Just a few months ago, Black Lives Matter content was everywhere. Educational materials, book recommendations, donations, media attention, commitments to anti-racism. That energy sadly seems to have dissipated, even though systemic racism is still very much prevalent in our society. To commemorate Black History Month, to draw attention to it and make sure I keep learning, I set myself a challenge.
For a week, I read a book by a black author, relating to black history, every day. Mixing fiction and non-fiction, authors and topics. It was difficult. And frustrating. And inspiring. Now I’m feeling more motivated to keep educating myself than ever before. Here’s everything I read and learnt this week.
Monday – Every Day Is for the Thief // Teju Cole
Teju Cole tells the story of a Nigerian who has returned to Lagos after 15 years in New York, who immediately realises that growing older and adopting Western ways of thinking have altered his perception of Lagos. As he encounters bribes, casual violence, poverty and government oppression, he questions the lack of ethics and critical thinking, as well as society’s attitude towards their country and culture. At times he also finds serenity, but ultimately Lagos is a place of comforting memories rather than a reflection of his current life. Cole artfully highlights the disparity between the narrator’s life phases in the context of cultural differences and questions of belonging – a new take on homecoming
Tuesday – The Color Purple // Alice Walker
The Color Purple tells the dynamically evolving story of African-American Celie in the Southern US during the 1930s. It reflects on her position in society as a young, poor, African-American woman, leaving no controversial topic unturned. Domestic violence, sexual assault, queerness, religion, colonialism, women’s rights, society’s expectations and family dynamics all play a role. A raw, emotional read that doesn’t shy away from brutal honesty and explicit content, but also reflects the strength and growth of its characters, which is overwhelmingly inspiring. I was left feeling angry about the little regard society had -and has- for Black women and infuriated with the devastating difficulties Celie had to overcome. The last page made me shiver.
Wednesday – When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir // Patrisse Khan-Cullors, asha bandele
Not only is this book about founding Black Lives Matter and the challenges of activism, it is about everything that led to it. Constant police presence and brutality during childhood, criminalisation, overt racism in school. The repeated and extreme mistreatment of Khan-Cullors’ disabled brother during his time in prison, explorations of queerness and religion. Her life story is effectively and emotionally blended with broader social critique. It becomes painstakingly obvious how deep racism runs in society, how it is embedded in institutions and how it is passed on to new generations. At times, it was hard to believe what I was reading as it seemed so absurd, yet at the same time I could picture it perfectly. It was infuriating.
Thursday – Sag Harbor // Colson Whitehead
Sag Harbor is about that transformative summer, the one we grow up in. Protagonist Benji, who is one of the only black kids in his New York private school, wants nothing more than to become his independent self. Sag Harbor is also about the constant, normalised, subtle presence of racism in Benji’s life. From the existence of Sag Harbor as a place for black families to vacation in the Hamptons, whereas white families reside elsewhere, to the normality of black people being shot. Whitehead’s extensive visual descriptions make Sag Harbor feel mystical and slow and make it difficult for the reader to notice the underlying themes and the background in front of which Benji tries to find himself.
Friday – Afropean // Johnny Pitts
From Sheffield across Europe, Pitts explores the continents past and present relationship with race, contrasting modern day Europe with historical attitudes – from colonialism to safe havens. He explores being Afropean and how this translates itself into people’s lives. All the places Pitts visits have one thing in common: no matter how much they try to hide it, racism is thriving and impacting the lives of Black people. This is a hard truth to come to terms with, especially as many European countries claim acceptance and inclusion, but it shows the enormous extent of systemic racism. The book is incredibly powerful and insightful, a wake up call for readers, filled with stories, perspectives and backgrounds of Black communities around Europe.
Saturday – Between the World and Me // Ta-Nehisi Coates
In the letter to his son, Coates paints a bleak picture of being black in America: feeling as though White people own his body due to power relations, White people being a constant threat, their historical and ongoing abuse of Black Americans. Police brutality and systemic racism in the force are key themes, as well as the desire to escape to a better place – Paris, which is in fact considered highly racist in Europe. It is a sad and difficult read, the resignation, frustration and fear Coates has experienced can be felt on every page. It brings the issues with systemic racism we hear about in the media to life, making them feel real and inciting anger and sympathy.
Sunday – Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire // Akala
Blending own experiences with historical facts and analysis, Akala discusses racism in the UK in an almost polemic way. The use of irony makes his reports seem absurd and inhumane. The education system, sports, the continuation of empirical spirit until today, open racism in politics, in the police. It doesn’t seem like this is the UK he is talking about, it seems like it is a land descended into chaos and without any form of equality or inclusion. Natives is powerful and thought-provoking, tearing down the images constructed about race and racism in the UK. A problem often considered foreign suddenly becomes very real and hits close to home.
Reading the books and learning about Black experiences made me realise a lot of things. Firstly, just how big the issue of systemic racism is and that nowhere near enough is being done by institutions and governments to combat it. Secondly, that the work done by Black activists is incredible – and sadly undervalued and underreported. Thirdly, how interconnected everything is. Many books talk about the same incidents like police brutality, specific murders and experiences, regardless of where they are set or who has written them. Recognising the connectivity and understanding different perspectives is fascinating.
And finally, it reiterated that we need to continue educating ourselves and keep learning, otherwise nothing will change. We can’t afford to just forget to be allies because our day to day life has taken over again and the media is reporting less about racism. We need to keep challenging the current status quo, we need to keep listening and we need to keep fighting. We need to be actively anti-racist. Books are a powerful tool in achieving this.
Words by Sophie Kiderlin
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