Over the past few weeks, many of us have been confronted, sometimes for the first time - true evidence of privilege - by the enduring legacy and everyday presence of racism in our systems and society. For the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) members of our community, racism’s violent manifestation is not a surprise but a reality, a condition to be moved through each day.
We’ve been so encouraged by the response of our community. So many people have committed to doing Anti-Racist work on their own and in book clubs with friends, family, and neighbors. At Dotters Books, we wholeheartedly believe that a book club is a wonderful place for honest discussion and continual growth. You can hold each other accountable, share your own experiences, and learn about the experiences of others by reading critically and empathetically, and listening to each other.
Our Book Club is committed to reading books written by marginalized voices: women, BIPOC writers, and books in translation. (List of Dotters Book Club Picks through Summer 2020) We’ve had some fantastic conversations through the years - and we have read 34 books so far; 35 if you’ve already read Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, our June Pick.
I wanted to put together a list of the books that I felt led to the most productive conversations. If you asked a member of our Book Club, I bet they would have a completely different list - just one of the many wonderful things about getting together with friends to talk about great books. If you're looking for a little guidance on a book to choose for your book club, I hope this can be a helpful place to start.
I absolutely loved Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. It is still one of my favorite books and one that I often recommend to people looking for a book that is entertaining, smart, and poignant. Abdurraqib is a great writer. His blend of music and social criticism is fresh and nuanced. Reading about his experiences of growing up Black in Cleveland and attending concerts mainly patronized by white people provided an important perspective on the space, both literally and figuratively, that each of us is privileged to take up, or not.
In his essay on Chance the Rapper, he explores the intersection of violence and joyful optimism in the artist’s music: “To turn your eye back on the community you love [Chicago] and articulate it for an entire world that may not understand it as you do. That feels like freedom because you are the one who controls the language of your time and your people, especially if there are outside forces looking to control and commodify both.” This essay is directly followed by one called “A Night in Bruce Springsteen’s America.” Abdurraqib tells the story of the concert he attended in New Jersey, in Springsteen’s hometown. He explains that “What I understand about The River now...is that this is an album about coming to terms with the fact that you are going to eventually die, written by someone who seemed to have an understanding of the fact that he was going to live for a long time. It is an album of a specific type of optimism - one not afforded to everyone who listens to it.”
Pulling this book off of my shelf and paging through it again, I’m struck by how much I personally learned from reading Abdurraqib’s words. He is generous with his vulnerability, his joy, and his heartbreak. I am thankful to have spent time with his book and I continue to read everything he writes.
Our Book Club fortuitously read If Beale Street Could Talk right around the time the movie adaptation came out. I have to admit, I still have not seen the movie because I think this book is exquisite and I just couldn’t trade James Baldwin’s beautiful language on the page for what I know are beautiful images, directed by Barry Jenkins, on screen. (I was basically alone in this as most of our Book Club saw the movie, absolutely loved it, and felt that it was a beautiful representation of this book.)
This novel tells the story of Tish, a wife- and mother-to-be, and her fiancé, Fonny. Tish and Fonny get engaged and find out they will have a baby at the same time that Fonny is accused of a crime that he didn’t commit and is imprisoned. Tish narrates the story, moving back and forth through time. As her pregnancy progresses, she and her family work tirelessly to prove Fonny’s innocence. It’s a devastating book filled with the most beautiful love story; and not just a romantic love story, but a powerful family love story as well. When Tish and Fonny go to tell her parents that they’re engaged, Joseph, her father, has the following to say,
‘Both of you are crazy...but there’s nothing I can do about that.’ He watched Fonny. He smiled - a smile both sweet and reluctant. Then, he looked at me. ‘But - Fonny’s right - somebody was bound to come along some day and take you away. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon. But - like Fonny say, and it’s true - you’ve always been together, from childhood on. And you ain’t children no more.’ He took Fonny by the hand and led Fonny to me, and he took me by the hand and he pulled me to my feet. He put my hand in Fonny’s hand. ‘Take care of each other,’ he said. ‘You going to find out that it’s more than a notion.’
