An antiracist ally’s reading list

By Nafina Raha

A big part of allyship with the Black community is educating yourself about the stories of Black people and the history of systematic racism worldwide. Learning about the lives of Black people throughout our nation’s history, as told by Black authors, gives a better understanding of the experiences of Black people, and what it means to them to be part of a country that has vilified them for its entire history. It also gives broader context to the protests following George Floyd’s murder in May and the impact that the United States’ history of structural racism has on the Black community. Here is a list of just a few books that explore race, generational trauma in the Black community, and the realities of being Black in America to help you become an ally of the Black community. 

Nonfiction

  • “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo
    • Anit-racist educator Robin DiAngelo explores the concept of white fragility, referring to the defensiveness of white people when they are confronted with racial issues and the reality of racism. She delves into how white fragility reinforces racial inequalities, and how it is counterproductive to a useful racial dialogue. DiAngelo also examines ways in which we can engage these topics more productively. 
  • “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi
    • How to be an Antiracist implores its readers to think of what a truly antiracist world would look like and what we can do to build it. Kendi turns to science, history, and law to create this narrative of his own outlook on being antiracist. He argues that being “not racist” is the same thing as being complicit with racism because it allows racist ideology and systems to persist, and that in order to be against racism, you must be avidly antiracist. 
  • “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
    • Michelle Alexander argues that America has redesigned its racial caste system multiple times over the centuries, first with slavery, then with Jim Crow laws and segregation, and now with mass incarceration. She illustrates the way in which the American criminal justice system targets communities of color as a modern way of racial control, all the while adhering to the supposed formality of colorblindness. Titling this modern system as the “New Jim Crow,” she emphasizes mass incarceration and prison reform as the most important part of modern racial justice. 
  • “Freedom is a Constant Struggle” by Angela Y. Davis
    • World-renowned activist Angela Y. Davis discusses intersectionality, Black feminism, the legacies of historical liberation struggles, and prison abolitionism in this collection of speeches, essays, and interviews. From South African apartheid to modern Palestine to Ferguson, she analyzes the connection between state violence/terror and oppression, and constantly reminds us that “Freedom is a constant struggle.”
  • “They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement” by Wesley Lowery 
    • Wesley Lowery, a reporter for The Washington Post, traveled all across the nation for a year while reporting on the ground, conducting hundreds of interviews. He explored the deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers, examining the whole picture of systematic racism in the U.S., from racially biased policing and segregated neighborhoods, to the education system and the availability of jobs based on race. Lowery covers the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and many others, and delves into the history behind the clash between the police and the people. Taking a look at the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement, Lowery brings to light the experiences of Black people in modern America and commands his readers to face this reality.
  • “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin
    • First published in 1963, Baldwin’s most famous work gave a strong voice to the current civil rights movement, imploring its readers to face the realities of racial injustice and its consequences, and to attack the institution of racism in America.

