A closer look at anti-racism reading lists

Feels like the world is hopefully changing. Protests around globe calling for an end to police brutality (and the police themselves), along with sweeping reforms to government, law enforcement, social work, etc, right down to our own industry: publishing. The #publishingpaidme viral hashtag has exposed some pretty stark disparity in white vs. black book advances, major book orgs like the NBCC and Poetry Foundation are waking up to calls for change at the leadership level, and in the UK, a newly formed Black Writers Guild is challenging the industry evolve.

And through it all, the news and bestseller lists are full of anti-racism lists and books, from more academic sources to the more popular. But what is the value of these lists? Who are they for? Do they represent real change?

(I sometimes wish someone would just tell me what’s the right thing to do. But that makes the problem someone else’s and someone else is doing the work. In many ways, the real work in all this is in listening, sorting the information, figuring out what’s the best way to change yourself and the culture around you, and then acting on those changes as efficiently as possible while amplifying important voices around you. There are no easy answers as to what’s right. It’s not enough to post or read or follow a list. Every critical thinking brain cell we have is required to exist as a good ally right now. Our job is curate and direct our learning and changes, which are really the placec were our pasts and our futures most often collide.)

I have this pet theory about book recommendations. They feel good to solicit, good to mete out, but someone at some point has to get down to the business of reading. And there, between giving and receiving, lies a great gulf. No one can quite account for what happens. Reading, hopefully, but you never can be sure.

An anti-racist reading list means well. How could it not with some of the finest authors, scholars, poets, and critics of the twentieth century among its bullet points? Still, I am left to wonder: Who is this for? The syllabus, as these lists are sometimes called, seldom instructs or guides. It is no pedagogue. It is unclear whether each book supplies a portion of the holistic racial puzzle or are intended as revelatory islands in and of themselves. Aside from the contemporary teaching texts, genre appears indiscriminately: essays slide against memoir and folklore, poetry squeezed on either side by sociological tomes. This, maybe ironically but maybe not, reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities are for educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff, wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene. Perhaps better to say that in the world of the anti-racist reading list genre disappears, replaced by the vacuity of self-reference, the anti-racist book, a gooey mass.

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