Learning to Be Actively Antiracist: Books About Racism and Black Lives to Add to Your Reading List
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many white people are realizing — and admitting — how little they know about racism and racial issues. Supporting Black folks through action — by donating to organizations, joining protests and using your platform to amplify Black voices — is essential. But that’s not the only work that you need to take on. It is not the job of Black people to teach white people how to be anti-racist. In addition to following willing educators, activists and other Black voices and engaging with their content online, you can read books about racism and Black experiences. Learn what you’re fighting against and understand the lived experiences of folks you’re fighting for.
We also want to acknowledge that when it comes to these "comprehensive" antiracist readings lists, there are glaring shortcomings. First, there are innumerable important works by Black authors that you should seek out in addition to the ones written about here. Additionally, writer Lauren Michele Jackson offers a must-read critique of readings lists like this one in the Vulture article "What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?" "The anti-racist reading list means well. How could it not with some of the finest authors, scholars, poets, and critics of the twentieth century among its bullet points?" Jackson writes. "Still, I am left to wonder: Who is this for? …It is unclear whether each book supplies a portion of the holistic racial puzzle or are intended as revelatory islands in and of themselves."
Jackson points out that genres appear "indiscriminately" on a single list and, moreover, when it comes to works where language is stunning and central, lists overshadow those elements of a work by emphasizing its content — that it’s about racism — over its literary merits. It’s true also that such lists center on Black pain and trauma in order to inform white folks. And these are just some of the shortcomings. That said, please be aware of these inherent flaws when you’re looking for educational resources. Though this may sound obvious, it certainly bears repeating: Commit to actually reading the books on such lists — just being aware of the works isn’t doing the work, in the same way just educating yourself, and not taking other supportive actions in addition to learning, isn’t doing the work.
Texas librarian Michelle Marve (@blkMYmorris) tweeted, "[T]he list isn’t for one type of reader but offering entry points for different readers… If I could talk to each person individually, I could offer 1 or 2 books but instead [lists] have to cover a lot of different reading levels, preferences, and experiences." To that end, we hope that, despite any inherent flaws, this list can provide some of those entry points to our readers.
Support Black-Owned Indie Bookstores: An Additional Way to Support Black Writers and Business Owners
You can find these titles, and other recommended reading, on the website Bookshop, which allows you to select a local bookstore to support when you make a purchase. Currently, many print versions of these titles are out of stock, but you can still download an eBook (also via Bookshop) or listen to an audiobook version via a service like libro.fm, your virtual indie audiobook shop.
Introductory Works for Folks Who Are Just Waking Up
Need a starting point when it comes to interrogating whiteness and understanding anti-racism? These works will help you build a solid, foundational understanding.
This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell with illustrations by Aurelia Durand
Activist Angela Davis once said, "In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist — we must be ANTI-RACIST." For white folks who need a primer on what it means to be actively anti-racist, Tiffany Jewell’s book, full of illustrations by Aurélia Durand, is a great place to start. The book’s copy states that it aims to show you "how you can use your anti-racist lens and voice to move the world toward equity and liberation" and does so by first providing readers with the history of racism in America.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Like many of the books on this list, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race is sold out across many stores online — and for good reason. The book doesn’t shy away from discussing white supremacy, police brutality and the mass incarceration of Black Americans, but it also addresses the everyday, insidious manifestations of racism and, in a sense, acts as a guide to confronting these manifestations (racist jokes, white folks not acknowledging their privilege and so on).
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
If you’re white and have been confronted about the way you uphold — and benefit from — racist institutions and systems, you’ve probably gotten defensive or tried to skirt around the issue of racism. That is, when white people think of racism, they think of examples of explicit bigotry, of narrow-minded people using offensive language or committing acts of hate and violence. And this is why Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility is such essential reading.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
When Amy Cooper, a white woman, threatened and then called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man who was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park, she hid behind her white privilege and ingrained racist attitudes. And then she had the gall to claim she isn’t a racist. This is, unfortunately, a very, very familiar story. Moreover, this viral moment reiterates that it’s not enough to say you aren’t racist — or to not do overtly racist things.
