Would you look at that? It’s not the month of February and we are sitting here talking about race. Welcome! You posted the black square photo on all your social media accounts. Maybe you even yelled at your supposedly not racist uncle for a comment that he once made over the Thanksgiving table. Maybe you have been out every night, marching in support of black lives that have been wrongly taken too soon. Now you’re wondering what’s next. What more can you do? The answer: read!
I have compiled a list of books that will meet you where you are in your journey of learning about race. Confused about what the term “white feminist” means? There’s a book for that! Want to learn more about the journey that it took for black people to get the right to vote? There’s a book for that! Want to learn how to bring up the topic of race to your friend Matt? Well, there’s even a book for that, too (oops, sorry Matt)!
I personally think that the hardest thing about learning is figuring out where to start. It can seem so overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to understand the complex history of racism. I’ve been a black woman for 26 years, and I still don’t have all of the answers. That’s the fun part about learning, though: you’re never too old to crack open a book and pick up where you left off; or in some questions, start from the beginning. Pick up any one of these books with an open mind. You are here for a reason. Let’s do the work together.
1. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
This book is INSANELY popular, and for good reason. It tells America’s history, but not through the lenses that we normally read it. Instead, Zinn focuses on telling this story from the views of America’s women, African Americans, Native Americans, factory workers, and more. He doesn’t whitewash history, which makes this book a must-read.
2. Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy by Darryl Pinckney
Blackballed explores Pickney’s focus on how black people have participated in the U.S. electoral elections from when they first got the right to vote—well, some of them got the right to vote due to the 15th Amendment, which was passed in 1870; the rest received the right in 1965, due to the Voting Rights Act—to President Barack Obama’s two campaigns. Part memoir, part historical reflection, all political: there’s something for everyone.
3. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
When I moved to Portland, I used to joke that all black people seemed to be from Chicago because literally every black person I met was either visiting from Chicago or was from Chicago themselves. Heck, I grew up in Chicago myself! Have you ever wondered why so many generations of black families are from the Midwest? It turns out that there’s a reason for that. Wilkerson tells the unique stories of three individuals who each left the south for western and northern states, hoping to create a better life for themselves and their future generations. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry. Most importantly, you’ll learn.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Even before the pandemic hit and I was working at a bookstore, Kendi’s book was flying off the shelves. People believe that the opposite of racism is simply “not racist” (think about many times have you heard someone say “I’m not racist but…” and then say something outrageously racist), when it’s really not that simple. Instead, Kendi argues that the opposite is actually anti-racism. If you’re interested in this dive into ethics, history, law, personal accounts, and more, then this is a must-read for many reasons, but that’s just one of them.
5. The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
If you have ever called a certain neighborhood “ghetto” or thought that a certain neighborhood was dangerous because of the people that lived there, then you should pick this book up immediately. Rothstein describes how the American government imposed residential segregation with racial zoning. Think whites-only suburbs; public housing that segregates communities due to the color of their skin even though those communities were once integrated. Sometimes, it’s not a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
6. Evicted by Matthew Desmond
In this eye-opening Pulitzer-Prize-winning personalized account of poverty housing, Desmond follows eight families who live in Milwaukee as they deal with corrupt landlords and faulty living situations just so they’ll have a place to call home at the end of the day. This isn’t an easy read in the slightest, because while their names have been changed, these are real stories that will hit your heartstrings.
7. Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
If you want to learn more about self-segregation, then there is no better book written. While yes, most segregation is bad, the act of self-segregation can also be a coping mechanism. In this complex book, Tatum argues that if we are serious about building a bridge of communication between racial divides, then we need to talk openly and effectively about how we racially identify. She’s right, you know.
8. The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown
Reading Brown’s essay collections is like going out for drinks with your best friends. Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy, is the creator of the #DisabledAndCute viral campaign and one of the funniest people to follow on Twitter. Her essay collection shines a light on what it is like to be both black and disabled—a discussion that is rarely talked about, especially in the literary community—focusing on both the heartbreaking and the humorous in the way that only Brown can accomplish.
9. Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
I am the first to admit this: As a black woman, I don’t think a lot about the experiences faced by other minorities. That is my blind-spot and it is one of the issues that I am actively working on. (We all have things to work on! It’s one of the best things about learning.) Reading Hong’s essays brought up some of the most uncomfortable feelings that I have ever had to think about, and I thank her for that. Hong uses humor and her own story as the daughter of Korean immigrants to exclaim what she calls “minor feelings,” which occurs when you actually start to believe the lies and theories you’ve been told about your own racial identity. I would read anything that Hong writes any day of the week.
10. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
We all know that talking about race is difficult, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn how to do so. Oluo has written the perfect beginner’s guide to broaching those tricky subjects: how to tell someone you like that their jokes are horribly racist or why you shouldn’t ask to touch someone’s hair (oh my god, please stop asking to touch my hair). If you’re looking for a friendly, yet hard-hitting book to start this conversation on the right foot, you’ve found it.
11. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Based on the viral eponymous February 2014 blog post, Eddo-Lodge provides an incredibly vital exploration of what it is like to be a person of color who lives in Britain today. This book is needed, especially because it offers a refreshing and timely framework for how we should all talk about and counter racism.
12. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
DiAngelo specifically wrote this book for white people, about how they respond when they are challenged racially. The term “white fragility” is meant to be characterized by high-feeling emotions, such as anger and guilt. While it may be an extremely uncomfortable book to read, it needs to be read.
13. White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad
The concept of white feminism (feminism that focuses only on the struggles of white women without addressing the forms of oppression that women of color and women who lack other forms of privilege) has been used as a weapon of white supremacy for centuries. White Tears/Brown Scars speaks to the participation of white women in different campaigns of oppression. Remember: feminism isn’t feminism unless it’s inclusive.
14. Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper
Listen: Black women have a right to be angry. Malcolm X once said that the “most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” He’s not wrong.
Cooper wants us to be angry because being angry is a superpower. The anger of the black woman inspires change: it makes Serena Williams a better tennis player. It makes Beyoncé a better performer. It fuels us in ways that other emotions don’t. With her signature wit and utter charm, Cooper argues that we need three things in this life to survive: eloquent rage, feminism, and friendship. With that simple list, we could take over the world.
15. Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond by Marc Lamont Hill
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” became a rally cry after a string of deaths of black people by the hands of the police. While Hill focuses mostly on the high-profile cases. (Rest in power, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and so many others.) He also focuses on important government failings, especially the Flint water crisis. How did we get here? Where do we go from here? I don’t have the answers, but Hill does, and I believe him.
Written by Katherine Morgan