So You Want to READ About Race...
Updated: Apr 9, 2021
In light of the past weekend's unrest, and the past month's events, and the past centuries of systemic racism, I wanted to write a bit about some of the books that have been helpful to me in broadening my understanding of the history of race in America.
I feel so sad and so angry... and so disheartened thinking about how/if we will ever, as a country, overcome all of this. I truly don't know how that happens, in a country literally built on a foundation of the lawful yet incredibly unfair distribution of power, opportunity, freedom, etc. But I do know that dialogue is key, that educating oneself is key, that talking to and reading about people that don't look like you is key... I often feel helpless and don't know what to do about all this, but I know that one thing I have to offer is just the fact that I read a lot, and can help share those stories with others.
For any and all of you reading this, let me know if there are any specific ways that I can support you. Please know that I stand with you. And, if you are able, now is a good time to give to a worthy cause. I chose Black Lives Matter Rochester. You can donate to them via Venmo at @blmroc or on CashApp at $blmroc (or give to the international Black Lives Matter Foundation).
I know I still have so much more reading and learning to do, but below is a short list of some of the books I've read and learned from (followed by a list of ones still on my To-Read list). And by the way, even if all you do is seek out books by authors of color, no matter what the subject matter, you will be one step closer to understanding their points of view (and supporting them as artists).
So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo (2018, nonfiction)
This book serves as somewhat of a handbook for helping foster discussions about race - with and for those denying racism exists, and those who know it is there but don't necessarily realize the extent of it's reach, or don't know how to address what they see. I particularly liked her discussion of intersectionality - the ways that societal disadvantages (race, class, gender, ability, etc.) relate to each other and increase or decrease a person's privilege.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (2017, fiction)
Incredibly topical - about a young black man shot to death with a hairbrush (not a gun) in his hand - the book is heartbreakingly genuine in its emotions, and in its depictions of the communities affected by this act of racial violence. The issues are real, and the people are some of the most authentically-written characters I've ever read. Want to walk a mile in someone else's shoes? This is a great place to start.
If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974, fiction)
Baldwin is always going to be essential reading for the understanding of race in America. The book's specificity in the story of a young black couple, the man charged with a crime he did not commit, speaks to the more general universality of discrimination and oppression. Not to mention the writing is ridiculously beautiful and poetic. (Also, if you haven't seen the 2016 movie I Am Not Your Negro, seek it out.)
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones (2018, fiction)
A modern day version of If Beale Street Could Talk, with a young black couple and a false accusation. All the same issues are, sadly, still present - the injustice of the charge, the critique of the criminal justice system, the country's deep-seated racism, and the heartbreaking distance that grows between the couple while she is "on the outside" and he is incarcerated.
Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin (1961, nonfiction)
I'll admit I don't know for sure that this book holds up, having read it in high school. But the premise still fascinates me - a white man coloring his skin so he can pass for a black man in 1950's/60's segregated South, and writing about the differences in how he was treated. It was heartening to read that eventually he stopped lecturing about the book, saying that he found it “absurd for a white man to presume to speak for black people when they have superlative voices of their own.”
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, by Mira Jacob (2019, nonfiction)
A series of conversations between Indian-American author Jacob, and her mixed-race son, immigrant parents, white husband, and friends. This graphic memoir is thought-provoking as well as funny, with a particular focus on raising her son in NYC post-9/11, including her efforts to answer his questions about race and identity, and what it means to be brown in Trump's America.
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019, fiction)
See my full review here.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein
How to be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi
Stony the Road, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
The Travelers, by Regina Porter
If You Want to Make God Laugh, by Bianca Marais
Please feel free to suggest others that I should add to my list!