what I've been reading

Yesterday I met a dear friend to watch the documentary,Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am at a small theater in Nashville. Before the film, we met for a drink and talked about all the things. This friend and I stumbled upon each other near or in our 40s, and we have been making up for lost time since. She is brilliant and fierce and compassionate and reflective. She is curious and challenging and knows who she is and isn’t. Time together feels abundant, full of possibilities and lament, hope and outrage. She makes me better.

So does Toni Morrison. I’m so sad her voice has reached its coda. Spending three hours together and with Morrison, we explored ALL the ways to be a human, to love and to hurt, to be torn apart and put back together again. Time well spent.

Of course I am biased. I love books and think words are magnificently powerful. I rarely regret any moment I spend with a book in my hands. In the film, a Morrison scholar, like a precious disciple, suggests that the written word is the only real medium that allows a person to immerse themselves in the skin of another. Books help us to dive deep, to witness and share the thoughts, histories, hopes, fears and emotions of a character. Good characters are precise in a universal kind of way, and he thought Morrison wrote people better than anyone.

In the spirit of losing (and understanding?) ourselves by immersing our thinking in someone else’s context, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve read in the past couple of years. Particularly for those of us hoping to understand and confront the racialized society we live in, these texts help. (And stun, and shatter, and inspire, and undo, and motivate, and educate, and satisfy.)

Happy Reading.

Recent-ish Books Worth Reading in the Quest for Racial Justice

Addressing our Historical Gaps

Stamped From the Beginning Ibram X. Kendi

Academic, thick, and accessible. A well documented and contextualized account of racialized understandings in America.

 

The Color of Compromise Jemar Tisby

History of the Church’s action and inaction regarding racial oppression. Truth-telling that demands the church reckon with our past.

 

Stony the Road Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Academic essays and photos discussing the history of black resistance. Gates is a rare scholar determined to teach us all, convinced that his work is relevant and meaningful for each of us. He is right.

 

Waking Up White Debbie Irving

Personal account of a wealthy white woman studying the origins of racial inequities interwoven with research explaining the history of those disparities (informative and personal).

 

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria Beverly Daniel Tatum

Academic, but from a social science lens mixed with observational research. The 2017 Introduction is one of the best pieces I’ve read on historically contextualizing our current moment.

The Color of Law Richard Rothstein

Deep dive into the history of segregation at the hands of our government. Academic but accessible.

Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge

Clear about her own boundaries and determined to educate, she covers the reality of and paths of resistance against structural racism in Britain. Includes a fabulous chapter on the nature of the interaction between feminist and antiracist activists.

  

Personal Accounts of Experiencing/Overcoming Prejudice and Valuable Advice on How to Engage the Work

How to be an Antiracist Ibram X. Kendi

Just got it…can’t describe it yet but expect to devour it shortly. He is an incredible thinker and communicator.

White Awake Daniel Hill

Story of a well-meaning, woke-ish pastor who tried to start a multicultural church in Chicago, and learned a lot through his failures as he learned to be antiracist as a Christ follower.

I’m Still Here Austin Channing Brown

Personal account of the cost of being “the only one” in many white, church/non prof spaces. A love letter to black women saying, “I see you. I hear you. We’ve got this.”

 Between the World and Me Ta-nehisi Coates

A letter from a black writer to his son about being in his skin in America. Morrison called it “required reading.” Wow.

Dream With Me John Perkins

Reflection on how to reconcile communities without hurting them from a legend in community development.

 

Finally, Fiction

I’ll only say here that I recently reread Morrison’s Love and Home, and both are brilliant. The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved get all the love. They are indeed wonderful. But so are the others. Pick any book she wrote and wrestle/read your way through. You might just come away understanding your town, the people who share it, and yourself, a little better.

black history reads!

As the days of our annual effort to celebrate Black History wind down, I offer a reading list derived from my February tweets. Idealist that I am, I suppose I hope you will make a habit of searching for and then relishing the rich cultural traditions that our American educational system has often minimized or erased.

Don’t be the victim of an incomplete education. I spent nearly 24 years getting educated, and I would have missed so much of the literature and history that now shape my vision of community, heighten my awareness of the breadth of human experience, and humble me at the stunning beauty of the resilient human soul, had I not finally, in Graduate School at the University of Miami, been exposed to brilliant voices of color. I fell in love with their words and stories, and I invite you to discover the beauty and brilliance that captured my imagination and respect. These voices have, in fact, shaped the places we call home, and it is time we recognize and delight in them. Enjoy!

#BlackHistoryMonth Reads!

Clair of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Haitian, now Miamian whose poetic prose crafts a story about the devastation of poverty, the trauma and hope of adoption, & the choices we make for the people we love. Gorgeous book!

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Saint Lucian Nobel Prize winning poet who offers a postcolonial, African, diasporic reworking of Homer in this epic poem. Caribbean poetry at its best!

 

A Gathering of Old Men By Ernest Gaines

Gaines grew up in Louisiana & writes better than anyone about the importance of community in our efforts to tell our own stories. For Gaines, confessing the way we participate in oppression brings healing.

