Helpful Books on Racism

Hello! Welcome back to another post! As a young white person, I am continuing to further my education on racism through literature. Therefore, I thought I’d compile a list of books (each accompanied by a review—some rather lengthy, I apologize) on racism, or relating to race, that have been helpful and enlightening for me. I do want to mention that the reviews for Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are identical to those in my Recent Reads/DNFs – #3 post. I apologize for that!

In addition, as my collection of books on racism/race grows, I may contribute additional titles to this list. For now, however, I leave you with six books.

*The summaries, as always, are from Goodreads.*

*This link will direct you to a page featuring helpful Black Lives Matter resources.*

*In addition, this link will direct you to my post on the Black Lives Matter movement, in which a number of resources are listed.*

WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS by: Saidiya Hartman – A novel

Summary:

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood were among the sweeping changes that altered the character of everyday life and challenged traditional Victorian beliefs about courtship, love, and marriage. Hartman narrates the story of this radical social transformation against the grain of the prevailing century-old argument about the crisis of the black family.

In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship that were indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work.

Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives recreates the experience of young urban black women who desired an existence qualitatively different than the one that had been scripted for them—domestic service, second-class citizenship, and respectable poverty—and whose intimate revolution was apprehended as crime and pathology. For the first time, young black women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires.

Review:

Seemingly rich with possibility and freedom, New York City and Philadelphia pulsed with vibrancy and opportunity at the dawn of the twentieth century, thereby attracting throngs of Black folks, having recently escaped the egregious conditions in the South, in search of a new and transformed life. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is an astoundingly breathtaking portrait of the lives of Black women at the beginning of the twentieth century, as the legacy of slavery prevails. Deftly avoiding romanticization, Saidiya Hartman succeeded at illuminating the uniquely beautiful elements of Black culture and existence—the radical intimacy, accompanied by an empowering feeling of ostensible liberation; the fierce sense of community, and a shared struggle; the subtlety of disguising a fraction of ugliness with a beautifully patterned cloth—in addition to the women of prominence and those of obscurity.

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments was deeply profound and beautifully furthered my understanding of African-American history at the dawn of the twentieth century. However, owing to the vast number of women’s (and girls’) stories integrated throughout the narrative, I felt as if numerous women and their accompanying stories blended together in a most unfortunate way. I would have preferred a more minimal cast of characters, for in an attempt to accentuate each story and woman/girl, Hartman’s extensive cast of characters did not allow for memorability and the profundity of each story. Furthermore, I deeply wish the stories had intertwining elements. Although that would have been immensely challenging to achieve, as these women and their stories are non-fiction, I feel as if the interlocking of their stories would have contributed an additional impactful layer to the novel.

I thought the photographs distributed throughout the novel contributed an additional element of depth and beauty to each woman and their story. One picture in particular, featured on page 12, I found utterly breathtaking. Her eyes downcast, the dark locks of hair tightly coiling themselves around her neck and chest, the photograph captures at once the woman’s insecurity, her shyness, her submission, as well as her intense longing accompanied by a unique beauty. That photograph, among numerous others included in the novel, was not directly referenced in the passage accompanying the picture. Unfortunately, the seeming non-correlation between several of the photographs and the accompanying passage frustrated me. While the presence of the photographs felt necessary and welcome, I would have preferred a more apparent relation between the text and photograph. That said, I highly recommend this novel, for it beautifully captures the extreme adversity that Black women suffered following their arrival to the United States (specifically New York City and Philadelphia) in the early twentieth century.

BELOVED by: Toni Morrison – A novel

Summary:

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has borne the unthinkable and not gone mad, yet she is still held captive by memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Meanwhile Sethe’s house has long been troubled by the angry, destructive ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

Sethe works at beating back the past, but it makes itself heard and felt incessantly in her memory and in the lives of those around her. When a mysterious teenage girl arrives, calling herself Beloved, Sethe’s terrible secret explodes into the present.