Through most of the book, Fonny is in jail. Tish tells their love story in flashbacks. We exist with Tish in the city, as her pregnancy progresses, in her family’s apartment. They love each other profoundly. Her family supports her and will do anything to ensure that she is safe and happy and well-loved.
As our Book Club talked through this book, we were struck by how rarely we had each read Black love stories. Yes, this is a tragic love story, but tragedy does not have the last word. Love does. And that is powerful.
READ THIS BOOK! I’m tempted to just leave it at that.
Thick: And Other Essays required that I examine my privilege in ways that I had not yet been required to. It is a privilege to read books about racism and not experience racism. It is a privilege to empathize with people who look different than me, who experience the world in a different way than I do, whose very existence is a form of resistance - but to never actually be in danger because of the color of my skin.
When I was shocked that Donald Trump could be elected right after Barack Obama, that was privilege. When I have wondered why a person feels the need to own a status symbol, like brand name clothing or a nice car, my critical response comes from a place of privilege. My ability to safely carry a baby to term and deliver that baby without complication is a privilege. Mainstream beauty standards are defined in such a way that I can achieve beauty, and that is a privilege. The list goes on and on.
READ THIS BOOK!
Our Book Club read Citizen in its first year of existence. It was the first chosen book to really critically deal with race. And while I have been reading about race, and specifically its place in literature, for many years, I had never read a book that so blatantly, so forcefully, so violently put race into a current context. Before I read Citizen, racism existed in the past, not the present.
I had never learned about racial microaggressions before.
I had never considered Serena Williams and her skin color and the language used when white announcers talked about her mammoth skill and her troublesome behavior on the court. Claudia Rankine goes through Serena’s tennis history, piling up racial aggression upon racial aggression:
...it is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in a racial imaginary, trapped in disbelief - code for being black in America - is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context - randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out ‘I swear to God!’ is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.
I love tennis. I started playing tennis in 4th grade and played all the way through high school. I watched tennis on TV. And I liked to watch Serena Williams. But I also did not understand Serena Williams - her boldness, her exuberance, her fiery temper. After I read Citizen, I felt shame at attributing those attributes negatively to her Black skin. I realized, for maybe the first time, that I had racist ideas. I had learned them in a system that privileged my white skin.
Reading these books and talking through them should be challenging. It should make you feel vulnerable. We all have racist ideas and if we’re not forced to see them as racist, we will continue to have them. We will not interrogate ourselves, our friends, our family. And we must.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s debut novel examines the ways that generations of the same family move through New Orleans, starting during World War II up through the present day. Racial trauma, like stories and recipes, is inherited, passed down like an heirloom, and this book is a poignant example of that burden. Reading this book helped our Book Club to have important conversations about the racial injustice of mandatory minimums and mass incarceration.
This is a story about parents and their children. Every parent hopes that their child will do better than they have, will be happier than they are, will live longer than they do. This becomes more complicated when your whole existence must be used to prove the value of everyone else that looks like you. It’s an important perspective and not one that is often, if ever, experienced by people with white skin.
Just a note: all of the books that I’ve chosen happen to deal primarily with racism against Black people in America. That was not intentional. These books just helped us to have especially poignant conversations and helped me personally to confront my own privilege and racist ideas. A few others that we have read in our Book Club that were especially enlightening are Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, The Bride Price: A Hmong Wedding Story by Mai Neng Moua, and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
Another note: Expecting one person - author, artist, politician, friend - to speak for an entire group is itself a violence. We cannot, in reading these texts, essentialize these writers and their experiences. These are individuals. Keep this at the front of your discussions. Read widely. If you haven’t read There There by Tommy Orange, put it on the top of your list. His book is an incredible comment on the history of the violence of colonization and essentialization of, in this case, Indigenous voices.