Books
    Next Score View the next score

    We asked several black writers: What book should all white Americans read? Here’s what they said

    This nation has always been riven when it comes to race. Recall that disagreements over slavery and inequality ran so deep that the Founding Fathers decided to just look the other way, pretty sure that otherwise no union would be possible — and hope some future generation would find an answer. Fast-forward to police-shooting deaths, income inequality, widespread incarceration, and a president who looks at a torch-bearing procession of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., and sees some “very fine people.’’ Amid the turmoil we asked a group of black writers and academics this question: If you could assign a book for all white Americans to read right now, what would it be?

    My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir by Jessica B Harris

    The writer Tiphanie Yanique told me once that the most revolutionary novel about race ever written would be about two people of color who fall in love, live their lives, and nothing terrible or catastrophic happens to them. What she meant by this, of course, is that too often, books with people of color as protagonists focus on the pathological, on the struggle of living in a world of white supremacy. It takes a super act of imagination, for many of us living under white supremacy, to imagine black people as having the same rich, complex inner lives as white people and that often those lives have little concern with what white people think or believe. Harris’s memoir of her life in late-’70s and early-’80s bohemian New York, where she was a kind of younger sister to artistic geniuses like James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Nina Simone, is remarkable for this very reason. Harris presents a portrait of free black womanhood that is exhilarating and promises a way of being that feels wholly original. At the heart of this book is Harris’s love affair with the magnetic, enigmatic Sam — confidant of Baldwin and Angelou and her initial link to this circle of black excellence. It’s a poignant relationship that wavers between romance, friendship, and something else, and feels sharply relevant to the romantic confusions of 2018 America.

    KAITLYN GREENIDGE

    Author of the novel “We Love You, Charlie Freeman’’ and originally from Arlington

    Advertisement

    Get The Weekender in your inbox:
    The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Advertisement

    The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism’’ by Edward E. Baptist

    It changes the way one sees the world because it helps readers to understand how slavery is rooted into the very foundation of the United States — how it has affected everything that came after. It’s a revelation.

    JESMYN WARD

    First woman to win two National Book Awards for fiction, a MacArthur fellow, and author, most recently, of “Sing, Unburied, Sing’’

    The Souls of Black Folk’’ by W. E. B. Du Bois and Their Eyes Were Watching God’’ by Zora Neale Hurston

    Du Bois and Hurston bring to light the very human history of black folks in language steeped not in sociology or anthropology but in art and literature. Both reveal black experiences in ways that demonstrate that African-Americans, even in the darkest days of slavery, were not simply acted upon but were actors in and authors of their own stories. And both stress the metaphor of “duality,” as Du Bois put it, of being an American and black, a duality that we saw so brilliantly illuminated in “Get Out.”

    HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.

    Alphonse Fletcher university professor at Harvard University

    Advertisement

    “Olio’’ by Tyehimba Jess

    Before it received last year’s Pulitzer Prize, it had already been awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Award, on whose jury I serve. My fellow jurors Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, Simon Schama and I declared ourselves wowed by “this roller-coaster mélange of poetry, anecdote, songs, interviews and transcripts code-switching its way through the briar patch of American history.”

    RITA DOVE

    Pulitzer Prize winning poet, former US poet laureate

    Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence’’ by Patrick Sharkey

    This just-published book really enhanced my understanding of the dramatic decline in urban violent crime in the last two decades. It also makes readers aware of the positive consequences of safer cities, including improved children’s school test scores, which accompanied the reduction of trauma from neighborhood violence; the increased chances of poor children rising into the middle class; and the notable rise in African-American men’s life expectancy. He points to the upsurge in community organizations during this period and documents the impact of nonprofits, as one of several important factors, on crime reduction in the nation’s largest cities. This book is a real eye-opener, and should be read by members of all racial/ethnic groups.

    WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON

    Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser university professor of sociology at Harvard University, former MacArthur fellow, and author of such books as “The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions’’ and “More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City’’

    When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir’’ by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele.

    This incredible story of an American life gives a face to the resilience, the love, and the resistance that founded BLM.

    CLAUDIA RANKINE

    Acclaimed poet, essayist, playwright, and MacArthur fellow

    The Autobiography of Malcolm X’’ by Malcolm X with Alex Haley

    This remains one of the most important books I have ever read. While there is debate about certain liberties and omissions made by Haley, nonetheless it is a compelling American coming-of-age story. The book can and should be supplemented by further inquiry, but there is no denying the power of this epic and tragic tale of a young complicated, flawed, contradictory, and passionate visionary. Malcolm is a case study in the effects of misused power, racism, and the perils of “un-critical thought.”

    IDRIS GOODWIN

    Rapper, essayist, poet, and the author of several plays, including “How We Got On’’ and, most recently, “Hype Man,’’ which is currently being performed at Company One.

    “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’’ by Isabel Wilkerson

    It is a gorgeously, unbearably human story of American history. It has the bite of factual truth and the readability of a great novel.

    CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE

    Award-winning novelist (“Purple Hibiscus,’’ “Half of a Yellow Sun,’’ “Americanah’’), essayist (“We Should All Be Feminists,’’ “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions’’), and MacArthur fellow

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852); My Bondage and My Freedom’’ by Frederick Douglass (1855); Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl’’ by Harriet Jacobs (1861)

    I find it impossible to recommend just one book when the stakes are this high. So I’m going to recommend three and ask readers to treat them as one vast and multivocal saga. All were published in the tumultuous years that led to and launched the Civil War. Drawing on memoir, fiction, and journalism, each explores, exposes, and dramatizes the brutal particulars of slavery and the thrilling particulars of desiring, imagining, and achieving freedom.

    MARGO JEFFERSON

    Former Pulitzer Prize-winning book and culture critic for The New York Times and author of “On Michael Jackson’’ and “Negroland: A Memoir’’

    Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    I would honestly recommend anything that he writes. He is that brilliant.

    ANGIE THOMAS

    Young-adult novelist whose best-selling debut, “The Hate U Give,’’ was named a Printz honor book, won a Boston Globe-Hornbook Award, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and is being turned into a movie

    Beloved’’ by Toni Morrison

    This is the story of Sethe, who murders her daughter to save the toddler from being returned to slavery. Years later the ghost of the dead baby appears in the body of a young woman who wreaks havoc on Sethe’s household. I would like white readers to focus in on the brutality of slavery, which is part of the ongoing history of racist white violence that has brought the country to its current troubled condition.

    DONNA BAILEY NURSE

    Columnist for CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter and The Literary Review of Canada

    No Name in the Street’’ by James Baldwin

    This is a terribly difficult question. So many to recommend and my choice might surprise some. The book tries to come to terms with the fact that the struggles of the 1960s failed to transform the spirit of the nation. In spite of the tumult and sacrifice, too many continued to believe, and still do, that this country is a white nation. Baldwin struggles with loss (e.g., the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.), the constraints of his own celebrity (he has become an example of the “exceptional negro’’), and with fractured time (that the heady days of the early freedom movement have given way to white resentment and cooptation). In the end, Baldwin grapples with the implications of America’s ongoing failure to deal with the reality of race. As he once said, “America’s sense of reality is dictated by what it is trying to avoid.” What an insight for our desperate times . . .

    EDDIE S. GLAUDE

    Chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul’

    The Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.