Reading as resistance? The rise of the anti-racist book list

Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be An Antiracist," Ijeoma Oluo's "So You Want to Talk About Race" and other anti-racist texts are selling out at major bookstores.
Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist," Ijeoma Oluo's "So You Want to Talk About Race" and Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility"
Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist," Ijeoma Oluo's "So You Want to Talk About Race" and Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility"Penguin Random House; Seal Press

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By Gwen Aviles

If you're trying to purchase Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist" or Ijeoma Oluo's "So You Want to Talk About Race" from Bookshop, the online bookseller for independent bookstores, you may have to wait a while for it to arrive. Both of these texts and a number of others labeled as "anti-racist reading recs" are on backorder.

The same goes for Amazon, where eight of the top 10 best-selling books as of this week are related to race, half of which are temporarily out of stock, including Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism," which claims the No. 1 spot.

"I've been in touch with several black-owned bookstores around the country and all of them say they're being inundated with orders now, like they've never seen before," Richard Ashby, president of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, said. "I've lived through the launch of Vietnam. I've lived through the civil rights movement. I remember as a teenager in the '70s reading James Baldwin, reading Langston Hughes poems. There was a big rush back then among the black community to read about black lives."

While there has always been a demand for black-authored books, Ashby said the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer after the officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, has dictated a new readership.

"White folks were not buying those books to read about us and learn about us," he said. "But today, we have this pandemic going on, which has disproportionately affected black people. We have the disproportionate killing of African American men going on, so now we have white people and nonblack people of color saying, 'Wait a minute, what's going on?' And the best vehicle for that understanding is reading."

As anti-racist reading lists circulate online and white and nonblack people of color rush to read these texts, questions about the role of reading in the Black Lives Matter movement have emerged. How might reading be employed as a resistance tool, and where does it fall short?

A traditional aspect of organizing

According to Khalil Muhammad, a Harvard University professor of history, race and public policy, reading has traditionally been an important aspect of movement work.

"People use reading as a way to understand what they're doing, why they're doing it and why the work is critically important," Muhammad said. "There's a fundamental requirement of organizing around shared knowledge, usually coming from shared text, to build collective engagement around what histories are relevant to explain the matter. That's been true, certainly, for the entire history of black freedom struggles."

Reading, he added, was a significant part of both the civil rights movement of the South and the black student activist and Black Power movements of the north.

"All of them had freedom schools and intense training and study groups that were the predicate for action," Muhammad said.

However, reading as an organizing tool should not be conflated with reading for "consciousness- raising." 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, Muhammad said.

"Most times after people read something, they're enlightened for a bit and then move on to their daily lives," Muhammad said. "In fact, James Baldwin thought that the obsessions of white liberals with the pain and suffering of black people in the 1950s and '60s was actually an impediment to change because he felt that when white liberals read such books, they thought the act of reading itself was the work that was required. And of course it wasn't."

Lauren Michele Jackson, an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University, shared a similar sentiment in a recent essay titled "What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?" writing that although "an anti-racist reading list means well ... the word and its nominal equivalent, 'anti-racist,' suggests something of a vanity project, where the goal is no longer to learn more about race, power, and capital, but to spring closer to the enlightened order of the anti-racist."

'Incomplete' black history education

As a current middle school principal who has taught social studies for 14 years, Alana D. Murray says she has firsthand experience with the "incomplete" and often racist version of American history taught in schools, a version that often omits the experiences of black Americans and others from marginalized groups.

"If you have not done the work of becoming critically conscious yourself, you see your students are really struggling," Murray said. "When there's not already that kind of inner reflection, when educators have a lack of understanding of American history themselves, that tends to result in distorted attempts at connecting with students or limiting renderings of history."

According to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed understood slavery as the central cause of the Civil War and only 22 percent were able to identify how the Constitution benefited slave owners. Muhammad said he's observed a similar lack of foundational knowledge among some of the college students he teaches "who are almost embarrassed to not know what we're teaching, things that are basic to any curriculum around African American history and American studies, but for many of them, it's like a foreign language."

"These kids show up in my classroom, but what about those who don't?" Muhammad said. "Extrapolate that to the rest of the university, to the thousands of universities and colleges that exist across the country and now you get a sense of how deep the hole and deficit is of basic knowledge about the history and culture of racism in America."

This disconnect is why Murray believes in a multitext approach, something she writes about in her book, "The Development of the Alternative Black Curriculum, 1890-1940: Countering the Master Narrative," as reading a variety of books can challenge the traditional, white framework propelled by textbooks and school curriculum. This reading, she suggests, should include both contemporary anti-racist texts and historical texts, like Leila Amos Pendleton's "A Narrative of the Negro," which she said "shows the approach black women authors had when it came to thinking and connecting with students about history."

"There have always been anti-racist books, but for the first time I'm seeing a lot of white folks really saying, 'I need to learn the history in order to be a good ally,' and I think one of the characteristics of a strong ally is knowing and understanding the history of people of color in the United States," Murray said. "Because when you read, you learn where you fit into the work and I think that that reading piece is very important because for many white folks, they have not read or understood the history of black people in the United States, as well as other people of color, and don't understand the complexity of what it has meant to be white in the United States."

While anti-racist reading that is not followed by action is limited in scope when it comes to sparking change, Muhammad said that as white parents gain "greater racial literacy" there's potential for them to "commit themselves to educating their very young children about how destructive racism and bias of all kinds are" and to endow their children with "a sense of responsibility" for their black peers.

With the potential for progress in mind, one important but underlooked aspect of curating anti-racist book lists, according to Shauntee Burns-Simpson, vice president of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, is rounding out the list with books across genres.

"We want to make sure people are not just reading books about slavery, even though that's important," Burns-Simpson said. "We want people, especially kids, to read titles that are highlighting and promoting black children and black people living life, being happy and experiencing life's complexities."