Race in America – An Introductory Reading List

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The events of this past weekend in Charlottesville are impossible to ignore. Where we stand here at The Attic is and should be crystal clear. Where everyone stands ought to be so because there is only one place to stand. There are not and have never been “many sides” to the issue. Either you stand against white supremacy or you accept it*... and if you accept it, well… you should know where that puts you.** While we firmly stand against white supremacists at The Attic (read Political Editor Lauren Olmeda's article here), we still need to face the fact that many of us are white, have grown up in predominantly-white countries (four of us in the US itself), and have consequently culturally been rather white-washed. No matter how vigilant we may think we are, we still end up consuming predominantly white media.

I want to learn about race in America and introduce diversity to my bookshelf. Where do I start?

As your Literature Editor, I feel obligated to address the issue through books. I love literature as much as I do because it acts as a window into the world, allowing us to learn from and empathize with people from all different backgrounds. I’ve always tried to keep this power in mind and have tried to keep my reading diverse, but as I try to put a list of books that address issues of race in the United States (from the standpoint of American women) together, I realize I haven’t done my best. Having read Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith and keeping up with Roxane Gay doesn't mean you're diversely well-read. Of the ten works I’m sharing with you today, I’ve only fully read half.

That isn’t stopping me from sharing with you though. We all need to start somewhere, so today, I’m sharing six books that I know will make a difference, and four that I intend to read by the end of the year. Now tell me, what books are you reading that address race in the United States?

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee This is the only book on this list by a white American author. Roll your eyes all you want, but To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic. It gets to white people, and it wakes lots of young readers to issues of race. If you haven’t read it yet, then get to it!
  2. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison I’ve studied The Bluest Eye twice now – once in high school in Chicago and once in a Comp Lit course on race in literature. It’s a shocking read on the poisonous influences of white culture and, specifically, white beauty standards on young women of color.
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

    This is the first book on this list that I shamefully haven’t read. The first of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographical volumes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the first 17 years of her life – addressing issues of identity, racism, sexual violence, and literacy.  

  4. Beloved, Toni Morrison 

    Another shocking novel from Toni Morrison, Beloved tells the story of a young mother who escapes slavery and then kills her two-year-old daughter to stop her from being taken back into custody under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Beloved has become an American classic.

  5. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros 

    My knowledge of Sandra Cisneros’s work basically comes down to a couple of poems studied in a BA seminar on feminism and feminine embodiment. I have yet to read The House on Mango Street, but it is now high on my to-read list. Taking place in my hometown of Chicago, the novel is a bildungsroman following the life of a young Latina girl growing up on the streets of the city and determinedly trying to better her life.

  6. On Beauty, Zadie Smith

    I’ve read quite a bit of Zadie Smith over the past few years, most recently dwelling on Swing Time, but I have yet to read her one book taking place in America. On Beauty centres on the family of a white, English academic and an African American woman and focuses on issues of racial identity, class, and beauty as value.

  7. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah came out during a period where I was overwhelmed with my academic reading, and the novel’s consequently been sitting in my to-read queue ever since. Focusing on a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to America for university, Americanah issues a beautiful take on race from someone who “wasn’t black until she got here.”

  8. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri 

    Jhumpa Lahiri’s most famous collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies looks at families and individual identities, considering what it is to be of Indian origin in America.  

  9. Not Vanishing, Chrystos A moving poetry collection, Chrystos’s Not Vanishing addresses what it is to be an indigenous woman in America. I studied “White Girl Don’t” in a seminar, and its words still echo with me today.
  10. National Monuments, Heid Erdrich Another poetry collection, National Monuments brings together Heid Erdrich’s poems addressing the treatment of indigenous women’s bodies by the rest of the world. It also looks at how Native American culture has been appropriated and monumentalized by white America.

Finally, this isn’t a book by an American woman, but I think now is the time for us all to reread Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

 

* Yes, staying quiet and acting like it doesn’t affect you is accepting it.

** Trash. It puts you in a burning pile of trash.