With the current cultural shift caused by Black Lives Matter protests across the US (and the world), I have come across many resources about educating yourself about anti-black racism, including books. Obviously reading is not the only thing we should do, but it is an important step.
It may go without saying, but justice for George Floyd and all of those killed by police brutality. Black Lives Matter. For more book recs and anti-racism resources go here. For how to get involved against police brutality go here. For places to donate and petitions to sign go here.
Although as a person of colour I do read books about race and racism, I can definitely do better, especially as this is about the structural racism faced specifically by black people. I have a responsibility to educate myself on that, and I am starting with these six books. I’m sharing this in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and in the hope that it can direct any readers, but needless to say it is black bloggers who you should be going to for more on this!
In this list I’m focusing on non-fiction from African American authors. I’m obviously not going to be reading only books about racism from now on, because books from black writers that have nothing to do with race – whether this is non-fiction or
everyone’s my favourite, SF&F – retain just as essential a place on TBRs. However, I do sometimes neglect non-fiction books, therefore this list focuses on works I’m engaging with to educate myself.
This list includes: essays, autobiographies and studies.
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
If you want to know more about James Baldwin, one of the key 20th century thinkers, I recommend listening to episodes about him on The History of Literature podcast, which I talked about here.
The Fire Next Time was published in 1963, during the civil rights movement. It contains two essays in the form of letters: My Dungeon Shook and Down at the Cross. The first is a letter to Baldwin’s 14-year old nephew, where he tells him about what it is like to be a black man in America. The second focuses on the intersection of race and religion – from Baldwin’s experience with Christianity as a youth pastor to his thoughts on the Nation of Islam.
Baldwin is vital reading for anyone who is interested in literature. Baldwin wrote novels and plays as well as essays. I have only read bits of The Fire Next Time so I think it’s time I focus on doing so properly.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X – Malcolm X, Alex Haley
Not having already read this is an oversight I am correcting now. Malcolm X was an important figure in the fight for black liberation in the US and he was assassinated shortly before this book was published. That was in 1965, which reads like a long time ago but is barely a lifetime.
The book is a collaboration between Malcolm X and journalist Alex Haley, formed from a series of interviews over two years. I don’t know a lot about Malcolm X beyond his more famous speeches and that he is often considered controversial, so I am hoping this read changes that.
Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde
This book collects several essays and speeches given by Audre Lorde. Her ideas about feminism are absolutely essential to modern day feminist thinking (intersectional feminism, that is), and I am excited to read more in her words about how feminism fails when it does not take into account women of colour. In fact, there is almost no topic she does not cover. She talks about race and sexism, sexuality due to her identity as a lesbian, disability and illness.
Sister Outsider, published in 1984, includes fifteen different essays and speeches that draw directly from her identities as a black woman, a lesbian, a mother, a poet, a civil rights activist. A broad range of topics are covered here, all focusing on how identity is intersectional and so feminism must be also.
Although I have come across Lorde’s work before – she is incredibly influential – I have also noticed that it is not taught with the same essentialism as white feminists. I believe this is one of those moments where my own responsibility for seeking out black voices is clear.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
Although this has been on my bookshelf for years, I have never got around to reading it, likely because (as I said), I often gravitate towards fiction. This memoir by Maya Angelou, who was involved within the civil rights movement and a friend of James Baldwin’s, depicts her childhood and upbringing and the racism she had to grow up in. Maya Angelou’s iconic and eminently quotable poetry has long been a favourite of mine, so I think it’s about time I read her memoir.
This book was published in 1969, and it chronicles Angelou’s life from three to fifteen. The book is technically the first in a seven-book series, all autobiographical, and it talks about the difficult struggles she faced including homelessness and sexual assault. Although it is autobiography, it frequently includes fictional techniques and themes.
The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson
This book documents 15 years of research (15 years!) into the Great Migration, where six million African Americans moved away from the southern US, across a span of around fifty years. I am keen to learn more about this subject.
First published in 2010, this book chronicles an essential passage of 20th century history. In addition, Wilkerson is a Pulizter Prince winner – she was the first black woman to win it in 1994 for her journalism. The book is based on interviews with three individuals who undertook the migration.
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book, in the form of a letter to Coates’ teenage son, is an attempt to explore the racial history of the US. Coates shares his own life story and his experience of being a black man in America, and the institutional violence faced.
This book, published in 2015, was written by Coates after he read James Baldwin’s essay above. Although I have read some of his essays and have his debut novel on my TBR, I thought this was an important addition.
I hope this post has helped you add some important stories to your own TBRs. Let me know if you have any essential recs.