Black Lives Still Matter. It has been over two years since the untimely death of George Floyd, a Black man who died when Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Months before, outrage erupted over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Despite being in a global pandemic, #BLM/anti-racism protests mobilized across the United States (and around the world) in response to these horrifying racially charged incidents. Anti-racist reading lists began to surge in popularity.
During this time, titles such as Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” and Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race” along with other titles dubbed as ‘must-read anti-racist readings’ were on backorder. From large online marketplaces like Amazon to smaller Black-owned independent bookstores alike, these titles were sold out. On Amazon, eight of the top 10 best-selling books were related to race, half of which were temporarily out of stock, including Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” which claimed the top spot (Aviles, 2020).
From the week of May 17 to May 23, 2020, sales for these titles jumped by 330 percent and sales of books about discrimination increased by 245 percent (Vinopal, 2020). Many people, particularly white folks, sought to educate themselves about racism which derived from power structures upheld by white supremacy—with hopes that they could “listen and learn”. It was the first time in my adult life that I was not harassed and/or quietly deleted/blocked online by white colleauges or childhood acquaintances for critically using the term ‘white supremacy’ – a violent system that I have been critiquing publicly since 2005 after immersing myself in the transformative words of Angela Davis and the late-great bell hooks (RIP).
Due to my past and ongoing equity, diversity and inclusion work and a master’s degree specializing in library and information science, I am typically the friend/colleague people consult for reading recommendations, especially pertaining to anti-Blackness. Though conversations focused on #BLM has generally shifted to address other pressing issues, it is important that the conversations amplified in 2020 are not reduced to virtual signaling or performative allyship – from individuals and organizations alike. Nor reduced to moments such as folks posting a ‘black square’ and patting themselves on the back. See: Mariah Willman’s recently published Black Squares for Black Lives? Performative Allyship as Credibility Maintenance for Social Media Influencers on Instagram.
I decided to check in with some folks who asked me for literature recommendations. I wanted to know if they actually read anything. Most answered no. The few that did were asked follow-up questions: Has this knowledge shifted the way you think? How has this shift informed your actions/work to promote anti-racism efforts in spaces you occupy and spaces you don’t?
The ones that did not read promised me they would eventually “get to it”.
The few who read expressed renewed thinking about intersectionality, systemic racism and racist policies, becoming more cognizant of their own cognitive biases, supporting Black-owned businesses, and donating to grassroot organizations that aim to challenge anti-Blackness. A friend commented that he took my advice of “put your money where your black square is” ( I really disliked that #trend, can you tell?).
It is especially important, however, to remember that the main goal of many of these readings is to advocate for concrete systemic changes.
Accordingly, Tre Johnson’ piece “when black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs” aptly summarizes some of the issues with booklists. Reading alone cannot impart meaningful social change (restorative social policies and laws, organizational change, reparations, etc.) for Black communities. Although an excellent organizing tool which has been instrumental in movement work, reading cannot end at collective awareness, or ‘consciousness-raising’. Khalil Muhammad, a Harvard University professor of history, race and public policy, reminds us while reading anti-racist texts can be part of an anti-racist movement, doing so does not always lead to measurable change or a reader’s renewed commitment to fight injustice (Aviles, 2020).
Criticisms acknowledged, I still greatly believe in the cathartic power of reading and transformative potentials of consciousness-raising efforts. Reading has immensely enriched my life, opened doors to the work I am perfervid about and paved the direction of my advocacy efforts. This piece, then, is asking you to self-reflect, a ‘calling you in, while calling you out’ of sorts. Did you passionately save all those reading lists but failed to actually...do any reading?
This is a reminder to revisit those anti-racist reading lists. Read. Then, strategize on the ways in which you can take meaningful action.
Word of Caution: Choosing Anti-Racist Reading Lists
When choosing a reading list (or reviewing the one you have yet to read) be mindful of the commodification of Black pain. Young author L.L. McKinney reminds us that even though white supremacy and it is accompanying horrors must be told, we cannot focus entirely on these stories as it “sends a clear message to Black authors, Black readers, and Black people as a whole: your stories aren’t worth much if you don’t bleed on the page for us” (Jamie B, 2020).
McKinney highlights the significance of writing, reading, and teaching stories that explore Black communities in a holistic way. She states:
“We know that for every “issue” book, we need at least five more where we can go on adventures, fall in love, solve mysteries, be heroes, and do everyday things like everyone else. Black readers need to see themselves in narratives outside of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality. As do non-Black readers. In order to create a safe world for Black people, books that don’t focus on “issues” need to be given just as much space. They provide an opportunity for Black readers to have a moment for themselves, to take a breath, readjust, and simply exist, and for non-Black readers to see us as fully human” (Jamie B, 2020).
That said, we must also add books that go beyond pain narratives and viewing Black communities from a deficit-model. Choose strength-based texts, too. I recommend this #BlackLivesMatter Reading List created by Jamie B. of Free Library of Philadelphia. It is one of the most comprehensive lists and includes McKinney’s young adult fantasy novel “A Blade So Black”. Beyond the books that have topped lists, it also includes “poetry, memoirs, and titles for all ages that tell stories of Black joy, of freedom, and the blessed banality of the uneventful every day” (Jamie B, 2020).
All these titles are available on Libby, an app that allows you to read e-books and listen to audiobooks for free, provided you have a library card.
Happy Reading, Comrades!
Aviles, Gwen. (2020). Reading as resistance? The rise of the anti-racist book list. https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/pop-culture-news/reading-resistance-rise-antiracist-book-list-n1225661
B, Jamie. (2020). There’s More to #BlackLivesMatter Than Booklists. https://libwww.freelibrary.org/blog/?action=post&id=4265
Vinopal, Courtney. (2020). How Black bookstore owners see the flood of requests for ‘anti-racist’ reading. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/we-waited-400-plus-years-for-you-to-ask-black-bookstore-owners-navigate-a-flood-of-requests
Wellman, M. L. (2022). Black Squares for Black Lives? Performative Allyship as Credibility Maintenance for Social Media Influencers on Instagram. Social Media + Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051221080473
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.