Review:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved approaches slavery in a unique and intimate manner. Rich and flavourful, her writing beautifully distinguishes itself from the vast majority of books I have read. The astounding elements of depth and perception that are intricately woven into the story’s core allow for significant illumination and reflection—with regards to the text itself, as well as to our reality. Morrison’s characters and style burn brightly on a shelf above others.

Beloved’s embodiment of the victims of slavery was beautifully portrayed over the course of the novel. Through Beloved’s desperate dependance on Sethe, Morrison artfully demonstrates the victims’ loneliness accompanied by their need for affection and recognition. The mortal fragility of Beloved’s existence in prolonged periods of separation from Sethe further illustrates the ways in which we have distanced ourselves from our history of slavery, thus abandoning the victims and allowing for the harsh erasure of their memories and the dismissal of their humanity. Richly vibrant, the concluding pages of Beloved further explore our racial history. As Morrison discusses Beloved’s memory from the perspective of the collective, she writes, “They can touch it if they like, but don’t, because they know things will never be the same if they do.” I believe this line alludes to our (particularly the United States’) evasion of acknowledging our racial history, specifically slavery. The conclusion of the line allows for greater reflection: the moment we begin to comprehensively acknowledge and discuss slavery, we disturb the status quo, as well as—perhaps most dauntingly—our personal comfort and complacency. We therefore avoid and dismiss such acknowledgement.

In the conclusion, Morrison writes, “Down by the stream in back of 124 her (Beloved’s) footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.” Powerful and poignant, I believe this line suggests that when we insert ourselves into the equation of slavery, we are able to comprehensively acknowledge its existence. However, when we remove ourselves from the equation of slavery, its—as well as its victims’—existence remains forgotten.

Admittedly, I was largely confused for a significant portion of this novel. Morrison’s writing style is—much like Hilary Mantel’s—exceptionally demanding. I therefore had to allow myself time to adjust to it in order to wholly comprehend the gravity of the story. Even so, I remain in need of a reread to appreciate the deeper significance of Beloved than the mere storyline. I highly recommend this novel as a means to understand slavery from a beautifully distinct and complex perspective.

WHITE FRAGILITY by: Robin DiAngelo – A novel

Summary:

Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what can be done to engage more constructively. 

Review:

White Fragility is an excellent foundational book that provides necessary insight into the phenomenon of white fragility. By closely analyzing white fragility, DiAngelo illuminates its numerous aspects, such as its domination and our (white people’s) consequential complicity, ignorance, and fierce denial of racism. In addition, she discusses the way in which white fragility and white superiority continually protect us from engaging in educational conversations concerning racism.

White Fragility provokes necessary reflection and recognition in the reader (the white reader). In particular, I appreciated DiAngelo’s candour as she revealed her personal experiences of attending to white people exhibiting blatant racist behaviours, as well as her own experiences of exhibiting racist behaviours. After having exhibited racist behaviours, she discusses the period in which she reflects and seeks to repair the interaction. I appreciated the blended combination of analysis and personal experience. In fact, I believe it contributed to the way in which white people have embraced this book. Moreover, I am especially pleased that the reading of White Fragility compelled me to acknowledge my own racial bias and problematic racist patterns, in addition to reflecting on my previous behaviour and its possible impact(s) on Black people.

That said, there were several problematic elements of White Fragility. Firstly, it was evident that this book was directed towards a very particular audience: white, conservative, individualistic Americans. While I do believe that DiAngelo was aware of her targeted audience, this therefore caused the book to be rather simplistic (which I believe was by intention, however, for better or worse). In order to successfully communicate clearly to this particular audience, DiAngelo significantly simplified her points and largely omitted the history of racism from the book—the latter of which a very grave error. By contributing little knowledge of the way in which racism evolved, White Fragility does not allow readers—myself included—to deeply understand the concept of racism, and thus white fragility. Rather, it allows for the acquirement of a limited understanding of racism, deprived of nuance and complexity. This in turn allows for the possibility that readers will not wholly recognize the necessity of further education.

