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9 Essential Reads for Your Racial Justice Conversations

These authors will help you talk about white supremacy by using reasoning and research rather than anger and frustration.

By now we know that racism is a discussion that everyone needs to have, yet it’s easy to become overwhelmed by it all. These discussions can challenge what we know.

There is still much we don’t know about each other and the impact of race and racism in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our local governments. Many of our families and communities are simply microcosms of the greater society that often miseducates us.

When we enter school, we learn about the fact of slavery but too often without context or judgment. We don’t learn about the resistance movements. Or the full stories of Nat Turner or John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth.

This is changing slowly. Small groups of people of all racial backgrounds are discovering the centuries of literature that do tell these stories. Because of that, they are having important discussions. There are now more college courses than ever on African and African-American studies, Indigenous studies, Latin-American and Mexican studies, and Arab-American studies, as well as religious courses that focus on Islam and Eastern religions. Movements have sprung from these readings, and, particularly since the Black Lives Matter movement began, new works are making it onto mainstream reading lists.

Here’s a short list of recent, mostly 2017, books for those who want to know more about white supremacy and the impacts of racism that we deal with today. These authors are influential voices in their fields, speaking unapologetically their own truths and experiences. Their works are examples of how everyone can show up in their own spaces for conversations based on reasoning and research rather anger and frustration. Some of the books have humor, but most don’t. Some are academic. But they all offer solutions, or at least enough perspective for readers to feel confident in having necessary conversations.

Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie

Police-misconduct attorney Andrea Ritchie calls out police violence against Black, indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern women who are cis, trans, lesbian, or gender non-conforming. She identifies broader patterns of racialized policing of girls in schools on the streets that include disability and mental illness, nonconforming gender lines, sex work, and even motherhood.

National data show more Black men are killed at higher rates than women, but Ritchie says those numbers don’t tell the whole story. “The number counts are in kinds of police interaction, traffic stops, street stops, and police killing. But there are no numbers counting police rape or police sexual harassment or unlawful strip searches. These are also acts of police violence,” Ritchie says.

But while police violence against women of color is increasing—through broken windows policing, zero-tolerance policies, deportation, child protective services, the war on drugs, and the war on terrorism—public resistance is also increasing. In Invisible No More, Ritchie documents this violence but also acts of resistance and possibilities for reform.

Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies: Moral Pollution, Black Lives, and the Struggle for Justice by Rima Vesely-Flad

Professor Rima Vesely-Flad, director of peace and justice studies at Warren Wilson College writes, “Even when the actions of Black people appear nonthreatening, the bodies of Black people are deemed dangerous.” If you’ve ever wondered about the growing use of the term “Black bodies” in place of “Black people,” you should read this book. Vesely-Flad uses social pollution theory to explain the ways in which Black people are reduced to being seen as only the material conditions from which they suffer (poverty, poor health, incarceration, violent communities). This arises from the construct that Black people are “immoral, slothful, and dangerous”—socially polluted—and is associated with the dark skin and hair phenotype: Black bodies in Black communities.” Through this lens, she examines the criminalization of Black people throughout history. She outlines how policing has established racialized boundaries between Black and white “pure” communities but concludes the anti-Stop-and-Frisk and Black Lives Matter movements have begun to re-construct the image of Blackness.

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Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones

CNN political commentator and longtime civil rights activist, Van Jones (who just received his own show for 2018) calls in people on all sides of the political spectrum—from the far left and elite liberals to the elite conservatives and the “dirty right.” For the sake of unity and progress, Jones asks that everyone acknowledge where there are shared concerns, burdens, and impacts on issues such as mass incarceration, drug epidemics, immigration, and inclusion in tech and green jobs. The book follows on the theme of Jones’ post-Trump “Love Army” project, which encourages people to connect and talk to each other, respecting disagreement and recognizing that our challenges are intertwined, that being united is our biggest strength, and that the process will be messy and complicated.

Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? by Mumia Abu-Jamal

Journalist and former Black nationalist activist Mumia Abu-Jamal has written more than six books while incarcerated for murder since the 1980s. In Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? Abu-Jamal writes, “When a society reaches dead end, when it can no longer persist in its old ways, social movements arise to push it to its next stage development. If that social movement is able to project its ideas, and spread them widely enough, and these ideas find room in the hearts and minds of the People, such movements may make that next step, and define the era’s zeitgeist and what is and is not the common good.” The collection of essays captures decades of the police violence that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, giving voice to those victims and survivors and offering suggestions to not just address it but to move into action to end it.

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Taylor says How We Get Free is an effort to reconnect the radical roots of Black feminism to contemporary organizing. The book is composed of interviews with the three authors of the Combahee River Collective Statement, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Devita Frazier, along with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. Commentary by historian Barbara Ransby gives historical context for today’s oppression of trans women of color, the fight for reproductive rights, and the movement against police violence. It was in the Combahee River Statement that the terms intersectionality and identity politics were first defined. The women wrote, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In his third book, a collection of new and previously published essays, Coates examines the vestiges of Reconstruction in today’s socio-political climate. He reflects on the Obama administration years through his own “experiences, observations, and intellectual development.” He begins with “Notes From The First Year,” where he recounted his own failures while sitting in an unemployment office in Harlem, New York. It was 2007, the same year Barack Obama announced his run for the presidency. By “Notes From the Eighth Year,” Coates had become a notable essayist and journalist with award-winning and influential pieces, “Fear of a Black President,” “The Case For Reparations,” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” all published in The Atlantic Magazine, where he is now a national correspondent. In 2016, Coates was sitting in the Oval, interviewing President Barack Obama. Coates also explores the movements that rose during the Obama era and their impact in today’s politics.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown

Inspired by Octavia Butler's explorations of the human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live. It invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us to better understand and influence them as they happen.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

In her debut novel, blogger and editor-at-large for The Establishment magazine Oluo responds to questions that she’s often asked about race and racism—and those “she wishes she were asked.” If you’re familiar with her essays, you’ll know Oluo is a straight-shooter in her commentary about racism, sexism, and feminism. With wit and candor, she generously shares her perspective as a Black, queer, middle-class, college-educated woman who was raised in mostly white Seattle by a white single mother.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6' 4", African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama's Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian by W. Kamau Bell

Bell is a stand-up comic, so expect to laugh, even if you’re not sure you should. In his debut book, the Bay area comedian goes there in his commentary about race relations—including his own interracial marriage, fatherhood, and of course politics and police violence. You may know Bell from his Emmy-award-winning docu-series on CNN, United Shades of America.

Zenobia Jeffries wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Zenobia is the racial justice associate editor. Follow her on Twitter @ZenobiaJeffries.