Sunday, February 28, 2021

Reading for change (in myself, then the world)

Let's walk the stony path. Justin Kern/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Back in June 2020, when a spate of racially motivated killings and police violence compelled many of us to reexamine white supremacy and its insidious tentacles throughout American history and society, I read this scathing Washington Post essay by Tre Johnson titled "When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs."

This passage jumped out at me:

"... when things get real — really murderous, really tragic, really violent or aggressive — my white, liberal, educated friends already know what to do. What they do is read. And talk about their reading. What they do is listen. And talk about how they listened.

What they do is never enough. This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused."
Well, crap. Because the first item in my own list of anti-racist commitments was to "read at least one book connected to anti-racism every 4-6 weeks," cementing my undeniable status as a white, liberal, educated woman. (At least I didn't join a book club?)

The thing is, I am a lifelong reader and writer. When I seek to understand other people's experiences and learn complex topics, I ingest, digest, and process words. Turning to reading was not (I hope) a knee-jerk virtue signal, but rather my most direct path to getting my arms around a reality I knew I had not yet absorbed.

So, with a audience of fellow white people in mind, I'd like to take the occasion of Black History Month 2021 to share the materials, mostly books, that in recent years have educated me about race in America, challenged me with cries for justice, and enriched me with gorgeous reflections of Black joy, creativity, and artistry, in the hopes that you will join me in transforming our lament into action.

I've opened each section with a general statement on a theme and then listed the materials alphabetically by title. You can learn more about each book from your local library or local independent bookstore. Bonus points if the bookstore is Black-owned, because if I've walked away with one lesson from my ongoing education, it's to put my energy and money where my mouth is when it comes to advocating for change in our systems and practices.

Nonfiction: Racism/Anti-Racism Focus

Because you can't address what you don't understand. These books cover the definition, manifestations, and effects of racism, and several delve into practical methods for recognizing racism in yourself and evolving to be more actively anti-racist.

  • "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson
  • How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
  • Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor, Layla Saad
  • So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
  • Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
  • White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo

Nonfiction: Black History & Memoir

Because joy as well as struggle reflects the humanity we share. Reading deeply personal accounts alongside often-overlooked history painted for me a more complete and ultimately more profound picture of our collective past, present, and future.

  • Becoming, Michelle Obama
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Born a Crime, Trevor Noah
  • Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
  • Hidden Figures, Margo Lee Shetterly
  • How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston
  • Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
  • March (Books 1-3), John Lewis
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward
  • Negroland, Margo Jefferson
  • Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
  • Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson


Because imagination is a proven route to empathy. The main thing these novels, stories, and verses share is a Black author. Otherwise, they all reflect and refract universal experiences through humor, drama, tragedy, history, sci-fi, magic, and many other creative lenses. 

  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Homegoing, Yaa Gyaasi
  • How to Sit, Tyrese Coleman
  • Jubilee, Margaret Walker
  • Kindred, Octavia Butler
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • The Hate You Give, Angie Thomas
  • The Revisioners, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
  • The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Turner House, Angela Flournoy
  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
  • The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyaasi
  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith


Because envisioning God beyond "Old White Man in Sky" opens my heart to more manifestations of the divine. Here's where I move beyond books (though two are listed) and include some of the writers, ministers, and theologians I follow regularly on social media. Through their religious and spiritual rumination, they challenge me to revisit and expand my more-ingrained-than-I-realized concept of Church.

* Asterisk denotes those who also offer formal training and coaching to promote racial justice and healing.

Let's close with Tre Johnson again:

"The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks or organizational statements. It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way—be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family or your home. It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art."

I am earnestly willing to dismantle these systems. May I act on this desire in a constant spirit of humility, empathy, and openness, so that all children of God may rise.

Prayer #365: Right Acknowledgement

Ahmaud Arbery has been dead for one year, and I—how have I been alive? Alive to fear. Alive to danger. Alive to suffering. Alive to injustice. In a true accounting of my actions, what have I done to nudge a recalcitrant world toward the array of better angels so eager to welcome us?

