Black Lives Matter Reading List

Lately, I’ve been participating in discussions (online and in person) about Black Lives Matter, police brutality, protests, and race relations. In one of these discussions, a friend brought up the frustration she feels when talking about these topics with friends and family who are less than sympathetic to the argument put forth by the Black Lives Matter movement. In her own words:

I feel surrounded by people who, I feel, do not fully understand the challenges black people face, and have faced for so long. They don’t get the implications of slavery, because well, “that was centuries ago and they should be over it by now. Black people enslaved other blacks in Africa. blah blah” Ugh.

But what it often boils down to is the sentiment that black people should just miraculously pull themselves out of poverty, unemployment, a broken family structure, poor education, a terrible criminal justice system, and go get a job. Because they, “we”, were immigrants and struggled, so why shouldn’t black people have to struggle too? Why give them “handouts?” “Why are the police to blame when they kill each other more often, and kill police as well?”

I understand where these arguments come from, but I wish I could articulate and try to paint a picture of many of their lives and history so they can start possibly seeing things in a different light. Anyways, this is probably more of a phone conversation, but it’s just been on my mind as it’s always a sore topic in my house. And I’m not doing my due diligence.

With this in mind, I noted down this list of writers, books, articles, movies and music that came to mind. They have helped me understand race relations in the United States since I was in high school. I look to these and similar works to continue my education in how my country works. This is not a list of quick arguments, easy definitions, or flashy statistics. It represents an on-going education.

Any such list is invariably missing something. Please recommend additions and I’ll update this post.

Writers:

  1. Ta-nehisi Coates - probably the writer I look to most often for guidance on these issues. Start with the essays listed here, especially The Case for Reparations, Letter To My Son (which is an extended excerpt from his book Between The World And Me), and The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.
  2. James Baldwin - the intellectual predecessor to Coates. Wrote mostly in the 50s-70s. His speeches and lectures, many on YouTube (like his debate with William F Buckley), are sometimes even better than his written work.
  3. Toni Morrison - a prolific writer, still writing. Song of Solomon, Sula, Beloved, The Bluest Eye are all great works of fiction. Her essays are great too. This profile is also great.
  4. Tim Wise - easily digestible, often logically sound, but less academic. A good starting point, not least because he’s a white guy.
  5. Jelani Cobb - academic and magazine writer. His long piece in the New Yorker this March on BLM is a good start.
  6. Cornel West - he’s recently kind of gone off the deep end, but generally his writing is incisive, sharp and part of the canon of great contemporary writing on race relations. A profile here.
  7. Wesley Morris - sports, culture, film writer. But his essays are often full of commentary on more than just sports or art. Like this essay from a few weeks ago that’s chock full of insights about changes in black culture and new black voices.
  8. bell hooks - academic, cultural critic, author. Mostly engagaged with feminism theory, post-modernism, capitalism, but race shows up in her work everywhere. Especially Yearning.

Books:

  1. The Warmth of Other Sons, Isabel Wilkerson - Possibly the fullest and most complete chronicle of the great migration, setting the table for how blacks left the south, migrated and settled in the north, and built lives in the face of myriad struggles. The legacy of this 6-decade long migration is still present today in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Newark, etc. Review here.
  2. The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward E. Baptiste - the story of how important slavery was to the founding of this country, and why it still matters. Review.
  3. Negroland, Margo Jefferson - personal memoir of a journalist, raised on the South Side in the 60s. Relevant as a middle-class counter point to narratives that tend to be about poverty. Which is to say, yes, poverty is a part of the problem, but even middle class blacks live different lives from middle class whites. I wrote about it here.
  4. Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates (as mentioned above). I wrote about it here.
  5. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin (the intellectual inspiration for Between The World and Me) Short. Fiery. Review here. Actually, better review here.
  6. Rap on Race, James Baldwin & Margaret Mead - a conversation in 1970, at the end of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin and Margaret Mead had a 7+ hour conversation about America, race, basically everything. It is full of wisdom. An essay series on it here.
  7. Arc of Justice, Kevin Boyle - about some of the underpinnings of the criminalization of Blacks. That’s a huge issue, and perhaps the most important one, which as I look back over this list, is sorely under-represented. But the relationship between blacks, the justice system, policing and voting is especially important in contemporary discussions.
  8. The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander - probably the best, most persuasive argument, in favor of seeing our current prison system as a system of mass incarceration, replacing Jim Crow and slavery before it. It comes up in basically every piece of writing I see now about #BlackLivesMatter, as well it should. Wiki page here.
  9. Racecraft, Karen and Barbara Fields - an academic and popular work outlining how “race” was invented to serve “racism” not the other way around. Review here.

Articles:

  1. Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights, Angela Davis (PDF) - another scholar and activist from the 70s who had a major impact on black thought. This article in particular is about how black women have been systematically denied birth control and some of the concerns of the feminist movements of the 20th century, like unwanted births or having to raise children out of wedlock against her will, are still disproportionately affecting black women.
  2. Asian American children’s letter to parents in support of BLM - although targeted toward immigrant parents, there are chunks of this letter that properly grasp the relations between blacks and other minority groups. There’s a lot to be said about the aspirations of minority groups to white privilege and how this co-opts otherwise sympathetic people into anti-black narratives.
  3. A collection of contemporary longform essays is listed here. Lots of great essays and writers represented within. Including this collection of essays about police brutality.
  4. Resources aimed at white readers listed here.

Movies:

  1. Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee
  2. 4 Little Girls, Spike Lee
  3. He Got Game, Spike Lee
  4. Hoop Dreams, Steve James
  5. The Interrupters, Steve James
  6. What Happened, Miss Simone, Liz Garbus
  7. Selma, Ava Duvernay
  8. Dear White People, Justin Simien

Music:

  1. Nina Simone
  2. Beyonce
  3. Blood Orange
  4. Kendrick Lamar
  5. Tupac
  6. Notorious BIG
  7. Mos Def
  8. Talib Kweli
  9. Common