But my silence isn’t acceptable, either. So for anyone who comes across my website or Facebook page, know this about me: I believe that Black Lives Matter. And to those who say “All Lives Matter,” let me gently suggest that you are missing the point. Please read this blog from parents.com—it offers some metaphors that are useful in understanding the issue. https://www.parents.com/kids/responsibility/racism/reasons-all-lives-matter-doesnt-work-in-terms-simple-enough-for-a-child/
One of my other fundamental beliefs is that stories matter. Stories allow us to make sense of the world, and always have. I want to share some books I’ve read in the last few years that have helped shape my own understanding of the challenges faced by people of color. These books weren’t part of any strategy or systematic approach—they are just books I happened to be drawn to at a particular moment. I highly recommend all of them.
This novel was first published under the title Push, but was reissued as Precious when the movie by that name came out in 2009. It is a harrowing account of an illiterate black teenager in New York City who is abused in just about every way imaginable. The story is written in first person, stream-of-consciousness style. The book reads exactly like the narrator, Precious, would write it, with phonetic spellings and grammatical errors that improve somewhat as she slowly blossoms under the guidance of a gifted teacher. This is one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read—and also one of the most stirring. (The Kid is a sequel told from Precious’s son’s point of view.)
Born a Crime: Stories from
a South African Childhood
by Trevor Noah
Comedian Trevor Noah is way at the top of my most-admired-people list. I watch him on YouTube almost every day and was lucky enough to see him perform at Mystic Lake a couple of years ago. I depend on him to help me understand and tolerate these surreal times. Born a Crime is his memoir about growing up mixed-race in South Africa at the end of apartheid. I hesitated to read it at first because I’ve never particularly enjoyed books by comedians: what’s funny on stage often feels forced on the page, at least to me. But Born a Crime is exceptional. Noah is a natural storyteller and never lets his own facility with words get in the way of the truth.
A friend highly recommends the audio book, which Noah narrates himself. It might be just the thing to listen to on your summer walks or drives.
The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd
The Invention of Wings begins in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1803. A wealthy white girl, Sarah Grimke, is “given” a slave, ten-year-old Hetty, for her eleventh birthday. The story follows both of their lives for more than 30 years. The portrayal of Sarah and her sister, Angelina, is based on history (they were at the forefront of the abolition and women’s rights movements), while Hetty is fictional but every bit as believable.
I so appreciate well-written historical fiction. Facts and figures might not stay in my head for long, but I don't forget the way a book makes me feel.
The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
This critically acclaimed YA novel is particularly timely. Starr is a black teenage girl who has her feet in two worlds: the poor community where her family lives and the affluent, mostly white suburb where she attends private school. When she witnesses the police shoot and kill her best friend from childhood, the schism between those two worlds challenges her like never before. The book was made into a movie in 2018.
The novel started out as a short story that Thomas wrote in college in response to the police shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009. I find that very moving—that a young writer would find her own voice as she expressed, in fiction, the voices of those who are too rarely heard.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
Immortal Life got a lot of attention when it came out in 2010; it was made into a movie in 2017. It’s the true story of a black woman whose cancer cells became an immortal cell line, used to this day by scientists around the world. It’s also about racism, discrimination, and the vast gap between medical ethics and the rapid advances of scientific technology. Skloot never sensationalizes, choosing at every turn to portray complexity and depth. The science is fascinating, the humanity humbling.
by Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama is also on my most-admired list. Is there anything she can’t do? And yet she’s never arrogant or boastful, just honest and real. I loved getting the behind-the-scenes look at events I myself remember, such as Barack Obama’s nomination, election, and inauguration.
I should add that the documentary of Becoming, released in May, is just as good as the book. I recently watched it with my mom as a special treat on my birthday.
by Dalton Conley
This book may be less familiar than the others I’m discussing here, but even though it came out way back in 2001, I still think it deserves a large audience. Honky is Dalton Conley’s memoir about growing up white in a poor black and and Puerto Rican neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s honest, insightful, funny, and revelatory. Conley is now a professor of sociology at Princeton; he’s written many other books and has a host of impressive academic designations.
Funny aside: I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten this book, but assumed it was from a Little Free Library or a library book sale. Just now I discovered a stamp that says “Perpich Center for Arts Education”—which is where my daughter went to high school. So evidently this is a school book she should have returned! Sorry, Perpich...
“The First Day”
by Edward Jones
"The First Day" is a short story I’ve used several times in a creative writing class I teach at Hennepin Technical College. I think it is one of the most exquisite stories I’ve ever read. The narrator is a young black girl who is starting kindergarten. On that important day, she realizes for the first time that her mother can’t read.
“The First Day” is from the story collection Lost in the City, published in 1992. Lost in the City was a National Book Award finalist and also won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Here's a link of Jones reading the story.