If I’ve learned anything at all in my thirty-four years, it’s that I just need to keep learning more. Learning is a journey, and so is antiracism work. Books are one way to do that work, and since we sell books, I wanted to offer an incomplete list of books that have personally impacted my journey. My hope is that they can serve as a jumping-off point; a first step; a place to start. Learning without action is a privilege. I try to remind myself of that every single day.
For the readers in your life who work to call out racism in themselves and the people around them, here are some books to educate and encourage a lifelong commitment to dismantling white supremacy.
Homeland Elegies is autofiction at its finest. Ayad Akhtar blurs the lines between his own personal experiences and the experiences of Muslim Americans in this country since well before 9/11. His writing is brilliant and engaging and illuminating. This was one of my absolute favorite books of 2020.
Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, provides a necessary perspective on the life of an adoptee whose biological parents are culturally and ethnically different from her adoptive parents. Chung is a Korean American woman who was adopted by white parents in the Pacific Northwest. She explains that the deep love she feels for her biological parents is underscored by her inability to feel 100% their daughter. As Chung gets older and becomes a mother herself, she begins to crave a connection of some kind with her biological family. Her account is both admirably vulnerable and beautifully written. I loved this book.
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 wonder 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.
White Tears/Brown Scars is an impressively comprehensive, nuanced, and smart rebuke of white women and our interactions - historic and otherwise - with BIPOC women. It is the history that should be taught in every classroom. White women must internalize this story and make it a part of their own, personal story - the part that we work against, that motivates us to change so that history doesn't repeat itself any longer, every day, on the bodies and in the minds of BIPOC women. I’ve thought about this book every day since I read it. It’s life-changing.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors is one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, a movement that began in 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Khan-Cullors is from Los Angeles. She has two older brothers, one of whom has severe mental illness. Instead of receiving treatment, he has been chronically incarcerated and tortured for the manifestation of his illness. This is just one of the aspects of her personal story that has impacted her work as a radical activist. If you have people in your life who use the phrase “All Lives Matter,” or if you are a person who has used that phrase, please read this book. Understanding the history of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the people who founded it, and the everyday experience of being Black in this country should give much-needed perspective on why supporting this movement is so important.
Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is a triumph. Intersecting narratives of different Native people all making their way to a national pow-wow in Oakland, California converge violently. The shifting narratives are choppy and jarring and the actual violence that occurs in the moments leading up to and during the pow-wow are hard to read, but Orange’s purpose is well-served by these tough moments. After all, asking one person to speak for an entire culture is a violence in itself. This is not fun or light, but it is vital.
In The White Card, Claudia Rankine takes on liberal white privilege. Inspired by a question and answer session after a reading of her incredible previous work, Citizen: An American Lyric, in which a white man asked “What can I do for you? How can I help you?” Rankine set out to confront the phenomenon of white liberals imagining themselves not to be complicit in everyday acts of racism. Here is a bit from the Preface of the book: “Theater is by its very nature a space for and of encounter. The writing of The White Card was a way to test an imagined conversation regarding race and racism among strangers.” This is part of the conversation we should be having. It is not comfortable but it is necessary.
Authors like Margaret Wilkerson Sexton are rare. The Revisioners, from the first word to the last, is an impressively constructed narrative with both immediacy for today and reverence for the past. Few authors imbue their characters with so much life. The connection of the past to the present is fantastical while still feeling authentic and insightful. This book is a history of race relations in the United States, and an expression of the power and connectivity of motherhood through time.
This collection is everything. It’s joyful. It mourns. It celebrates. It rages. Homie is one of the best collections of poetry I’ve ever read and Danez Smith is a national treasure. Please read their work. You’ll be so glad you did.