Over thirty-odd years of literacy, I’ve read thousands of books by white people, mostly men. I don’t regret a single one.
Here’s what I do regret: As a white man constantly, if unconsciously, fed the standard American fare of white history, white knowledge, and white culture, it scarcely even occurred to me to seek out books by black women and men beyond the handful assigned in school. Even after marrying a black South African scholar and author in her own right, I figured my actions in combatting systemic racism mattered more than any inputs I imbibed or ignored.
Then, we had kids. In the flood of books we received from well-meaning (white) family and friends, few depicted people with darker shades of skin and fewer still were written by people of African descent or in African languages. It was impossible to ignore. My wife, who speaks isiZulu with our kids, made it her mission to source every possible children’s book in her native tongue on trips back to South Africa, but even then it was clear we were swimming upstream.
The default white diet being fed to our kids, combined with our location in a predominantly-white state and neighborhood, helped me see my own implicit bias when it came to knowledge and information I consumed. Although my antiracist intentions were good, my actions were constrained by a lack of textured understanding of the highly racialized world in which we live. It prompted a series of questions:
How could I help our children know the “other” half of who they are if it is virtually invisible in what they see and read? As they grow older, how can I point them to sources of inspiration beyond the pantheon of white heroes I was raised to revere if I am not personally acquainted with such stories? And in the aftermath of 2020 – when the murder of unarmed black people on American streets finally broke through our collective consciousness – how can I fulfill my basic duty as a dad to protect my black-presenting kids if I do not ground my antiracist actions in an abiding understanding of American racism?
Five years into this parenting adventure, I am convinced you can’t have one without the other: you can’t plant hardy seeds of antiracist action in soil that is implicitly, if unconsciously, white supremacist. (If that term sounds jarring to you, I invite you to come up with a better way of describing four hundred years of systemic elevation of European people and ideas at the expense of African people and ideas in America.)
Which brings me to an embarrassing admission followed by a resolution for the year ahead: compared to the thousands of books I’ve read by white (male) authors over the past three decades, I can count on a few hands the number of books I’ve read by people of African descent. Although the number has ticked up in recent years since our kids were born, it is still pitifully small and bespeaks my inattentiveness to intellectual formation as an aspiring antiracist. I believe I’m not alone.
To begin to close this chasm in 2021, I will choose only books by black authors to read. With the exception of technical content related to work and books already begun, I will focus on works that honor black lives in all their human complexity and reveal from within the causes and effects of systemic racism today. I invite you to join me by following this three-pronged approach:
1. Start with refreshing fiction that amplifies black humanity in our midst. In addition to the many celebrated novels by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, more recent works by the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Yaa Gyasi (our go-to Christmas present this year) are highly recommended. Of course, Oprah has a list for that and your local library should be well stocked.
2. Find the hidden classics. Chances are you’ve heard the names Frederick Douglass, W.E.B DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker. But chances are your required school reading lists, like mine, contained precious few of their celebrated works. That’s a loss that can be remedied by simply downloading such classics for free or picking up inexpensive paperbacks from your local independent bookstore or library.
3. Go for the jugular. Not everyone is called to be an activist or has the stomach for searing analysis of American society. But if you’re a white person like me who is accustomed to feeling comfortable in our “white-is-right” world, I encourage you to join me in courting a little discomfort this year. There’s no better way to confront some of our most challenging racial truths than by reading recent works of Ibram X Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, William A. Darrity Jr. and A Kirsten Mullen, Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Bettina Love, and Latasha Morrison.
If reading’s not your thing, consider applying the same approach to TV shows, films, podcasts, and even your social media feed – there’s more than enough good content to fire your imagination and inspire healthy action in the year ahead!
Some will read my 2021 resolution as a repudiation of the white world from which I come and all the good it offers. That is not my intent. Nor is it even possible in a society where wealth and power remain overwhelmingly entrenched in white hands. Instead, my aim is to simply start balancing the scales of understanding so I can better serve the kids and country I love. I hope you’ll join me.
(Published January 9, 2021 in The Concord Monitor and other papers)