In 2014, the summer of the Ferguson protests, I felt upset, helpless, and also woefully uneducated. At work, looking around at a majority white and Asian office, I was frustrated at colleagues who shrugged off my anxiety with a flippant “Ferguson? I don’t even know who that is,” but who was I to speak? I knew things were bad, and had been bad for a long time, but I didn’t really understand the experience of Black America or the extent of the country’s twisted racist legacy. Having spent time working on diversity and inclusion in tech, I was marginally more exposed to people in my friend and activist circles who were organizers or at least outspoken on Black issues, but in honesty, I couldn’t count that for anything.
At some point in my adult life, books became my default way of processing difficult situations and finding a way to progress myself through, onwards to better. Books are my therapy. Non-fiction books, selected carefully for their subject matter, give me new frameworks, insights, and vocabulary to understand events that have already unfolded as well as those to come or to mitigate and avoid. Memoirs and fiction books are an escape, sometimes, but other times a way to temporarily inhabit the worlds and experiences of others such that I may be more empathetic to them in the real world. With much love to the wonderful people in my life, it’s not fair to put on them the burden of navigating me through the morass of my sucking, swirling, half-formed thoughts and dredged-up emotions. The beauty of a good book is that someone, a brilliant someone, already devoted years of their life to putting together their best guidance for me. And I can get it for the price of a paperback and a few hours of time investment.
As #BlackLivesMatter became the rallying cry heard across America, I started reading. I’ve been reading for a while, now. But six years later, as the never-ending, brutal, unnecessary deaths of yet more Black people at the hands of American police have sparked protests across the country and around the world, I have to admit, I still feel horribly useless, and guilty for my complicity. The world hasn’t progressed, but can I say that I have, either? I often think about this quote from Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative:
“I get frustrated when I hear people talking about ‘if I had been living during the time of slavery of course I would have been an abolitionist.’ And most people think that if they had been living when mobs were gathering to lynch black people in the courthouse lawn, they would have said something. Everybody imagines that if they were in Alabama in the 1960s they would have been marching with Dr. King. And the truth of it is, I don’t think you can claim that, if today you are watching these systems be created that are incarcerating millions of people, throwing away the lives of millions of people, destroying communities, and you’re doing nothing.”
The best I can say for myself is that I am now more well-educated, and in order to know the steps forward for deep, sustained change I do think it necessary to have a foundational understanding of the legacies and ongoing harms of colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and systemic disenfranchisement of Black people politically, socially, and economically; the strategies and successes of revolutionaries, activists, judges and legislators; ongoing work by organizers on the ground now; as well as the analogies to and intersections with other issues and movements — apartheid reparations, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, ethics and accountability in technology, to name but a few.
Here is a list of books I’ve found helpful in my own education and that I can recommend to others who are joining for the journey. Most are by Black authors, some speak to specific issues being discussed in the moment, others are more contextual, particularly the fiction books. I’ve also included a few British books for a perspective on Black issues in a different country with a longer and certainly no less troubling history. This is far from a comprehensive list but I am offering it in the hopes that some may find it useful. I’m happy to offer more specific recommendations as well for those who want more direction as to where to start.
- The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
- Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
- So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo
- White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo
- Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch
- Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy
- The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois
- The Good Immigrant, by Nikesh Shukla
- Becoming, by Michelle Obama
- Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
- Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama
- Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate First, by George Lakoff
- The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
- Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
- Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
- An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
- Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo
- Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
- Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson
- How Long ’til Black Future Month, by N. K. Jemisin
- Kindred, by Octavia Butler
- An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
- Beloved, by Toni Morrison
- The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
This all being said, while the reading and learning is never done, my challenge to myself is to translate more of my energy to concrete actions. I’m starting with donations to people and organizations doing the work, and making sure to research, support, and vote for progressive candidates up and down the ballot. It’s not enough by far, and I’m asking for patience from those who don’t owe it to me, but I do intend to do more, and better.
Next up on the reading queue:
- How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi
- Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- The End of Policing, by Alex Vitale