Nonfiction: American History
Where we are today stems from how we acted in the past. These works will help you understand the history of how our country treated Black Americans after slavery — and how those in power implemented a new form of slavery through mass incarceration.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson is, perhaps, the definitive historical study and analysis of the Great Migration. Between 1915 and 1970, roughly 6 million Black Americans left the rural South for urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest and West due to the South’s poor economic conditions and upholding of racist Jim Crow laws.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Without a doubt, Michelle Alexander’s seminal work, The New Jim Crow, shifted the popular (white) perception of the U.S. criminal justice system and helped to fuel a movement for social change. In her book, Alexander notes that "we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it." That is, by targeting Black men through racist policies like the War on Drugs, America’s criminal justice system solidified its function: to decimate communities of color, to become the "new Jim Crow."
Essays & Letters
Understand how Black Americans experience our country — and see how little has changed between the 1960s and today.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Considered one of the most influential books about race relations to be published in the 1960s, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time collects two of the acclaimed writer’s essays, "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross — Letter From a Region of My Mind." In the first essay, Baldwin writes a letter to his young nephew about how central race is in the shaping of American history and, in the second, the activist explores the relationship between race and religion.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article for The Atlantic titled "Letter to My Son," which was a modernized take on James Baldwin’s "Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation." Much like Baldwin, Coates discussed what it meant (and means) to be Black in America at the time of his writing the article. This eventually evolved into Between the World and Me, a book-length letter written to the author’s son about how it feels to be — and the realities of being — Black in the U.S.
Black Feminist Theory & Essays
In general, theory can help us understand the seemingly unnameable forces and structures working against us. As such, the Black feminist writers included below give language to the particular experiences of Black folks.
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches is, arguably, activist, thinker and writer Audre Lorde’s most well-known work — and one of the greatest contributions to feminist theory. In it, she writes about her identity as a Black woman — as a lesbian, a poet, an activist, a cancer survivor, a mother and a feminist writer.
Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins
Published in 1990 by Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought explores the ideas of Black feminist intellectuals and provides readers with a framework for digging into the works of some of the most prominent Black feminist thinkers of all time, including bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Alice Walker. From discussions about "controlling images" — negative representations and images that reinforce racist stereotypes — to self-definition, or "the power to name one's own reality," Collins puts language to the forces that act upon Black women.
Autobiography & Memoir
Hear from Black writers who have confronted racism in all its machinations and then chosen to share their lived experiences with readers.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Challenged by her friend, James Baldwin, to write an autobiography that doubled as a work of literature, poet and writer Maya Angelou crafted the coming-of-age story I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In the book, a young Maya deals with the pain of abandonment, the prejudice of the white people around her and the trauma of being attacked and raped. As her journey continues, Maya learns about self love and begins to feel empowered by great literature.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
"White people can be exhausting. It’s work to be the only person of color in an organization, bearing the weight of all your white coworkers’ questions about Blackness," Austin Channing Brown writes in her book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. "...It’s work to do the emotional labor of pointing out problematic racist thinking…. Quite frankly, the work isn’t just tedious. It can be dangerous for Black women to attempt to carve out space for themselves — their perspective, their gifts, their skills, their education, their experiences — in places that haven’t examined the prevailing assumption of white culture."
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
When the Ryan Murphy-produced show Pose premiered on FX in 2018, Janet Mock made history as the first transgender woman of color to write and direct an episode of a TV show. But, several years before that history-making moment, Mock wrote about her experiences as a young transgender girl in her coming-of-age memoir Redefining Realness.
From internalized racism to understanding one’s gender identity, themes in novels like these illustrate how racist structures and white supremacy continually harm the self and cause generational trauma.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Written in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the most celebrated works of the Harlem Renaissance. In the novel, the main character, Janie Crawford, recounts her coming of age in early 20th century Florida and, in addition to discussing race, examines gender roles and ways women like Janie can find liberation in discovering their voices and identities.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye is Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s debut novel. Set in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, the novel traces the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl who, after being mocked by other children for her dark skin, curly hair and brown eyes, prays for blond hair and blue eyes, believing these markers of white beauty could help undo her oppression — and allow her to be loved.