As promised, here’s a list of some nonfiction titles. My takeaway while compiling this was seeing the glaring dearth of female voices in my nonfiction reading about race. My fiction list tilts heavily toward women, but I need more representation in this category.
Based on the cultural moment we find ourselves in, I only shared texts that pertain to the Black experience in America, but I’d be happy to share other titles outside that lens if you’re interested.
And, if you want to buy any of these books and support a Black owned bookstore, may I recommend shopping at The Lit. Bar.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin – If you’re only going to read one book on this list, it should be The Fire Next Time.
Baldwin’s voice is electric. His prophetic vision, ferocious pursuit, and relentless articulation of the truth resonate through me now no less than it did the first time I read it.
This book should be essential reading for white America. We should return to it, again and again, pouring over his words like scripture. It was published 57 years ago, and hasn’t lost a bit of timeliness – which is both an indictment about how little things have changed, and a testament to the power of Baldwin’s voice.
Racism is a white problem, we are the only ones who can dismantle it, and if we are ever going to find our way, Baldwin should be one of our guides.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – This book is a direct descendent of The Fire Next Time. The title is taken directly from a quote in Baldwin’s book, and as the first part of The Fire Next Time is a letter to his nephew, Between the World and Me is a letter from Coates to his son.
Coates follows Baldwin in rejecting the optimistic view that justice and equality are inevitable, and his lack of hope is rooted in a clear-eyed view of the current and historical state of our country, as well as its trajectory.
This book is overwhelmingly powerful, an indictment of our shameful collusion with white supremacy, as Coates must acknowledge to his son that as a Black person, our culture dictates that his body doesn’t belong to him, but is commodified, vilified, and can be stolen at any moment with impunity.
As a white reader, Between the World and Me is a heartrending, convicting work that forced me to look directly at the reality of what I’m complicit in by remaining silent.
[In light of Coates’s view of the world, I was quite surprised to see he recently did an interview with Ezra Klein in which he said he feels hopeful that the current protests, and the outrage that inspired them, might lead to actual change. I genuinely triple checked to be sure I read the headline correctly. That’s a big fucking deal. It’s well worth a read: Why Ta-Nehisi Coates is Hopeful.]
A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki – The story we tell of America – the only one we are taught in school and media – is the Anglo-European myth of American excellence. Even when we cursorily acknowledge the horrific sins on which the birth and growth of this nation is founded, we defy reason by somehow absolving ourselves – and the nation – of guilt. It’s a neat, horrific trick.
Takaki lifts the curtain to tell the true story of this country, revealing all the things white America refuses to look at, because it challenges everything we believe about ourselves. Takaki highlights the stories of the peoples absent from the American myth – including African, Jewish, Irish, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx Americans.
On the Other Side of Freedom by DeRay Mckesson – Activist DeRay Mckesson’s book is a thoughtful, hopeful, yet realistic examination of race in America.
I especially appreciated his chapter, “The Problem of Police,” which uses a data-based approach to explain why policing in America is broken. Mckesson helped create the first ever national database of police violence – the mere absence of which says everything we need to know about the total lack of police accountability in this country.
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang – Through the lens of the social contexts that fueled it, Chang tells the story of hip hop as it grew from block parties in the Bronx into a global, culture defining phenomenon.
Even more than it explores the music, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is a sociological work revealing the way hip hop – the artists, music, culture, and critics – is an ongoing conversation in reaction, response, and rebellion to the injustice at the core of the political-social-economic realities faced by Black Americans.
This is a must read for fans of hip hop, and for those seeking a better understanding of systemic racism in America since the 1970s.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou – The first, most famous book in Angelou’s autobiography series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings bridges the gap between my nonfiction and fiction lists. Even more than most other writers in the creative nonfiction genre, Angelou plays with boundaries of genre and fact to powerfully tell the story of her childhood.
There’s an inherent humor and warmth in her writing, but she never pulls punches, or hides the darker truths. Six years after her death, Angelou remains one of America’s greatest and most essential writers.
We’re also back ordered for White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Judging by their reputation, there’s a good chance all three of those titles would have ended up on this list as well.