I have read a lot of articles and social media posts by black authors and activists over the last week who have said the same thing. In this moment in time, the role of white allies is to listen to and learn from black voices, to stand with the movement and march in solidarity, and, if needed, put our white privilege to a just use by placing our white bodies between the police and black bodies during peaceful demonstrations. What was stressed again and again is that this is not the time for white voices to lead, to speak out, and/or to make it “about us” – something, sadly, all too rare in American history. What is most important is for white Americans to listen and learn, to hear what our black sisters and brothers are saying and to follow their lead in the struggle against the sin of systemic racism.
To that end, I write often on this site of challenging the sin of racism, whether via the works I analyze or in my more overtly current events-oriented posts. However, embracing what I’m reading and modelling what I’m learning, I know this is not the time for me to speak, to write, to share what I think or what I am doing in the midst of this moment in our history. My voice is not what’s important nor what’s needed. What I do wish to share are a few books (and one documentary film) that have been instrumental in my own ongoing education about racism in the United States.
Each text taught me, challenged me, and opened my eyes to so much I’d never knew. If you are considering a place to continue your own education on racism in the United States, I humbly offer these suggestions. As opposed to going into a story about how each text has affected me, the descriptions below are from the publishers. I’ve also included links, should you want to just click from this page to purchase the text. I give each book my highest recommendation. They were all life-changing reads.
1) Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me (published in 2015)
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.
2) Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (2017)
Short, emotional, literary, powerful―Tears We Cannot Stop is the book that all Americans who care about the current and long-burning crisis in race relations will want to read.
As the country grapples with racist division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice soars above the rest with conviction and compassion. In his 2016 New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot Stop―a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted.
“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.”
It’s worth pointing out this text ends with a chapter of specific, concrete actions white allies can take to aid the ongoing struggle against racism. Here’s a link should you wish to purchase Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.
3) Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016)
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation’s prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans.
I show this film every year when I teach my unit on racism and, again and again, my students tell me it’s one of the most powerful and eye-opening things they’ve seen. This film can be streamed on Netflix or on YouTube for free.
4) Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010, 2012)
Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by Michelle Alexander’s unforgettable argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” As the Birmingham News proclaimed, it is “undoubtedly the most important book published in this century about the U.S.”
Now, ten years after it was first published, The New Press is proud to issue a tenth-anniversary edition with a new preface by Michelle Alexander that discusses the impact the book has had and the state of the criminal justice reform movement today.
5) Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All”: The Story of the Struggle for Black Lives (2016)
Conducting hundreds of interviews during the course of over one year reporting on the ground, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled from Ferguson, Missouri, to Cleveland, Ohio; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore, Maryland; and then back to Ferguson to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today.
In an effort to grasp the magnitude of the repose to Michael Brown’s death and understand the scale of the problem police violence represents, Lowery speaks to Brown’s family and the families of other victims other victims’ families as well as local activists. By posing the question, “What does the loss of any one life mean to the rest of the nation?” Lowery examines the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs.
Studded with moments of joy, and tragedy, They Can’t Kill Us All offers a historically informed look at the standoff between the police and those they are sworn to protect, showing that civil unrest is just one tool of resistance in the broader struggle for justice. As Lowery brings vividly to life, the protests against police killings are also about the black community’s long history on the receiving end of perceived and actual acts of injustice and discrimination.
They Can’t Kill Us All grapples with a persistent if also largely unexamined aspect of the otherwise transformative presidency of Barack Obama: the failure to deliver tangible security and opportunity to those Americans most in need of both.
This past week, I took Blackout Tuesday – a day where white allies were encourage to not post anything and instead to just listen – seriously. Not that I’m ever that active on social media, but I did give my day over to reading. I began reading Michael Eric Dyson’s newest book, What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America (2018). I’m about halfway through it now and it is proving as edifying and challenging as his Tears We Cannot Stop.
Going forward, I’ve decided to try and make a point of dedicating all my reading time on Tuesdays to reading and learning from people of color about their experience and what I can do to help in the ongoing struggle against racism. The next book on my reading list is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy (2017).
Honestly, sometimes reading these books (many of which I’ve returned to and read several times) proves very difficult. It’s hard to realize and to accept the evil of racism is so much larger and far more deeply ingrained in my culture than I, as a white American, have had to recognize. But that’s the point. I need to see that. So I listen. I learn. And in so doing I begin to see not just the real scope of the problem but my role in helping to fight against it.