 

An American Marriage By Tayori Jones

A remarkable novel that tracks the devastation of incarceration on a family system, the conflicting legacies our families leave us, & the ambivalent journey we all must take to claim (or even understand) agency.

 

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem By Maryse Conde

Telling the backstory of a West Indian woman mentioned in the historical record & imagined first in Miller’s The Crucible, this novel troubles the history of the Americas from a postcolonial point of view.

 

Americanah

Feminist Manifesto By Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

A Nigerian writer who also lives in the US, Adichie offers stunning clarity into how we find our normal, & how we manage our national, class, gendered & political identities.

 

Passing By Nella Larsen

Written out of the Harlem Renaissance about the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen writes of friendship & loyalty, the temptation to perform our race, and the fluid nature of identity. A beautiful, heartbreaking book.

 

Feeding the Ghosts By Fred D’Aguiar

A Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright, D’Aguiar’s novel reveals the excruciating acts of resistance that empowered the victims of the middle passage. Haunting & empowering, it stays with you.

 

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man By James Weldon Johnson

Johnson captures the rich creativity and cosmopolitanism of the Harlem Renaissance, all on a backdrop of racial ambiguity, power dynamics and cultural appropriation. Fantastic.

 

To Pimp a Butterfly By Kendrick Lamar

Pulitzer Prize Winning poet who deconstructs the American experience in stunning ways. Lamar elevates and explores the fluid nature of identity construction in the search for agency.

 

Between the World and Me

Black Panther By Ta-nehisi Coates

Wielding comic book power, long form cultural critique (the Atlantic) & the memoir as a force for contextualizing historical erasure, Toni Morrison calls him “required reading.” So, yeah.

 

Cane By Jean Toomer

Toomer’s only novel is remarkable for his fearlessness in content & form. He raises questions about the possibilities & realities of black lives in various parts of the country, showing the gap between the dream & the reality.

 

The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead

Whitehead’s novel sears images of abuse and courageous sacrifice into our American collective consciousness, calling us back to a history we erased through his liberal imagination.

 

I’m Still Here By Austin Channing Brown

A prophetic witness to the indignities of carrying one’s blackness into nearly all-white spaces, Brown narrates her life, revealing deep wells of resistance & calling everyone to sit at a new table.

 

The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

Thomas burst onto the literary scene, shaping the shared experience of a generation of young people seeking to reach across lines of difference as they understand what it means to grow up knowing BlackLivesMatter.

 

Blake, or the Huts of America By Martin Delaney

Written across the African diaspora in the Americas, Delaney articulates a vision for resisting racialized oppression through black nationalism. Politically intuitive, he shapes a generation.

 

Mama Day  

The Women Of Brewster Place By Gloria Naylor

Naylor describes and celebrates black women, celebrating the places they belong, the homes they create and the power they display. Beautiful texts.

 

My Brother

See, Now, Then

Autobiography of my Mother By Jamaica Kincaid

Antiguan born, Kincaid writes better than anyone on the ongoing erasure of African diasporic peoples, of the complicated mobilities/voices left in colonialism’s wake.

 

Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison

Ellison’s iconic text makes room in the American canon for the voices and bodies of those whose presence shape & form a nation who refuses to acknowledge their existence. DuBois’ musings come to life here.

 

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Salvage the Bones By Jesmyn Ward

Ward crafts tales about generations and the places that shaped them, about families who survive at great cost, about systems that destroy us. She reminds me of Faulkner...

 

Paradise

The Bluest Eye

Beloved

Sula By Toni Morrison

Too many to list & too necessary to describe, Morrison writes so compellingly that literature in America had to readjust, not just to make room, but to place her stories in the center.

 

The Awkward Thoughts Of W Kamau Bell By Kamau Bell

Hilarious and pitch perfect, Bell describes what it means to create art as a defiant act of communal meaning making in an age of independent arrogance. You will laugh and cry, and wonder.

 

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? By Beverly D Tatum

She gave sociological roots to a necessary reality: in the best hope for integration we all have to find a way to belong. The updated introduction is CRUCIAL.

 

Notes of a Native Son

Go Tell it on the Mountain By James Baldwin

Baldwin epitomized the beauty of Black cosmopolitanism, as black cultural appreciation rose in America, the West Indies, and France among others. Gorgeous writing.

 

Ordinary Light

Life on Mars By Tracy K Smith

Our National Poet Laureate, Smith is an artist, a mom, a poet, a philosopher, a prophet, and a pro. Her voice is shaping our time, in real time.

 

On Beauty By Zadie Smith

Everything she writes is worth reading. Her way with words is so gorgeous that one could be forgiven for overlooking the astounding insights about humanity she layers into each page. She is the best writer going...

 

Selected Poems By Langston Hughes

His way of capturing the angst, the pride, the grief, the beauty, the longing, the being...of black folks in America...simply can't be matched. He's better than you remember.

 

Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi

Capturing the migratory paths of a family, Gyasi layers intra-African journeys on top of the Middle Passage, then explores diasporic wanderings across America as figures discover & create meaningful contexts for life.

 

Bonus pics (because February is too short!)!

