Books that helped me better understand race and identity in America

On the last day of Black History Month, we need to look to the future and keep the conversation on the state of race relations in the U.S. going strong. Just a brief scan of the news makes it very clear that we’re living in an important — and incredibly fraught — moment. As a multicultural, multiracial woman living in the U.S. today, my interest in understanding the stories of America’s racial history has always been strong. I wanted to read histories, philosophies, personal narratives, diaries, and textbooks, all to try and make sense of progress that’s been made and what still needs to change.

With that in mind, I’ve turned to books to better understand racial identity and racism in America. Here are some of the books that served as a foundation for my education, but it is by no means a complete list. Please share your own recommendations, as well. Let’s open the conversation and make progress through past literature and future understanding.

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde is powerful. There is no other way to say it. Her essays and speeches on feminism, race, sexuality and art are beyond inspirational. They demand you reflect on your own decisions and better yourself. Her iconic essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” which critiqued the lack of diversity within feminist movements, has been quoted by pretty much everyone. But I promise it’s only the beginning of what she can teach you about your place in this world.

The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Ok, technically, these are two separate books but James Baldwin is — in my opinion — one of the greatest modern American writers, so you really cannot have enough. Notes of a Native Son is largely a biographical series of essays while The Fire Next Time is Baldwin’s most famous book on race in America. Both deal heavily with what it means to be black in a white world. The first thing I ever read by Baldwin happened to be an essay excerpt from Notes of a Native Son where he recalls what it is like to be the first black man in a small Swiss village, but it’s stuck with me for years. Not only was it vivid and well-written, but it also demanded I reflect on blackness in America versus blackness abroad. Looking at your country from the outside-in is never easy.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

An important book on race relations, policing and incarceration The New Jim Crow examines the way in which the prison system has become a tool to repress black men. Whether or not you agree with everything Alexander has to say; this remains an important and on-going discussion, especially as black communities come forward to call out police misconduct and injustice within the court system.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Possibly the most famous of Morrison’s books, Beloved is a ghost story like no other, about a haunting in a post-slavery world as a mother comes to terms with the guilt over a decision made to save her daughter from imprisonment. The book deals heavily with the trauma of slavery and the inconceivably deep impact it had on the enslaved. Beautifully written and incredibly dark, this book will wow you and then make your heart ache.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Another Morrison for you, because you will never get enough. Morrison’s themes are never light and The Bluest Eye is both heavy and difficult. The thin novel tells the story of a black girl growing up in the Midwest and dealings with feelings of inferiority which are intimately tied to her race. This is a novel that deals with alcoholism, isolation, insanity and — trigger warning — rape. Don’t go in expecting a happy ending, but do expect discussions about black identity within a community that values whiteness.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Angelou was a strong woman who lived through racism, abuse, and poverty. Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings may be one of the most iconic pieces of black women’s writing in the U.S., but its reputation is well-earned. The book is not only earnest, it’s a story of overcoming and persevering.

Native Son by Richard Wright 

A controversial book, Native Son is a hefty novel exploring the ways in which our society has already set up an almost inevitable outcome for many low-income black men. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, anticipating trouble to come after a misunderstanding one night commits an unforgivable crime. From there, Bigger’s life spins out of control until he is captured and put on trial. Bigger is a character that reacts preemptively and irrationally because of the way society has raised him; his responses are dictated by how he knows the world already views him as a black man.

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes

After all this soul-wrenching reading, I have to give a shout out to Langston Hughes, that figure of jazz and Harlem who was my first foray into black literature. I – like many American teens – first read Hughes’ poetry back in high school and like many people I was struck by the musicality and seriousness of his work. Not only does his work explore what it means to be black in America during the jazz age and through WWII, he is an adept and striking writer.

The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Dubois

No list is complete without W.E.B Dubois who really was at the forefront of black literature in the U.S. and racial theory. Dubois is probably best remembered for his theory of “double consciousness,” which looks to understand the two-selves black people must have in the world. Double consciousness is a uniquely black experience in which there is a struggle between the authentic self and a self that is acceptable — even submissive — to the white majority. If you want to get your hands dirty with philosophy, you have to start here.

Ain’t I a Woman? By bell hooks

bell hooks has become a favorite on Tumblr but she’s more than clever memes and quotes; she is a serious, radical academic. Her work doesn’t always sit well with people conservative or liberal, and she rarely holds back on her opinions – no matter how divisive – but those are the exact reasons why you should be reading her work. While Ain’t I a Woman? is largely a feminist text, it deals heavily with the experience of black women, then and now.

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