By David R. Altman
While our cities continue to deal with the raging dichotomy between peaceful protests and tragic shootings, the literary community remains a firm and relentless voice for equality and civil rights in the midst of our American chaos.
As the protests have subsided, The Washington Post last week reported that “…people seemed to be taking to a new form of protest and support: Anti-racist reading.”
Both literary and journalistic writers are weighing-in on the debate.
Listen to some of these best-selling titles: How to Be an Antiracist, The New Jim Crow, Please Stop Helping Us, Black Rednecks and White Liberals and The Underground Railroad. While these books cover a wide range of views on challenges facing Black Americans, their authors do share one thing in common: all are contributing to the debate around racial equality and justice.
Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2016 book, The Underground Railroad.
Whitehead’s remarkable second novel, The Nickel Boys, was based on a true story in Jim Crow era Florida about a young Black man who was unfairly incarcerated in a youth detention center run by racists.
Whitehead told Time Magazine last year, “A lot of energy is put into perpetuating the different means of controlling black people under slavery, under segregation and now under whatever you want to call this contemporary form.”
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is a Boston University professor who has written extensively on the issue of anti-racism. His most recent book is called How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi candidly re-examined his own earlier view on racism and makes the distinction between people saying they are “not a racist” instead of being “an antiracist.”
Kendi, who wrote this thoughtful and provocative book while battling colon cancer, asserted “…One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.”
Michelle Alexander, a civil rights attorney and author of the best-selling The New Jim Crow, takes a more nuanced approach—making it her mission to educate young people that racism is not a thing of the past—but continues today.
Jason Riley, a conservative editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal and who authored the book titled Please Stop Helping Us, says that African-Americans have missed opportunities by trying to push for political power rather than economic power.
Dr. Thomas Sowell, who wrote a series of essays on race in his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, smashes through what he considers the myths of racial stereotyping. Sowell, who has taught at Stanford and Cornell, also believes that “…one of the tragedies of our times is that so many people judge by rhetoric, rather than by results.”
But columnist and author Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and long-time columnist for the Washington Post, sees some positive traction in the movement. Robinson wrote two weeks ago that “…what makes this moment of upheaval and protest different is that so many white Americans see how racism is a ball and chain that holds all of us back — and see what a braver, fairer, stronger nation we can be if we confront our original sin with honesty and determination.”
And the debate over racial equality and social justice lies not only in the words of columnists and authors, but also in the passionate voices of some of American’s greatest current-day poets.
Natasha Trethewey, a two-time United States Poet Laureate whose powerful poetry earned her a Pulitzer Prize, grew up in the sixties and seventies in Mississippi, the daughter of an inter-racial marriage. Trethewey, now a professor at Northwestern, wrote recently in the Financial Times, “America is a nation steeped in forgetting, in willed cultural amnesia and blindness to the ongoing everyday injustices suffered by African-Americans.”
Dr. Jericho Brown directs the Creative Writing Program at Emory University and recently was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection, The Tradition. Brown told The Advocate last month, “I also think we have a long way to go. I say we, I mean America. We have a long way to go in understanding Black people as human beings.”
These are but a few of the important voices that drive our discussion on race. Besides providing great literature and journalism, they seek to inform and enlighten us. Reading makes us more interesting people—and, arguably, better people.
If you haven’t read any of the writers mentioned here—perhaps you should. As the great Japanese author Haruki Murakami once said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”