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I already told you to read any Toni Morrison you can get your hands on, so it should come as no surprise when I add Jazz as another great addition to the antiracist reading list.
As I wrote recently, I’ve never read anyone who draws characters better than Morrison did. They are vivid, real enough it feels as if a reader is listening as someone bares their story and soul from across a sitting room or kitchen table.
Often, stories become universal in their particularity. By being rooted in a writer’s own humanity, people who don’t share any circumstances with the storyteller somehow find their own heart reflected back. As a white man, that’s not my experience reading Morrison’s novels. Her work doesn’t offer me a mirror, but instead a window into the humanity of others, offering glimpses into realities other than my own. And in part, they are lives lived under the weight of my own privilege and the privilege of the people I come from.
Obviously, her work is infinitely more remarkable and significant than my experience of it, but one tiny facet of Morrison’s work is that it invites white readers to grow in compassion, empathy, and humility, and to remind us that our own stories are often told at the expense of the stories of others.
The final installment of my antiracist book list is published, but that obviously isn’t the end of it. For one, if you’re familiar with this blog at all, you know it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t compile a companion list of antiracist movies. When I’m actually maintaining it, film is the beating heart that makes Roused to Mediocrity go, so let’s talk about movies.
Seriously though, let’s talk about movies. I’m planning to start an antiracist movie club, and I’m inviting you along for the ride. I haven’t worked out details, aside from the core concept of watching a movie once a month, then getting together virtually to have a conversation about it.
In the past, when I wanted to start something like this, the virtual part has always been the rub. It’s a necessity, considering the physical distance between me and most of you, but it just wasn’t something I thought anyone would want to try.
Fast forward to 2020, and Zoom is a regular part of everyday life. So, I vote we give this a shot. For now, just let me know if you’re interested. If you know me, contact me however the hell you want. If not, leave a comment, or email me – email@example.com – This invitation is open to any and everyone.
I’ve compiled a big list of movies* to give us a pool to choose from as we get RtM’s Antiracist Movie Club up and running. Obviously, we’ll never get to all, or even most of these.
Here’s my list.** Let me know some movies I missed:
- Fruitvale Station
- Do the Right Thing
- Queen and Slim
- 12 Years a Slave
- If Beale Street Could Talk
- I Am Not Your Negro
- Get Out
- Malcolm X
- Boyz n the Hood
- OJ: Made in America
- Da 5 Bloods
- The Hate U Give
- Just Mercy
- Whose Streets?
- Menace II Society
- Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
- Let It Fall
- LA 92
- Dear White People [film]
- Good Hair
- The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975***
The movies below will be great additions down the line, but it seems gross if we don’t begin with movies created or co-created by people of color.
- The Central Park Five
- Teach Us All
- Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland
- Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
- Attack the Block
- The Color Purple
- In the Heat of the Night
*I’ve only seen 12 of them.
**I’m skipping all white savior nonsense, along with stories designed to make white folks feel good about “how far we’ve come,” by comparing ourselves to cartoonish racist southerners from the antebellum south through to the 60’s. Those films can be part of valuable conversations about racism depicted in film disingenuously, ignoring the systemic role it plays in every facet of American society. I just don’t believe it’s the appropriate place to begin.
***This one is directed by Swedes, but I’m including it here because all of the voices are Black. It’s just that Swedish filmmakers were the ones who came over to document the Black Panther movement. It’s white people pointing the camera, but after that it’s purely Black revolutionaries getting to speak their piece, so I believe it fits in the first category.
And here it finally is, the last installment of my antiracist reading list. Obviously, there are a great many glaring omissions, as I still have so much reading yet to do. I’d love for all of you to send me whatever titles would be on your own list(s).
A few of these books aren’t overtly about race or racism, but are written by great Black writers. #decolonizeyourbookshelf
Once again, if you want to buy any of these books AND support a Black owned bookstore, may I recommend The Lit. Bar.
[Everything orange is a link, most often to a book or author’s Goodreads page.]
