I’ve been sitting on how I should contribute to the dialogue surrounding systemic racism. As a cisgender white woman, my voice should not be the loudest. But I do have a platform, and even if I didn’t, I have a responsibility to use it to promote Black voices. So, here are some of my favorite books by Black authors.
To start off, two nonfiction books that I found really formative in how I learned about racial injustice and systemic racism in society.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: “In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community–and all of us–to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.”
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: “In So You Want to Talk About Race, Editor at Large of The Establishment Ijeoma Oluo offers a contemporary, accessible take on the racial landscape in America, addressing head-on such issues as privilege, police brutality, intersectionality, micro-aggressions, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the “N” word. Perfectly positioned to bridge the gap between people of color and white Americans struggling with race complexities, Oluo answers the questions readers don’t dare ask, and explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans.”
Here’s just a handful of fiction that I love:
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: “As he journeys from the Deep South to the streets and basements of Harlem, from a horrifying “battle royal” where black men are reduced to fighting animals, to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison: “Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has borne the unthinkable and not gone mad, yet she is still held captive by memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Meanwhile Sethe’s house has long been troubled by the angry, destructive ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
Sethe works at beating back the past, but it makes itself heard and felt incessantly in her memory and in the lives of those around her. When a mysterious teenage girl arrives, calling herself Beloved, Sethe’s terrible secret explodes into the present.”
Parable of the Sower and its sequel, Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler: “Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.
When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.”
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin: “Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.”
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon: “Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.
Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.”
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: “Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: “Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.
Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.”
Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann: “Alice had her whole summer planned. Non-stop all-you-can-eat buffets while marathoning her favorite TV shows (best friends totally included) with the smallest dash of adulting–working at the library to pay her share of the rent. The only thing missing from her perfect plan? Her girlfriend (who ended things when Alice confessed she’s asexual). Alice is done with dating–no thank you, do not pass go, stick a fork in her, done.
But then Alice meets Takumi and she can’t stop thinking about him or the rom com-grade romance feels she did not ask for (uncertainty, butterflies, and swoons, oh my!).
When her blissful summer takes an unexpected turn, and Takumi becomes her knight with a shiny library employee badge (close enough), Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood.”
While reading holds a lot of power, taking action holds a lot more. As such, here are just a few resources:
Black Lives Matter “Ways to Help” Carrd with links to petitions, contact info for representatives, donations, and protest resources.
NAACP’s “We Are Done Dying” Campaign addressing criminal justice, economic policy, health policy, and voting policy with links to action.
Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” Campaign that allows you to access the police policies that are and are not present in most major cities in America and includes resources for contacting your representatives and government officials.
ProPublica article detailing how to investigate police like a journalist.
Collection of anti-racism resourcesfrom Rachel Ricketts. (And support her work monetarily if you can!)
In need of quarantine reading and want to buy some of these? Here’s a list of Black-owned bookstores from African American Literature Book Club to frequent! My local ones are Loyalty Books and Silver Spring Books. I’ve purchased from Loyalty before and I love them.
Plenty of other people far more knowledgeable and more well-read than me are posting their recommendations for anti-racist reading, as well as just more books by Black authors. Try this anti-racist reading listfrom Goodreads, this anti-racist reading list by Brea Baker for Elle, this list of YA books with Black authors from Afoma Umesi.
In the US?
Enter your address here and find all your representatives at all levels of government and demand action from them. Also, you can probably find their voting record (at least for federal officials) and decide if they deserve your support in future elections.
With that in mind, VOTE! Guidance for how to register here. In many states, it’s too late to vote in the primary, but that may not be the care for your state! Plus, just because the primary is over doesn’t mean voting is done for the year! Also, remember local elections matter, arguably more than federal elections!
Most importantly, stick with the movement, even as it may fall out of the news cycle or social media. Systemic racism is not something that will disappear overnight.
Now, I still have a long way to go. Even just a few years ago, I would have told you that “diversity” in what I read meant having a couple non-white and LGBTQ+ characters, and that is absolutely not the case and is really an unacceptable ideology. I realized a couple weeks ago that I don’t have a single book by a Black author on my physical favorites shelf. While some of this comes down to what books I happen to have physical copies of and where I have space, it also means that I have no prioritized actually buying books by Black authors, which is not the most effective way to support them and show the publishing industry that they are valued. I am absolutely ashamed to admit all of this, but it’s the truth. And I will do better.
Also, because certain blockbuster authors insist on being incredibly problematic, trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are non-binary, and their lives matter and deserve to be valued and respected, as do Black lives.
Is there anything you think I’m missing from any of these lists? Any recommendations? Or anything I got completely wrong? Let me know!
Keep reading (and keep doing the work),