I must stop framing my tiny role in the long pursuit toward racial justice as "Is it enough?" and instead consider it as "Am I moving myself and my community in the right direction?" In scaling my place appropriately, I won't shorten the journey, but I will better notice the mile markers, and I will be more alive to my companions on the road—those who lead me, guide me, and inspire me to continue walking.


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Move to what shall be

The sun always rises. Geoff Livingston/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How bizarre to see the Capitol building draped with bunting, festooned with flags, sumptuously arranged for dignitaries and celebrities alike, when exactly two weeks ago its windows were shattered and offices were infiltrated as a mob stormed its walls in an insurrection attempt encouraged by our 45th president. How bizarre, these two weeks later, to watch the customary pageantry play out despite formidable logistical odds, in another installment of the expected peaceful transfer of power that former president Ronald Reagan described as "commonplace and miraculous."


... We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice. 
    —Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, from her inaugural poem The Hill We Climb


How we choose to interpret the compelling image of the Capitol dome cleaned and decorated after a violent attack might be seen as a ideological Rorschach test. On one hand, we could view it as a powerful symbol of America's resilience and fortitude, and the endurance of lofty democratic ideals, which have shaped and continue to shape America. On the other hand, we could see it as a powerful symbol of our country's harmful habits of saying "This is not who we are" in times of immoral crisis and electing to reframe ourselves through a myopic, rose-colored lens, papering over the very real, destructive, and present forces that have shaped and continue to shape America.

I'd argue, however, that the answer lies in the middle, or rather, in the tension of both interpretations being true. As Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said in his remarks during the Inauguration swearing-in ceremony, "We are more than we have been and less than we can be." President Biden echoed this sentiment in his inaugural address, saying, "We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain."


Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: that even as we grieved, we grew, even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried, that we’ll forever be tied together victorious, not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division. 
—Gorman, The Hill We Climb

All these states of being are valid. They are, well, true. Yet some people will hear in these truths an indictment or a threat. They will not hear the call to humility, the plea for compassion, or the spirit of possibility and potential. Such interpretation—inevitable given the fractured nature of discourse in our country—aggrieves me because it lacks not only empathy, but imagination.

We need to move toward policies, dialogue, and shared values that, yes, restore the strength and validity of facts, but that also embrace truths (plural)—the messy, complicated, nuanced realities that every American, each community, and our entire nation live out every day. And here's the key that not all of us has grasped yet: It's not really up to our elected officials. It's up to us as citizens and fellow humans to share our truths and seek to understand those of others.

Important note: I am not speaking of 'unity.' This buzzword is teetering on the threshold of dog whistle for those in our country who wish to maintain the systems of white supremacy and thus their power. As poet Amanda Gorman put it, "We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be." So what shall be? And how shall we discover the answer if we are putting first only our own interests?

Catholic priest Fr. Leo J. O'Donovan said in his invocation prayer, "There is a power in each and every one of us that lives by turning to every other one of us, a thrust of the spirit to cherish and care and stand by others, and above all those most in need. It is called love, and its path is to give ever more of itself."

Love. Love! A word I have not heard or seen exhibited from our nation's highest office in four years. What might a nation re-grounded in love achieve? Not perfection; that's unattainable. But in striving for perfection? We just might stumble upon what shall be, and we just might find it soul-opening.

...The new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it. 
—Gorman, The Hill We Climb

Prayer #364: "A Thrust of the Spirit"

No peaceful dove here, no cool tongue of fire. Tired of being ignored, the Holy Spirit is jostling through the faceless, aimless crowds that surround me, using her elbows as weapons, until all at once she is pressed against my side.

She seems out of breath after her exertions. I expect her to yell, maybe shake my shoulders, but instead she rests her hands on her knees and inhales, exhales, until her breath is even. Only then does she rise to look me dead in the eye. Only then does she place her hand over my heart, now quickening under her light touch.

"Love," she sighs. "It's always and only ever been Love."

Suddenly my chest sears. I yelp in pain and jump backwards beyond her reach. She doesn't even flinch. Just points to my smoldering shirt and says, "There's more where that came from, if you do it right. Get creative. I'll tell you this, though: The wound is Love; its cure, the same."

I peek at my skin for burns, but see only a slight indent in the shape of her fingertips. When I look up, she has gone. Now it is my turn to leave the crowd—my turn to set my heart aflame.