kenyatta as one of the first Black radical literary heroes (the protagonist in four novels, Crime Partners, Death List, Kenyatta’s Escape, and Kenyatta’s Last Hit.) The beauty of these sorts of exchanges is not just that there are these moments of reveling in Blackness, but it also stresses how Black readers have a variety of influences and disciplines that they’re engaged by as readers. When Luke mentions George Pelecanos (novelist and writer on The Wire), Richard Price (author of Clockers), and Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River), it’s only the beginning of what Luke and his fellow characters mention throughout the season. With those texts in mind, here are some others.

Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison by Allen M. Hornblum

Luke Cage’s beginnings as a scientific experiment are not too far from the truth, especially since his power resides in his skin. Acres of Skin discusses the history of medical experiments on Black prisoners that helped make skin grafts possible. A more recent book that chronicles medical experiments on Black people throughout America’s history is Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America by Quincy T. Mills.

The history of Black barber shops as a gathering place is not surprising, and when people congregate and share ideas in Pop’s Barber Shop or metaphorically refer to his spot as “Switzerland,” Mills’ book offers some insight into why barber shops are about more than cutting hair.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang

If you don’t get the hip hop references, Jeff Chang’s survey history of hip hop’s beginnings will probably help, but it also talks about the concept of “benign neglect” and how public policy, politics, and social conditions helped create hip hop. One of the key players in that scenario is Robert Moses. For more on him, there’s Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

cant-stop-cover

Free Stylin’: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry by Elena Romero

At this point, hip hop has left its mark on fashion. The documentary Fresh Dressed shows how hip hop artists invented their own fashions out of necessity and have become trendsetters in elite circles. Free Stylin’ is the scholarly take on how hip hop changed fashion.

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence by Geoffrey Canada

In one scene, Cottonmouth Stokes mocks his cousin Mariah for wanting to go “the Geoffrey Canada route.” Canada is best known for his book Fist Stick Knife Gun and founding Harlem Children’s Zone. Another book about Canada and his work is Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough.

fist-stick-cover

Where’s Waldo? by Martin Handford

Since Misty Knight visualizes the logistics of every crime scene through photographs, she explains how she was always the fastest at finding Waldo as a kid. This is the only children’s book mentioned.

Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars by Shane White

Wealth-building in Harlem was also part of an underground economy that allowed some Black business owners to support local artists, athletes, and other businesses, even if they ran numbers, prostitution rings, prohibition-era night clubs, and racketeering in movies like Hoodlum or The Cotton Club. There are other history books that, like this one, mention Stephanie St. Clair, a woman very much like Mama Mabel in Luke Cage. Another book worth reading next to this one could be Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto by Camilo José Vergara.

Diamondback, one of Luke Cage’s adversaries, touts The 48 Laws of Power and carries around a heavily annotated edition of the Bible that his mother gave him.

Negroes and The Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson

Another nod to Diamondback is when he insists to Mariah Dillard that the history of guns in America is built on creating fear towards Black people after Reconstruction, when the Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence and Jim Crow began to thrive. Johnson’s book not only relates to Diamondback’s point, but also reveals the tension between self-defense, politically radical violence, and the nonviolent practices of the Civil Rights era.

negroes-and-gun-cover

In the last episode, Luke is holding a copy of The Heat’s On by Chester Himes. Luke also mentions Michael Connelly, author of the 21 existing Harry Bosch novels.

There so many allusions and references sprinkled through this thirteen hours of television. Add any I may have missed, or that you think are required reading, in the comments or on Twitter with the #LukeCageSyllabus tag, so we can find it.

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  • Amoja

    Dropping pure gems of knowledge!!

  • Mark

    Great article! However, I think you mean Richard Price and not the more southern themed and flavored author Reynolds Price.

  • darrenmaclennan

    Richard Price, not Reynolds Price. 🙂

  • Jane

    It makes me deeply ashamed of myself and furious with the education system in the US that I’ve never even heard of most of these books. Full disclosure: I have a PhD in history.

    • Sj

      Don’t feel bad! I’m on Amazon right now ordering some of these.

    • wolf (@rtwolff)

      TYVM for your honesty now I don’t feel quite so stupid….Ijust wanted a fun show…got reading to do I guess.

  • LaTarius Turner

    So, awesome that you put this together! I did a Google search yesterday hoping to find a list of all the literature included in the show but couldn’t find anything.

    • Lapin Bleu

      I found all of these books on amazon.com

  • Coquinegra

    I think you missed one for the Barbershop:
    Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought by Melissa Harris Lacewell (now Perry)

    • Coquinegra

      OOPS, I forgot to say what a wonderful resource this is; I’ve already shared it with my young male relatives…excellent work

  • Hasani Carter

    ’48 Laws of Power’ was also referenced.