Okay, first, the GOATs:
Read literally anything by Toni Morrison, one of the indisputable greatest of all time. You don’t win the Nobel Prize by being bad at writing.
The Bluest Eye has been on just about every list I’ve seen. Probably because it’s amazingly good, and particularly appropriate for the purpose of these conversations.
Beloved is on a fair number of the lists as well. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so what else can I say? [It also isn’t too far from the books I listed in the previous installment, because ghosts.]
The characters populating Morrison’s stories feel like living, breathing, three-dimensional people. She draws them in such a way that the reader is compelled to empathize with each character, which I believe enhances our ability to do so with real people, in the real world. As is the case with many of the writers below, her writing has the power to genuinely make us better people – if we cooperate with it.
And speaking of greatest of all time, James Baldwin.
Going to Meet the Man is a book of brilliant short stories.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful, heartbreaking book about a woman’s fight to free the father of her unborn child after he’s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. [Also, don’t miss the film adaptation by Barry Jenkins (director of Moonlight, possibly my favorite movie of the 2010s). And the audiobook is performed by Bahni Turpin, my absolute favorite audiobook reader.]
And definitely don’t forget his semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.
With Baldwin and Morrison, you literally can’t go wrong. Just read whatever you can get your hands on.
On its surface, it’s a story revealing the way the criminal justice system continues to fail people of color, and Black people in particular. It certainly does that powerfully, but it runs far, far deeper than that. I genuinely ached for the characters at the heart of this novel. After the last page, they continued to live in my mind far longer than most characters do. I worried and wondered about them, found myself wishing good things for them as if they were real people I knew. In their love and hate, their hurts and betrayals, their capacity for hope and ugliness, Celestial, Roy, and Andre took up an uncommon amount of space in my mind and heart.
I already professed my love for An American Marriage in a previous post, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say – Morrison and Baldwin aside – this is my favorite book on this list.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, is another consensus all time classic. I can’t do better than the National Endowment of the Arts’ description of the “vibrant and achingly human novel,” as Hurston tells the story of a young woman “ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny.” The novel is one of the products of the Harlem Renaissance now firmly secure in the American literary canon.
Zadie Smith is a living writer firmly set on the GOAT trajectory. Both White Teeth and Swing Time are remarkable, open-hearted stories brimming with humanity. Swing Time follows the complicated relationship and lives of two young dancers as they grow from girls to women. White Teeth is a story of – among other things – family, love, belonging, race, immigration, and faith, featuring a cast full of diverse, three-dimensional, complicated characters spanning two generations. Both are well worth your time.
In One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia’s marvelous story geared toward younger readers, Delphine and her two younger sisters are sent across the country to spend the summer with the estranged mother they barely know. In the summer of ‘68, far from her native Brooklyn, Delphine finds herself in Oakland during the rise of the Black Panther Party. There, she struggles to understand her complicated place in the world, and her relationship to her mother, neither of which are as simple as she’d thought.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a magical novel. Not just because of the actual magical realism, but because of the wonder of Jesmyn Ward’s writing. Both in crafting a story, and her stunning use of language, she is a remarkable talent, and an author who is literally a must-read.
Nothing I write could do it justice, but you should absolutely read this story of the legacy of racism, and the complicated legacies from each generation to those that follow, as the ghosts of the past always haunt the present.
But don’t take my word for it, Sing, Unburied, Sing book won the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2017.
There’s a good chance you read Mildred D. Taylor’s, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in school. If not, you should consider giving it a read. This story of a young girl coming to understand the realities of being Black in the Jim Crow south is still powerful, whatever your age.
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn is the coming of age story of four young Black girls in 1970s Brooklyn, best friends pulled apart not just by passing years, but by the brutal world around them. The book – which writer Roxanne Gay called “a love letter to black girlhood” – is unflinching in its account of the world’s ugliness, but love and hope are never truly absent.
