More than suggestions, really. Highly recommended for every American, and for every white American, very necessary. Even the best-intentioned whites don’t know what they don’t know, about the history and foundations of the country; about the institutionalized conventions of race and caste embedded throughout our society, our language, our behaviors; about what is still walking the streets and the halls of power trying to return to a dark time most of us thought was long past; about the sheer terror of that past, and how it still plays out and plagues us all today.
Reading does not and cannot replace experience, and understanding only goes so far, but we can start. Everyone in America lives in one house, whether we built it or not. Knowing how we are defined by our surroundings and our relationships, knowing that the truth is not always the one we have been taught or choose to hold on to, those are the first steps to being able to repair that house and to make the reality of our country after the vision which, in this century at least, so many of us claim we share.
These are my personal recommendations, non-fiction edition. (Next time I may address fiction and film.)
Nota bene: these are life-altering books. You will be challenged, especially if you are white. You will cry. You will come out different on the other side.
If I could name only two, I would start with these two masterpieces by Isabel Wilkerson. Absolutely magnificent. Neither are tremendously long, but they do require a commitment; both can be easily read within the month. The first tells the story of the Great Migration using a narrative non-fiction convention tracing the lives of three real people, one who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the 1930s, another from Florida to New York in the 1940s, and a third from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 1950s. Absolutely riveting and illuminating, and one of the best books of any kind I have ever read. The second is an examination of America today, recent history through the pandemic, and why it became that way, calling out parallels to the Indian caste system and America’s contribution to the Nazis, who modeled the Jim Crow era to advance their own drive towards white supremacy.
- Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010)
- Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents (2020)
These next are much shorter reads, and in their condensation, very intense personal accounts of what it is like to be a person of color within our lifetimes. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes his story as a letter to his teenage son. I was so moved by this book that I gave a copy to my own son, who will soon be a first-time father, as a reminder to him that fathers of one are fathers to all, and that we all have accountability and responsibility to a larger good. James Baldwin wrote several autobiographical books, none more powerful than The Fire Next Time, which is a great companion piece to Between the World and Me. Each can be read over a couple of nights, Baldwin in one sitting.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
I read Taylor Branch‘s series America in the King Years over ten years ago, before the most recent wave of racial tension. These histories are what most white Americans think of when they think of Black History: the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And this is an excellent and thorough accounting over thousands of pages. Well worth the time. The limitation is that it is written by a white man, and once you read Isabel Wilkerson’s books, you can easily see that this kind of reporting is only part of the story, and not necessarily the main part. Necessary and valuable but don’t stop here.
- Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1988)
- Taylor Branch, Pillars of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 (1998)
- Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (2006)
What’s on my list for this February? I’m continuing to make peace with Toni Morrison after that unfortunate personal incident 40+ years ago (will write a separate post about that soon). Have been long overdue on Michelle Alexander‘s book, and have too wide of a knowledge gap on Malcolm X and his influence.
- Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others (2017)
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010; new edition 2020)
- Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
- Les Payne, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (2020)
Also, already purchased, and on the reading stack for later in the year:
- W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction (1935)
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)
- Chancellor Williams, Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. (1992)
- Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (2016)
Obviously this list of recommendations is not complete, and there are so many others to add — certainly much more Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, Angela Davis’ Women Race & Class, Joshua Bloom’s Black Against Empire, many others. I can say with some confidence that none of the books I mentioned here should be left off. Good reading, and please let me know what you think.