In an attempt at simplicity and accessibility, DiAngelo’s White Fragility is extremely repetitive and narrow. While each chapter focuses on various aspects of white fragility, DiAngelo did not seek to further explore each component in a more sophisticated and profound manner. Although this straightforward and quite elementary exploration assists readers in gaining an understanding of white fragility, it is essential that readers recognize the lack of in-depth knowledge delivered and, as mentioned, the necessity for further education.

If you wish to read a critical review of White Fragility, I suggest you read this article (perhaps after you have read the book and formed your own opinions). I believe the arguments raised throughout the review are valid and worthy of consideration.

In addition, this link will direct you to a recorded livestream in which four Black BookTubers discuss the books White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and White Rage by Carol Anderson. They critically discuss White Fragility at the beginning of the video.

That said, I do believe White Fragility is helpful for white readers in search of an educational book that will provoke reflection in the reader. However, following the reading of this book, I urge you to read White Rage by Carol Anderson (reviewed further below), as it will provide you with comprehensive insight into the history of racism following the United States’ Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

THE HATE U GIVE by: Angie Thomas – A novel

Summary:

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Review:

Appropriate for a wide range of readers, The Hate U Give is an excellent fictional introduction to racism. At once accessible and educational, it portrays a powerful and poignant portrait of racism. Unfortunately, due to my having read this book in January of 2019, I am unable to provide an explicit and critical review. However, I believe The Hate U Give‘s provocative story has provoked fierce empathy from its readers (myself included), and allowed for illumination as well as critical discussion. I thoroughly recommend it as an introduction book on racism for all readers.

AMERICANAH by: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – A novel

Summary:

Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

Review:

Ablaze with animation and colour, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a perceptive and heartwarming story of race. As I have primarily read African-American literature, reading a story written by an African writer that follows an African woman (both of whom—author and character—are Nigerian) was excellent exposure and a welcome change. By means of a warm and playful tone, Adichie delivered a highly enjoyable and rather realistic story divided between America and Nigeria. While I was thoroughly entertained throughout the novel, due to its infectious and entertaining quality, as well as its vastly plot-driven quality, Americanah does not present itself as wholly re-readable. Unfortunately, the novel was also not as impactful as I would have appreciated, due to the popular and accessible quality of Adichie’s writing (at least, as indicated by Americanah). That said, I believe Adichie cleverly explored several themes of race throughout the novel in the forms of humour and captivation. I therefore do recommend this novel, for it is a highly enjoyable and humourous read.

WHITE RAGE by: Carol Anderson – A novel

Summary:

As Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in August 2014, and media commentators across the ideological spectrum referred to the angry response of African Americans as “black rage,” historian Carol Anderson wrote a remarkable op-ed in the Washington Post showing that this was, instead, “white rage at work. With so much attention on the flames,” she writes, “everyone had ignored the kindling.”

Since 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains. The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction was greeted with the Black Codes and Jim Crow; the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was met with the shutting down of public schools throughout the South while taxpayer dollars financed segregated white private schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 triggered a coded but powerful response, the so-called Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs that disenfranchised millions of African Americans while propelling presidents Nixon and Reagan into the White House.

Carefully linking these and other historical flashpoints when social progress for African Americans was countered by deliberate and cleverly crafted opposition, Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage. Compelling and dramatic in the unimpeachable history it relates, White Rage will add an important new dimension to the national conversation about race in America.

Review:

An honest and illuminating narrative, Carol Anderson’s White Rage explores the extreme racism plaguing the United States following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. By furthering my understanding of the prevailing legacy of slavery and the consequential blatant racism corrupting the country, particularly the South, White Rage provided me with an essential foundation so as to more deeply understand the degree to which Black people’s advancement was—is—feared. In addition, White Rage allowed me to more deeply understand the origins of numerous other books, such as that of the book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman (a book of fiction/non-fiction that focuses on the Great Migration of the twentieth century).

While exceptionally educational, I found White Rage to be a fairly slow read due to the dense material. I am, however, very grateful to have read it, and will likely be referencing it in the years to come.

As always, I appreciate your reading my post! Unfortunately, due to my return to school, I have considerably less time to dedicate to reading and writing. However, I hope to maintain somewhat of a consistent writing routine on the weekends!

All the best,

ava

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