The celebration of Black history in America has never felt more critical than our present moment. White Americans, like myself, cannot even pretend to know what African-Americans go through daily. The best thing we can do is approach their experience with an open mind and a willingness to admit that we don't know. From that admission, a bridge of understanding can start to be built through research, listening, and understanding. In my experience, reading about other people's experience has been beneficial to my understanding of any perspective that is not my own.
But the knowledge gained through text is purely symbolic. Though these books are incredibly powerful, they are only collections of words conveying ideas. They can never be a complete substitute for actual experience. Still, as a white American living in a country built on the exploitation of African-Americans, reading and attempting to appreciate another perspective seems essential. For me, the best question I could ask during this month of celebration and respect was a simple one: how can I contribute in a positive and productive way? As someone who loves to read, I thought this list may be the most honest way I could say something without saying too much. This list is certainly not all-inclusive or even extremely current. These are six books (a manageable number to add to anyone's reading list) that I have read which shine a light on the daily experience of so many of our fellow citizens.
1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X - Malcolm X, Alex Haley
Hence I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X lived an extraordinary life. His ideas were controversial and prescient, and his autobiography is no different. Through his life story, readers learn how one person was beaten down by society but still kept his faith in humanity. Large portions of his story are impossible to put down.
2. Citizen: An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine
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.”
Claudia Rankine's book-length poem is heartwrenching, eye-opening, and consummately tragic. Citizen pulls from modern examples of micro racisms and aggressions that everyone will recognize. Her description of the plight of Serena Williams, arguably the greatest athlete of all time, is particularly illuminating.
3. When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir - Asha Bandele, Patrisse Cullors
Could it be that we matter?”
This memoir is an autobiography of the Black Lives Matter movement, beginning with the life story of one of its three founders. Their journey is a story of survival that is all too common to the African-American experience. The book's title reads prophetic considering the recent terrorist attacks at the Capitol and their subsequent media coverage.
4. Conversations with James Baldwin - James Baldwin
The fact that from that moment on, let us say, black people began to relate to each other more coherently than they related to white people. From that time on, what a white person's judgment of a black man was began to diminish in value."
Conversations' breadth of topics and convenience of format makes it easily digestible food for thought. There are few better ways to try to understand the African-American experience than by having a conversation with one of the world's foremost communicators on the subject. Truth be told, there's a version of this list that is exclusively James Baldwin books.
5. Beloved - Toni Morrison
Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
This novel is unforgettable. Set in post-Civil War Ohio, Beloved tells one woman's horrific tragedy in a way that is difficult to put down and impossible not to be affected by. Beloved's story is one of the most important novels of the last century and should be read with a box of tissues nearby.
6. Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied”
Ralph Ellison's exploration of identity and race is nothing if not a powerfully transparent allegory. The book has had a profound impact on our culture, as I'm sure many of you read it in high school or college. It's a classic because of its perfect balance of the bitter truth with sweet, sweet storytelling.
Celebrate and donate this Black History Month, starting here.