Jason Reynolds is amazing, a poet and author who writes his stories in verse. I lovelovelove Long Way Down, a story of a young man on his way to commit an act of life-shattering violence, taking revenge for a murdered brother. On the ride from his apartment to the ground floor, his elevator stops at every floor, and at each he is visited by the ghost of someone murdered in the same cycle of violence he’s about to perpetuate.
This is yet another book that would have been at home on my genre fiction list. Apparently, I could have done a list just for books with ghosts.
Also, if you ever need some inspiration, read Reynolds’s For Every One.
Okay, so it turns out I lied. I claimed I was going to release one final antiracist reading list installment featuring all the fiction titles. Turns out, the fiction list is way too long for one post, so I’m splitting it in two.
So, here’s a post full of amazing speculative fiction titles, because apparently, an absurd percentage of my reading diet is genre fiction.
Seriously, folks, this is some really brilliant sci-fi/fantasy/etc. The titles are links to the book’s Goodreads page:
Kindred – Octavia Butler — Butler is one of the greatest sci-fi writers of all time, and beginning in the 1970s she smashed barriers to gain acclaim in a genre that was very male, and entirely white. Kindred uses the structure of slave narratives to tell the story of a Black woman who keeps being pulled through time between her home in 1976 California, and an antebellum Maryland plantation where she becomes entangled in the story of her ancestors.
Dawn (Xenogenesis #1) – Octavia Butler — Kindred is amazing, but Butler spent most of her time writing futuristic sci-fi. So you should definitely read her Xenogenesis series. The series begins as a woman, Lilith Iyapo, awakens on an alien ship after humanity has wiped itself out in a nuclear holocaust. She, along with other survivors, must decide if the aliens can be trusted, and if they themselves are willing to change what it means to be human in order for humanity to have a future.
Speaking of Butler spending most of her time writing futuristic sci-fi, some call her the mother of Afrofuturism. So, if you like Ryan Coogler’s conception of Wakanda, or Janelle Monáe, or Nnedi Okorafor’s writing (see below), that all exists thanks in part to Octavia Butler.
I’m about to read Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Written nearly three decades ago, it’s “set in the 2020s, where society has largely collapsed due to climate change, growing wealth inequality, and corporate greed.” Sound familiar?
She was a brilliant writer, and I don’t think I’ve ever read any work more insightful and empathetic than hers. We need her voice right now. Always, but especially right now.
The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) – N. K. Jemisin — There is simply no one in the fantasy game better than N. K. Jemisin, right now. And she’s got the hardware to prove it. Each of the three books in this series won the Hugo Award – in three consecutive years! You’ve never read fantasy like this before. It’s gripping, powerful, and wholly original.
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead — Genre-defying story of a woman’s struggle to escape the slave states on an Underground Railroad that’s more than just metaphorically underground, and that travels across more than just physical distance. If you haven’t read Whitehead before, this is a great place to start.
Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) – Tomi Adeyemi — Adeyemi has written a thrilling YA fantasy story set in a dangerous and beautiful world based on the myths, history, religion, and language of the West African Yoruba culture. If you’re into YA fantasy – or fantasy in general – it doesn’t get better than this.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Dark Star Trilogy #1) – Marlon James — Dark, violent, wildly imaginative fantasy rooted in African myths, history, culture, and tradition. To say I’ve never read any fantasy like this would be a gross understatement. It’s deeply immersive, not just into the world James builds, but into the brooding heart of our protagonist and the story he tells.
From what I understand, the Dark Star Trilogy is going to be Rashomonic, with each volume relaying the same events from a different perspective. I’m all over that!
Michael B. Jordan bought the rights for an adaptation before the book was even released.
Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor — In a post-apocalyptic Africa, a world where magic and sorcery exist, Okorafor tells a story deeply rooted in themes of race and gender. None of the writers in this section seem at all concerned with playing by the rules of old fantasy structures, and Okorafor’s voice is powerfully original.
Binti – Nnedi Okorafor — This novella is awesome. Like so much of the best sci-fi, Binti transplants political and social realities of today onto an alien future, to hold our own society up to the light. But even if you don’t care about that, this is a great story, with a great hero, whose struggle to embrace her own strength and identity may decide the fate of the human race.
