I was born and raised in the South. My whole family, both sides, have been in the South for as long as they’ve been in this country. Charlottesville bears striking resemblance to the town I call home – Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
I’m equal parts horrified and unsurprised by what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. The fact is, the ugly legacy of slavery and institutional racism is alive and well in our country, and facing it with compassion, honestly, and vulnerability is the only way that we can move forward. For me, that means examining my own privilege, recognizing and interrupting implicit bias and racism, and resisting hate every day.
I have always turned to books and reading for knowledge, fortification, and most importantly, the opportunity to understand someone else’s point of view. Here’s a short list of some great books – both fiction and non-fiction, that I have learned from, been inspired by, and that have called me to action.
*Please note that this is in no way a comprehensive list, but I have read all these books, and they have shaped the way that I see and understand race, racism, and our country’s history. I’m still reading and learning! Here is a more comprehensive list (Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves) that has more recommendations. I’ve linked to each these books on Goodreads if you’d like to learn more.
Between The World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Toni Morrison says that this book is required reading right there on the cover. That’s all you need to know.
The Fire This Time (James Baldwin) / The Fire Next Time (ed. Jesmyn Ward)
These two should be read together. No one can write quite like Baldwin, but the collection of modern writers in Ward’s compilation is powerful.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
This book makes the compelling argument that we haven’t ended Jim Crow style racism in the US, we’ve just rebranded it in the prison industrial complex. Alexander’s examination of mass incarceration and how disproportionately it affects black Americans was eye-opening for me.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Nothing that I could say about Rankine’s book can begin to explain how affecting it is.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye showed me the damage that internalized racism has on black bodies and hearts. It’s about a young black girl named Pecola who believes that whiteness and beauty are synonymous, and longs for blue eyes. It’s beautifully written, powerful, and unforgettable.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler is a powerhouse – she wrote beautiful science fiction – and Kindred should be required reading. It’s the story of a young black woman in 1976 who is suddenly and inexplicably transported to 1860s Maryland, where she must quickly learn her place as a slave. She is pulled back and forth through time for years, always to the same place, eventually learning that she must protect the life of a cruel slaveholder to protect her own family lineage. It’s a jarring and very effective use of science fiction in a very real world.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing takes an interesting format – it begins with two sisters in Africe, one of whom is taken as a slave to the United States, the other left in Africa. From these, each chapter of the book alternates families and tells the story of one of the women’s descendants, eventually bringing each family into modern day. Gyasi shows the lasting effects of the slave trade on African Americans and Africans in such a visceral way – the loss of history and family structure is gut wrenching.
The Hate U Give
For younger (or older!) readers, this book is an up close and personal story of Black Lives Matter. When Starr Carter witnesses her best friend killed by a police officer in a routine traffic stop, her community is thrown into chaos – violent protests surround her home as she grieves the death of her friend. It’s an approachable look at the Black Lives Matter movement that will answer questions and shed light on a complex and emotionally fraught issue.
Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
When a skeleton is found on a Tulsa family’s property, the family’s young daughter searches for answers. She learns the story of Tulsa’s 1921 race riot, one of the country’s most deadly. The story is told in alternating perspectives, Rowan’s as she uncovers the truth of the body, and Will’s as he experiences the 1921 riots firsthand. This book asks questions about facing ugly history rather than erasing it – a particularly relevant question in light of the current debate around Confederate statues. I grew up in Wilmington, NC, where there was a similar “race riot” in 1898 that has been almost entirely erased from the public memory until recent years.
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”