  • Elisabeth

    I was hoping for a mention of Donald Goines. I used to love reading Donald Goines in my late teens/early 20’s.

    • Elisabeth

      Oops. I knew I should have read this article more carefully. Donald Goines was mentioned, but they didn’t go into depth about his books.

      I look forward to using this as a guide as I slowly make my way through the series (I get together with a group of friends once a week to watch 2 eps at a time).

  • April

    Coworkers and I were discussing the tv series Luke Cage had no ideal of the authors or the Moms Mabley reference until hearing on the show. We could only hope that Netflix brings this back for another season and quick! Please continue to putting these syllabus together. My goal is to read some of the books mentioned. Knowledge is power.

    • Inez

      Actually, Moms Mabely wasn’t mentioned.

      • Mika Antonia

        The idea is that the name “Mama Mabel” is a nod to Moms Mabely.

        • Rosalind Mays Welch

          I caught the mom’s mabley reference to her movie AMAZING GRACE 1974. Look it up on Youtube. Just watched it the other day.

    • Rosalind Mays Welch

      I caught the mom’s mabley reference to her movie AMAZING GRACE 1974. Look it up on Youtube. Just watched it the other day.

  • Na Lah

    Yooo! Thank you for this compilation! I truly appreciate it. Have you thought about doing the same for the Hip Hop references (i.e. lyrics/albums)?

  • Thomas McVeigh

    http://www2.ups.edu/faculty/velez/LAS100/tellez.htm is visually referenced in episode 2.

    • Tara

      Thanks for sharing!

      • Bob Bruning

        Thrilled to find your work. Hoping to successfully translate your insights + video clips + live band into a 5-minute multi-media presentation before a few hundred attendees this May. Might you please be interested in very light assistance?

  • Afro Deva

    This show has given me so much life I am making myself wait to finish the last 3 episodes to prolong the ecstasy!! Thank you for taking the time to compile this. My bookshelf is already on overflow, but I don’t have a few of these!!!

  • Bjhouse817

    Amazing article. My boyfriend and I have read most but we have a few to read. Can’t wait for the discussions I’m sure we’ll have together.

  • Wendy

    Nice shout out to Geoffrey Canada as well.

  • klyn

    as i watching the show there were many books i knew of and had read and others i had not. There were a bunch I didnt know. Today at I work I thought i need to start reading again. I wanted to start with some of those mentioned in the show. I googled books mentioned in Luke Cage and wow look what i found. thank you thank thank you!!!!!

  • Tony M. Vinci

    Thank you for this. I feel such joy and gratitude watching interesting, intellectually-engaged black male characters argue about popular and canonical black lit. It’s exciting to see these cultural histories take center-stage in a popular superhero narrative. Maybe other Marvel shows and films will learn a thing or two from Luke Cage. . . .

  • Checker

    Turk saying “I overstand” was definitely a reference to “Soul On Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver which was used throughout the book.

  • Moony

    Not sure whether to count this but at one point Pops say’s, “Sometimes you gotta Jedi Mind Trick them.” This struck me as a bit of a nod to the hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks.

  • Defenske

    Was hoping for a shout out to Attica Locke in that list. All three of her books are gems.

  • Beaver Brown

    Loving the series. I noticed some of the references and thought it was just a fluke. The more I watched the mire I picked up. I read quite a few of the books mentioned, and will be rereading them and others mentioned. Amazon better have extra copies for all the new orders anticipated.☺

  • Josefina Vázquez

    This has been an amazing journey. The blend of New York with this outstanding literary mix keeps my memory grounded to growing up in Bed-Stuy. Learned so much, thank you.

    • wolf (@rtwolff)

      Surprised at how literate show is…writing,directing,acting,music is better than most of what’s available….now I have to read to keep up.

  • Dan

    What a great article, thank you! Found this after searching for the book being described in the episode “Just to Get a Rep” – where one of Stoke’s men suggests leaving Cage alone. The “benign neglect” reference.

    Any idea to what book he was referring? I’d love to get my hands on it. And I will most definitely be checking out many of the above books you’ve cataloged. Thanks!

    • Mika Antonia

      The phrase “benign neglect” was made popular by a memo from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Richard Nixon: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.”
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benign_neglect

  • Ed Selby

    Thank you for this! I, too, was impressed with the shout outs to literature, history, music, and culture that filled Luke Cage. Now I know what my next Kindle downloads will be!

  • Josh Jordan (@joshtjordan)

    Cottonmouth mentions roses from the concrete, which is an allusion.toa poem by Tupac.

