Traci Thomas is the host of "The Stacks" podcast, a show about all things books and the people who love them.
Since 2018, Thomas has connected with authors, actors, screenwriters, and politicians on her podcast to use books as a catalyst for larger conversations on race, privilege, and culture.
For people looking to read more books by Black authors, Thomas recommends a mix of fiction and nonfiction reads, such as "How We Fight for Our Lives" by Saeed Jones and "Heads of the Colored People" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
In May, America watched in horror as George Floyd begged, in vain, for his life. The lynching of Floyd caught on film shocked many white Americans into questioning their own role in white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
So what did many well meaning white people do? They turned to books to help teach them about the ways racism functions in American society (well, first they asked their one Black friend, who told them to read a book or Google it).
That's where I came into the conversation, as a Black woman, avid reader, and host of "The Stacks" podcast, a show all about books and the people who love them.
Since 2018, I've spoken with some of America's most exciting authors, actors, screenwriters, and politicians, using books as a catalyst for bigger conversations on race, gender, privilege, culture, and more.
So, when many Americans turned toward books for help, I found myself at the intersection of "person who knows something about great books" and "person who has experienced the many cuts and blows of racism." I put together a nonfiction anti-racist reading list and a fiction list of Black stories.
I wasn't alone in creating these lists, and now many of the books on my lists are nearly impossible to get a copy of. Books like "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi and "Me and White Supremacy" by Layla F. Saad are nowhere to be found.
So I'm here now to offer 10 powerful books by Black authors that deal with race in America that you can actually get your hands on.
This list barely scrapes the surface of incredible works of art and information written by Black people about what it means to be Black in America. The list is a combination of fiction and nonfiction and features some of my personal favorite writers, like Kiese Laymon and Jason Renyolds(both of whom, along with Dr. Kendi, have been guests on "The Stacks"). It should also be said that the writing of Black authors isn't merely instructive — it's also artistry. Like many of us were forced to read the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Harper Lee to understand both craft and experience, the works of these Black authors contain multitudes and should be read with the depth of their skills in mind, not just for what they can "teach" white Americans.
It should be said that people much smarter than I have written about the questionable value of these reading lists. I believe in the transformative power of books. I believe if you do the reading and use it as a catalyst for antiracist action there is much power in the pages of these books. If you read a book and then call officials in Kentucky to demand the arrest of the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor, America has a fighting chance to make lasting change. If you pick up a copy of "White Fragility" (another book we've covered on the show) and think you've done what was asked of you, then no, these books will not help you. Reading alone will not save America.
Here are 10 books by Black authors that you should read.
1. "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" by Kiese Laymon
This is an essay collection from Kiese Laymon, who is most well known for his memoir "Heavy." This collection is biting and emotional, and carries the voice that Laymon is known for. His own self-doubt and love of Black people can be felt throughout each essay, no matter the subject.
Laymon never settles for less than incredible in his writing — there's a driving rhythm behind the words and that propels the reader deeper into the narratives.
2. "Breathe: A Letter to My Sons" by Imani Perry
This book is a mother's letter to her young sons about what it means to be alive and Black in America. It's deeply personal and still touches on grander ideas of race and humanity. Perry seamlessly weaves personal stories and American history together in this epistolary work.
It should be noted that Perry's writing is out of this world, both poetic and no nonsense. Her skills as a writer are in and of themselves something to behold, which is only compounded by the content of this letter.
3."The Mothers" by Brit Bennett
This is a coming of age story about grief and love and life and family. This book looks at the choices and relationships young women face and the ways in which the bonds we create are at once destructive and fortifying. Bennett crafts characters that are rich and complex and so precisely human that it's hard to know if you even like them or not.
4. "One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy" by Carol Anderson
This book takes a look at the laws and procedures that have been put in place to disenfranchise millions of Black voters since the 2013 ruling on Shelby vs. Holder, which chipped away at the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Anderson, who also wrote "White Rage," explains how governments and elected officials have used their power to strip voting rights from millions of Americas. This book helps to make sense of one part of systematic racism and the deliberate nature of white supremacy. She deftly calls out and outlines the tactics and repercussions of these types of practices, like voter ID and the closing of polling locations. This is a must read as we prepare for the 2020 election.
5. "How We Fight for Our Lives" by Saeed Jones
Saeed Jones' memoir is stunning. He seamlessly writes about his existence and vulnerability as a queer Black man. It's a coming of age story, a mother and son story, a story of finding one's true self at the intersection of sexuality and race.
What Jones is able to do in this book is beyond compare. He explores his own life with a compassionate and critical eye. It's almost a fever dream — the book moves and breathes through violence and tenderness.
6. "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention"by Manning Marable
Manning Marable is able to take the story of a man we think we know and create an entirely new perspective and interpretation of his story.
Well researched and compulsively readable, this book honors the man in a way few have ever tried. His humanity is on full display in the pages of this book. We see Malcolm X for who he was, a passionate advocate for Black lives that was always learning and growing and challenging his own thoughts and actions.
7. "New People" by Danzy Senna
An almost thriller of sorts, this book is vibrant and bizarre and unlike anything I've ever read. Senna zeroes in on the identity of mixed people and the weight of being both Black and white in new and unusual ways, paired with the history of the Peoples' Temple in Jonestown.
This book is wildly complex and boasts of an unlikable protagonist that leaves you breathless until the very end.
8. "Heads of the Colored People: Stories" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
This book is a collection of short stories that prove that Blackness is not a monolith. Thompson-Spires uses her stories to introduce us to a cast of characters that could be called, among other things, creative, wacky, obsessive, paranoid, perky, obtuse, particular, and on and on.
More than anything, we see that Black people can and are anything and everything. We do in fact contain multitudes. Another book with incredible story telling and a real sense of humor.
9. "Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks" by Jason Reynolds
Jason Reynolds writes to young people, but he writes for allof us.
Reynolds is the consummate observer. He sees us and feels us and then he interprets us. He gives his stories so much audacity and fullness.
I only wish I was able to read his words as a young person so that I could understand the depth of suffering and joy that the other kids around me were experiencing. I am glad to read his words now as an adult. To appreciate what empathy really is is to read a book by Jason Reynolds. This interconnected short story collection is as hilarious as it is tear inducing.
10. "White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue ... and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation" by Lauren Michele Jackson
Lauren Michele Jackson is razor sharp in this analysis of cultural appropriation. She examines the many facets of white culture that are obsessed with the creations of Black people — things like food, memes, beauty standards, and so much more.
"White Negroes" exposes the many ways in which Blackness is stripped from Black people and repurposed into something palatable and profitable for white people. This book is searing and thought provoking in the ways only the best nonfiction can (and should) be.
[Originally published on July 18, 2020 via Business Insider]