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.