The Color Purple By Alice Walker

The Dragon Can't Dance By Earl Lovelace

Black Skin, White Masks By Frantz Fanon

Brown Girl, Brownstones and Praisesong for the Widow By Paule Marshall

The Piano Lesson By August Wilson

 

incomplete education, incomplete america

I am the victim of an incomplete education.  Most of us are.  I attended excellent schools and am grateful for the many ways I was invited into excellence, rigor and curiosity; however, like most Americans, I was exposed primarily to curricula written, sourced and designed by white Americans.  The last two decades have revealed the large gaps in my knowledge and the work I must do to find a complete education.  Having now encountered the incredible diversity of thought that functionally shaped America, I realize the insularity—the poverty even—of our educational norms.  Aware of this, I have spent Black History Month as an apologist for a more robust education, as I remind us that American writing, thinking and creating is the product of many distinct voices.  We have an incredible wealth of cultural, literary, historical and artistic legacies from every race, and we are diminished as a people when these voices are not actively taught in our schools. 

When we are primarily exposed to American history and literature through the work of white folks, we are taught to privilege white perspectives.  We begin to believe important cultural trends and innovations come exclusively from one segment of society.  This narrow exposure lays a foundation for cultural racism, suggesting that people of color are physical in nature, while white people, with their higher order thinking and artistic expressions, meaningfully impact our national narratives, our literary heritage, and the production of culture. 

Can we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed? 

American culture and history have been shaped by the voices, inventions and perspectives of a rich variety of people from all walks of life.  The idea of American democracy suggests that every person has value and is capable of contributing to our whole in necessary ways.  It is disingenuous for us to believe this while also pretending as if every important contribution to the common good came from one race of people.  Although this hypocrisy that affirms equality while codifying systems of inequality is one of our great national habits, America itself has nevertheless been deeply influenced by contributions from all types of people. 

In the South we love to think about our culture as one of genuine hospitality, gorgeous grounds, fine food and excellent music.  Because we have a legacy of erasing or diminishing the contributions of people of color, our educations failed to teach us that so many Southern traditions only exist because people of color worked independently or collaboratively with whites to create norms of hospitality in settings we cherish.  In many famed Southern kitchens, black cooks created the recipes published by white chefs, now beloved as Southern heritage.  There is mounting evidence that whiskey distilling was mastered by enslaved men.  Indeed, Jack Daniel’s Distillery now explains that Jack himself learned to distill from a slave named Nearis Green.  Best practices in agriculture, building, sewing and carpentry were perfected by people of color.  I offer these anecdotes to remind us any American historical narrative that does not include the contributions of black people is incomplete. 

Most of us understand that our musical heritage is not complete without the contributions of jazz and the blues, the vast majority of which was created by African Americans.  Jazz and rock n roll were largely commodified by whites but created by black Americans; indeed, Elvis became famous by publishing songs first performed by black folks.  What do we sacrifice if we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed?  Our educational norms often fail to reflect our entire heritage, but we need not remain in ignorance. 

Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America. 

Some of our best early links between literature, sociology and ethnography were established by black writers like Zora Neale Hurston.  A gifted writer of fiction in her own right, Hurston travelled through Florida recording the stories of African Americans as they experienced the world.  Hurston helped prove that anthropology is incomplete without ethnography and auto-ethnography.  Many of us were taught to celebrate early writers who noticed such cultural differences through travel like Herman Melville or Mark Twain.  Black writers like James Weldon Johnson and Paule Marshall, far less read, continued and advanced this style of writing about the helpful collaborations and differences one discovers as they travel at home and abroad.  Acknowledging the pull of diaspora while claiming our full history speaks powerfully into our current discussions about identity and the ways that we explore national loyalties.  If such voices were celebrated in education then we might be better equipped to now face a world in which citizenship, migration and nationality seem to clash in violent ways. 

In school, many of us were exposed through literature to the tension women face as they struggle to position themselves as whole subjects with needs, wants and the agency to act on those needs and wants.  We read Emily Dickinson or Kate Chopin or Sylvia Plath, celebrating the singularity of their voices.  Many of us were not exposed to writers like Nella Larson or Maya Angelou, though, who wrote compellingly of the intersection of gender and race in a woman’s desire for agency.  Larsen’s work is accessible, exploring the life choices of a disappointed upper class woman in a way that Chopin’s work can’t.  Activists like Sojourner Truth revealed the subtle ways that the voices of black women were diminished, doubted and ignored.  She was a forerunner to feminism, asserting that gender and racial binaries can be used to silence women who do not conform to cultural norms. 

So many voices shaped American identity, and we need not privilege African American contributions at the expense of Anglo Americans.  Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America.  Our educational norm is to celebrate and memorialize the white voices, rather than to openly teach a wide variety of perspectives, recognizing the myriad voices that shaped American culture, literature and history.  We are not products of black labor and white innovation; we are the culmination of many voices expressing their God-given giftedness to help us translate and understand experiences of life in America.  Historical erasure ensures that we are victims of this incomplete education.  The hope of this moment is that diminished voices have always existed, we only need to recognize our deficits and do the work to complete our education.  All month I have tweeted books written by people of color.  Follow @ExpandYourUs if you want to start reading!