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.
Okay, for my fellow white folks out there, let’s just get this out of the way at the top: we’re racist.
That’s not a maybe, or even a probably, just a simple statement of fact. Understand, racism isn’t binary. There isn’t a racism switch that’s flipped either on or off. It’s a huge, ugly spectrum, and every white person in America – including you and me – is on it.
Anyone still reading?
Oh, hey, you’re still here! Then let’s get started.
In this moment, it appears that more and more of us are finally waking up to just how fucked this country is, and has always been, in terms of race. That it isn’t a sad aberration that needs to be rooted out of our society, but is instead woven into the fabric of society itself – our history, identity, and culture. It’s an inseparable defect intentionally grafted into the nation’s DNA from the start.
Hopefully this new outrage, and the resultant protests, don’t represent a mere flash in the pan. This needs to be the start of a revolution. Historically speaking, it’s probably better not to hold our collective breath. Yet, there is no historical precedent for this sort of reaction – from such a large portion of white America – to systemic racism, so maybe we’re finally onto something. It’s on us to make all of this mean something this time around. Let’s not fuck it up.
That’s why, even though there are a lot of antiracist reading lists out there right now, I’ve decided to share my own.
I want to start conversations with the other white people I know about the work we need to be doing to dismantle our own personal privilege and racism, and to dismantle racism and white supremacy in society. And, as will surprise absolutely none of you, one of the best ways I know to start a conversation is to begin with a book. Thus, a list of some books that have been a part of my own early steps toward antiracism feels like a good way to welcome people into talking about this stuff – and hopefully doing the work alongside me.
In an attempt to avoid a tl;dr situation, I’ll break the post into three parts. Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing a few nonfiction books, and in two days, I’ll share some fiction.
Before all of that, a bit about my own racism.
Remember that spectrum I mentioned. Well, like I said, we’re all on it, and almost all of us – myself included – are at the wrong end.
For a number of years, I’ve been trying to do the work. Trying to read and learn, to turn the lights on in my own mind, stop squeezing my eyes closed, and look at the places within myself that I avoid because of discomfort, shame, and fear. And – once again, surprising absolutely none of you – one of the first places I’ve tried to do that was on my bookshelf.
Please don’t read that as self-congratulatory. At first glance, I understand why that paragraph reads as a humble brag, praising myself for my progress in a personal struggle toward antiracism. Let me make three things clear.
One, the work I’ve done has been the bare minimum. I still consistently avoid the ideas, thoughts, and challenges that make me uncomfortable. That doesn’t help. Toeing the water at my leisure, then dissociating when it serves me, is useless.
Two, the thing with learning about race is that the more you start to learn and change, the more internal ignorance and ugliness you begin to uncover. Everything I learn reveals that I’ve been far more blind and ignorant, and more overtly racist, than I thought. It reveals how much work is left to do in my own heart and mind.
It’s a crude, inaccurate metaphor, but if the racism spectrum is numbered from 1 to 1000, I think the work I’ve done has gotten me up to a solid 2, maybe even a 3 on my best days.
Three, I’ve genuinely learned things that have changed how I see the world. I’m more aware of social injustice and systemic racism than those just now beginning the work. What that means is that I am even more complicit in my failure to respond in any meaningful way to murder after murder, and as Black lives and bodies continue to be commodified, vilified, erased, and stolen in practically infinite ways. I really have worked to learn and unlearn, and I’ve made legitimate progress strengthening my grasp of the nightmare. That means I’ve got more blood on my hands, because in light having a better understanding of reality, I’ve done nothing substantial to combat white supremacy.
I need to do better. You need to do better. I share these books as an invitation to join me in the the difficult, painful, uncomfortable conversations we need to be having about the pervasive, systemic racism and inequality at the foundation, and in every facet, of our society. We need to start doing the work, because the world has waited far too long.
Also, I’ll mention this in each post, but if you want to buy any of the books I list and support a Black owned bookstore, may I recommend buying from The Lit. Bar.