Learning to Be Actively Antiracist: Books About Racism and Black Lives to Add to Your Reading List

By Kate BoveLast Updated Oct 6, 2020 10:36:28 AM ET
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Supporting Black folks through action — by donating to organizations, joining protests and using your platform to amplify Black voices — is an essential part of anti-racist action. 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.

While there are innumerable important works by Black authors that you should seek out in addition to the ones written about below, this list serves as starting point to lead you into taking a deeper look — there's no finish line here. Commit to actually reading the books on this and similar 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. You can also download an eBook (also via Bookshop) or listen to an audiobook version via a service like libro.fm, your virtual indie audiobook shop.

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When selecting an indie to support via Bookshop or online, choose a Black-owned store, such as The Lit. Bar (The Bronx, NY), The Key Bookstore (Connecticut), Sistah Scifi (Washington), Café con Libros (Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY), Marcus Books (Oakland, CA), Eso Won Books (South Los Angeles, CA), Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery (Chicago, IL), Hakim's Bookstore (Philadelphia, PA), Black Stone Bookstore & Cultural Center (Ypsilanti, MI), Mahogany Books (Washington, D.C.), Harriett’s Bookshop (Philadelphia, PA), Pyramid Books (Boynton Beach, FL) or Source Booksellers (Detroit, MI).

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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.

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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.

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With stories about important historical figures — such as the former slave Toussaint Louverture, who led a rebellion against white planters that eventually led to Haiti’s independence — and the accompanying captivating illustrations, this book is both accessible and empowering. If you’re looking for a way to speak to your kids about racism and anti-racism, this book will better equip you with the knowledge and language you need to do so.

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So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

So You Want to Talk About Race doesn’t shy away from discussing white supremacy, police brutality and the mass incarceration of Black Americans. And 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).

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Additionally, Oluo takes (often misunderstood) words and concepts — like intersectionality and affirmative action — and guides readers through these subjects in an honest, conversational way. That’s part of the power of the book: It gives folks the tools, language and confidence to have open conversations about race. If you’re a white person struggling to have frank conversations with your family about race and white supremacy, So You Want to Talk About Race is a great starting point.

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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.

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As Claudia Rankine notes, DiAngelo’s work "allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to ‘bad people.’" White fragility, which is characterized by a white person’s anger, fear, guilt, defensiveness and, often, silence, prevents folks from having "meaningful cross-racial dialogues." That is, white fragility — this inability to be held accountable, to feel discomfort and acknowledge white privilege, among other things — protects racial inequality. By calling out the elephant in the room, White Fragility aims to help white folks engage in a more constructive and honest way.

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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.

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In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, who served as the director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University before moving to Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, writes that "When racist ideas resound, denials that those ideas are racist typically follow." Kendi goes on to say that "the opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is antiracist." Being antiracist implies taking action; to be silent, to turn away, is a privilege. White people must actively work against racist institutions and systems they benefit from, they must stand up and speak out when they see racism occurring — and Kendi’s book is a great first step on this journey of self-awareness and learning to take action, every day.

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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.

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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.

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The migration is split into the Great Migration and the Second Great Migration, the latter of which occurred around World War II and saw Black folks moving West more so than North or to the Midwest. By combining statistics, general history and three biographies, Wilkerson provides a more complete, textured picture of the migration of Black Americans, making it essential reading for anyone who wants a fuller understanding of this often-overlooked exodus that shaped U.S. history.

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."

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Writing for The New York Times, Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, praised Alexander for "[putting] the entire criminal justice system on trial, [and] exposing racial discrimination from lawmaking to policing to the denial of voting rights to ex-prisoners." Echoing the notion that The New Jim Crow is a call to action, Kendi added that the book "struck the spark that would eventually light the fire of Black Lives Matter."

Essays & Letters

Understand how Black Americans experience our country — and see how little has changed between the 1960s and today.

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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.

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In addition to essays, Baldwin wrote short stories, novels, plays and poetry, all of which examine how race, class, sexuality and masculinity intersect and are most often set against the backdrops of the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement. If you’re looking to read more of Baldwin’s extensive work but don’t know where to start, we suggest his essays, which were collected in Notes of a Native Son, as well as the novels If Beale Street Could Talk and (the semi-autobiographical) Go Tell It on the Mountain.

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.

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In recounting both his own youth in Baltimore and the whole of American history, Coates describes the "racist violence that has been woven into American culture" — into institutions, like schools and law enforcement. Called "essential, like water or air," by A.O. Scott in The New York Times, Between the World and Me’s essentiality is perhaps best described by Toni Morrison, who wrote that it fills "the intellectual void" left by Baldwin’s death.

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.

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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.

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The title, which is paradoxical in nature, underscores the multiplicities of Lorde’s identity, which position her "on the line" in a space that isn’t necessarily safe. In addition to examining these intersections of identity, Sister Outsider discusses topics such as imperialism, coalition building, violence against women, police brutality, Black feminism, self-love and more. A critic for The New York Times noted that "[Lorde’s] works will be important to those truly interested in growing up sensitive, intelligent, and aware."

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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.

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Before writing Black Feminist Thought, Collins coined the term "outsider-within," which speaks to the ways in which Black women cannot fully be part of mainstream feminist thought, which assumes and centers whiteness, nor Black social thought, which centers maleness. In giving language to the experiences of Black women, and by outlining the often-erased canon of Black feminist art and thought, Collins cements her place as a thinker we all must engage with.

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Autobiography & Memoir

Hear from Black writers who have confronted racism in all its machinations and then chosen to share their lived experiences with readers.

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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.

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"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity," Baldwin noted. Nominated for the National Book Award in 1970, the book has long been taught in high schools and universities; if your reading list didn’t include Angelou’s seminal work, it’s time to remedy that oversight.

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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.

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Informed by seminal works like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mock’s Redefining Realness tells the story of her courageous quest for self. Expressing her admiration for the memoir, acclaimed feminist thinker and activist bell hooks notes that Mock’s work is "told with a spirit of raw honesty that moves beyond confession to redemptive revelation," and that "this book is a life map for transformation — for changing minds."

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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."

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When asked by the Chicago Tribune if she wrote I’m Still Here to educate white people or to affirm the experiences of folks in the Black community, Channing Brown said that she had Black women in mind when writing the book — she wanted them to feel seen and heard. With that in mind, white people should read I’m Still Here to understand how Black women navigate a world that’s not built for them. At the same time, white readers should not center themselves when reflecting upon this important, affirming work.

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