Fiction/Fantasy/Science Fiction

  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
    • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings details Angelou’s life in vivid detail, exploring her childhood in the South with her brother and devout grandmother, and details her experiences with racism, sexual assault, and abandonment. As an adult in San Francisco, Angelou learns how to be free rather than imprisoned by her past, overcoming the abuse she suffered as a child, and finds herself influenced to pursue her own writing by the works of Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington. 
  • “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    • Ta-Nehisi Coates frames an understanding of our nation’s history and what it means to be Black in America in the form of a letter to his son. He describes an American empire that has been built on the idea of “race,” and how the brunt of that construction landed on the backs of Black people. From slavery to segregation to mass incarceration, Coates explores the concept of the Black body within the framework of the American nation. He pairs this reimagined history with mentions of his own personal experiences as a Black man, sharing his revelations and hopes for a better future.
  • “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
    • This Young-Adult fiction (YA) novel paints a reality known to many Black teenagers in America. The main character, Starr Carter, is witness to the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of police. Starr watches as Khalil is vilified by the media despite the fact that he was unarmed, and realizes that she is the only person who can tell the real story about what happened that night. Starr must face the world and tell Khalil’s story. 
  • “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah
    • Born to a white Swiss father and a Black Xhosa mother in apartheid South Africa, where such a union was illegal, Noah’s childhood was strongly shaped by his mixed heritage. His mother had to take extreme measures to hide him from the South African government, and he was only able to live openly when South Africa’s tyrannical white rule was ended. Born a Crime tells the story of this young boy coming to terms with growing up in a country and a world where the law prohibited his very existence, and delves into his relationship with a mother who would stop at nothing to protect him. 
  • “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
    • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, The Color Purple tells the stories of Black women in early-twentieth-century rural Georgia in the form of a series of letters over the course of twenty years. It makes its readers face the realities of domestic and sexual abuse, and explores the strength and bravery of four women through each of their struggles. 
  • “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
    • Based loosely on a real story, Morrison’s award-winning novel Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a woman born into slavery who escaped to Ohio. The story delves into the horrors Sethe endured in the past, describing her experiences with marriage and friendship while enslaved, along with the realities of being a female slave, with the traumas of sexual assault and dehumanization glaring throughout the novel. In Ohio, Sethe is haunted both figuratively and literally by the embodiment of her past in the form of a woman calling herself Beloved. The most important theme throughout the story is motherhood, and what it looked like within the framework of slavery, along with what enslaved mothers had to sacrifice for their children. 
  • “American Street” by Ibi Zoboi
    • Fabiola Toussaint is excited to come to the U.S. and pursue the American dream, but when she arrives from Haiti, her mother is detained by immigration officials, and she is left to face this new, unfamiliar life alone. 
  • “The Black Flamingo” by Dean Atta
    • Michael, a half Jamaican and half Greek Cypriot boy growing up in London, knows who he is: a mixed-race, gay teenager. But when he goes to university, he learns to embrace his uniqueness and discovers his love for drag, becoming the Black Flamingo. 
  • “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    • Put simply, this is a love story. Ifemelu and Obinze, a young couple, leave military-ruled Nigeria to pursue a new life. Ifemelu goes to America and encounters what it is to be Black for the first time in her life, while Obinze is barred from the States and ends up living an undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they are reunited when they return to newly democratic Nigeria, the stark contrast between life in the West and their homeland a driving force to their reunion. 
  • “Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America” Edited by Ibi Zoboi
    • This anthology includes stories from over a dozen Black authors detailing the experiences, thoughts, and struggles of Black teenagers across the nation. Black Enough explores the trials and tribulations of growing up Black in modern America, showcasing a spectrum of young Black lives, including the stories of biracial, LGBTQIA+, urban, rural, rich, poor, American-born, and immigrant voices. It deals with a variety of topics, including racism, homophobia, sexual assault, and personal loss within the narrative of the “American dream.” 
  • “The Black Kids” by Christina Hammonds Reed
    • In 1992 Los Angeles, Ashley Bennett lives a perfectly ordinary life at her high school until a group of LAPD officers are acquitted after beating Rodney King half to death. Now, Ashley is no longer just an ordinary highschooler. She’s one of the Black kids. Ashley is confronted with this stark distinction as she watches riots unfold in her city before her eyes, and is faced with the reality of us and them.
  • “Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi
    • This fantasy novel inspired by Nigerian mythology centers on Zelie Adebola, who is a magi in a world where all magic people are systematically oppressed. She grew up in a world of magic until one night, the king of Orisha ordered the deaths of all magis, including her mother. This fantasy world of Orisha mirrors our real world in its explorations of social power, racial tensions, persecution, and structural inequality. Zelie faces a journey to bring back magic, facing off against a ruthless monarch bent on destroying it, and set on avenging her mother. 
  • “Punching the Air” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam 
    • Award-winning author, Ibi Zoboi, and Yusef Salaam, a prison reform activist and one of the Exonerated Five, weave the story of sixteen-year-old Amal Shahid: an artist and poet, well-versed in being labeled as separate from the white kids at his school, who is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Amal finds solace in his art, and searches for the truth, fighting against a system that has been designed against him. 

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