  • Martha Garvey

    Pelecanos, Lehane, Price, all novelists who wrote for THE WIRE.

    • Tara

      Good point. They’ve all written many novels of their own.

  • Lorenzo Fiorito

    Both the medical experimentation and the boxing for spectacle are nods to the “Battle Royale” and electroshock scenes in Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Diamondback’s reference to “owning the bakery” is a sly reference to Malcolm X’s nationalism, and how it might be taken in many directions.

    • Lorenzo Fiorito

      “Diamondback” here should be “Cottonmouth.”

  • Justine

    How about the bible bruh? smh That should have been listed first and last considering that WE are the LOST sheep of the house of ISRAEL! Which is why they have suppressed our education and done experiments on us… they don’t want us to wake up! We are the ones who LOST our identity and must come back to the Laws Statutes and Commandments spoken of in scripture. Deut 28:68 Egypt = Bondage America is Bondage…. The slave ships are spoke on of in the scriptures listed as one of the curses that would be fall the people of the Most High God if they turned their back on him and followed after other nations. Only one people went into bondage by way of SHIP! Wake UP!! READ…

  • Elizabeth

    thank you may i use parts of your book list for a display for our Young adult and adult sections at my library? I will credit you 🙂

  • Alien Alias

    Can anyone identify the painting or artist when Mariah Dillard replaces the Biggie portrait with one of her own with crowns?

  • Matte

    Mariah’s litany of black political figures warrants a whole article of its own. One that leaped out at me was Shirley Chisholm, who was very nearly the Democratic presidential candidate in ’72. She reeled them off pretty quick, so a re-watch might be necessary…

    • Kirpal

      great catch

  • Tonya R. Moore

    My list of MUST-READ books just got a lot longer. One unfortunate thing: I didn’t grow up in the USA, so a lot of the references in Luke Cage were lost on me. It’s way past time I educated myself.

  • Anna

    The new painting that
    Mariah hangs is by Basquit titled “Two Kings”. An incredible artist gone too soon. Thank you for the reading list!

  • Anna

    Jean-Michel Basquiat* ugh stupid typo

  • Rahdiah

    This is an excellent reference, Thank you!

  • Neal

    Thanks for this blog. I’m really happy that this series has gotten people talking about African-American literature.

  • Ethel Morgan Smith

    Did anyone most (or all) of those books are authored by men? What’s up with that?

  • jenni

    So thankful someone made this!!!! I was trying to find the books listed so I can add them to my book collection!!! Much appreciated and love this show for to many reasons!!!!

  • Carl Lucas

    Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora
    Smallwood, Stephanie E.

  • Ama

    Crispus attocks mention E2 code of the street. LIke educates a young brother on crispus attock
    http://www.crispusattucksmuseum.org/crispus-attucks/

  • lizz

    Hey! Great info. Maybe I can get some help. In episode 6 (I think) in Cotton mouth’s office he is having a meeting about what to do with Luke Cage. One of his workers starts reading from a book, mentioning ” benign neglect”. Cotton Mouth ends of killing him. Does anyone know the book he was reading from?

    • Korey Smallwood

      Jeff Chang. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.

  • Allie

    amazing post! find it so awesome that Black literature was so prominent in this show. i was coincidentally listening to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (describes the life and history of HeLa, cancer cells taken from a Black woman without her consent in the 50s) prior to starting the show, which led me to researching more of the ways black people have been exploited in the name of science/medicine. came upon your post and now I’m simultaneously listening to that, starting Medical Apartheid, and also slowly making my way through Luke Cage. the undertones within the show referring to medical experimentation on Black people and my current reads are creating a fascinating, shocking, enraging, and exhausting experience.

  • Maggie McGinn

    I would add “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power,” by Danielle McGuire, which details the sexual terrorism of black women across the south and subsequent emasculization of their men. Not directly referenced, but certainly informs psyche and behaviors of men and women characters, as well as plotlines.

  • Zakiyah Karim

    The Ultimate adds would be “Message To The Blackman in America” and “How To Eat To Live”, both by The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

  • Kwesi K. Francis

    Thank you for putting this list together!

  • madgadabout

    Re: Where’s Waldo – it actually isn’t the only kids book mentioned. Scarfe references Horton Hears a Who in Ep. 2. That scene is right before the barbershop scene where Luke & Pops discuss Donald Goines, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and Chester Himes. Easy to lose track of such a small call out, but interesting that both of the main cops reference kids books.

  • Caleb Black

    Was Negroes and the Gun explicitly referenced?

  • Angel

    Thank you all for the civil conversation and exchange of information. This article is deep.

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