In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, the revolutionary South African civil rights leader writes, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Indeed, no one is born racist. Racism is learned, which means it can be unlearned. It’s a process. It takes effort. Often, we’re entirely unaware of the ways in which we build and are complicit in systems that treat others differently because of the colour of their skin.
The first step to being devoutly antiracist is to educate yourself about these systems – the way they came to be, their exploitative motivations, how they exist in blind spots, how we unwillingly participate in them, and what you can do to dismantle them.
We read to learn and therefore read to unlearn. And who better to teach these lessons than some of the most trailblazing black authors of our time?
Here are nine works by black authors to add to your reading list ASAP:
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
By now you’ve probably watched the viral video clip of James Baldwin which concludes with him rhetorically asking, “How much time do you want for your progress?” The prolific novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist dedicated his entire life to exploring frictions between races, classes, and sexes in the United States. ‘The Fire Next Time’ contains two of his most prominent essays, both of which are a testament to Baldwin as an indispensable voice for the African-American experience.
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps America’s most highly regarded African-American journalist. In ‘Between the World and Me’ he writes a 176-page letter to his author’s son about the reality of being black in the United States. The format is inspired by one of the essays in Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’, which is addressed to his nephew. The revered African- novelist American Toni Morrison, in reviewing Coates’ book, remarked that Coates fills “the intellectual void” left by Baldwin’s death in 1987.
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
Speaking of Toni Morrison, her 1970 novel ‘The Bluest Eye’ is a raw portrayal of a young girl’s confrontation with whiteness. The protagonist develops an inferiority complex, which serves as a metaphor for growing up black in a blue-eyed society. Told through a series of flashbacks, her tribulations reflect perhaps the most overlooked dimension of oppression: internalized racism.
Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism – bell hooks
bell hooks is essential reading on pretty much any socioeconomic/political topics. In ‘Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism’, she examines how the myriad injustices experienced by Africans are particularly pronounced for black women. An integral work of feminist scholarship.
How to Be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi
In case it still needs to be said: it is not enough to be “not racist.” What the world needs from you, needs from everybody, is to be antiracist. In ‘How to Be an Antiracist’ historian and professor Ibram X. Kendi presents antiracism as an uncompromising political ideology that is essential to dismantling the history of racism we – and he – have participated in. A textbook for perhaps the most important study of your life.
Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde
‘Sister Outsider’ is a seminal catalogue in feminist literature by one of the world’s foremost multihyphenate civil rights activists. Through this collection of 15 essays and speeches dating from 1976 to 1984 we get a deeply personal picture the of complexities of intersectional identity. It will force you to realize all the ways in which learned behaviours negatively affect people of colour – often without your noticing.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
For 80 years, the Jim Crow laws legally segregated blacks from the rest of American society. The Civil Rights Act, signed in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, legally ended segregation. That’s the euphemistic story. ‘The New Jim Crow’ explores how the ‘War on Drugs’, initiated by President Richard Nixon and intensified by Ronald Reagen, turned the American criminal justice system into an oppressive regime for African-Americans.
The 2016 documentary 13TH, which is currently streaming on Netflix, is an excellent expose on the issue.
The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement – Matthew Horace and Ron Harris
At no point since the 1991 beating of Rodney King has the world so sharply scrutinized the role, methods, and structures of police. ‘The Black and the Blue’ is an inside look at the racism plaguing significant parts of America’s law enforcement. Written by a veteran cop, it points out the inherent, institutional injustice suffered by African-Americans at the hands of police and dispels the “few bad apples” myth.
Me and White Supremacy – Layla F. Saad
Fellow author Robin DiAngelo calls Layla F. Saad’s ‘Me and White Fragility’ “an indispensable resource for white people who want to challenge white supremacy but don’t know where to begin.” Perhaps that’s you. So why not begin here? Also recommended: Saad’s Good Ancestor podcast.
Looking for more?
Anti-racism researcher Victoria Alexander recently shared an excellent reading list of works by black authors on Twitter:
Someone put together a comprehensive (free!) online library containing foundational texts by predominately black authors. It contains full PDF versions of some of the books mentioned above.
And finally: even more.
And expertly organized.
More the visual type? Check out these black-centric documentaries and TV shows.