Books for Understanding, Books for Change
"What I ask of you, is to try the best you can, to surrender your innocence, to reject the willful denial of history and to live fully in the complicated present with all of the discomfort it brings." —Michael Eric Dyson
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” —Nelson Mandela
Libraries are essential in the process of providing access to knowledge, and to that end, we present the following reading list as a starting point for education that can lead to meaningful and much-needed change in race relations in the United States.
The books here chronicle recent activism efforts, anti-racism, and the policing of minority communities, including the killings of Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and the untold numbers of anonymous victims of systemic racism whose names did not appear in our newspapers. Although the writers featured here are often young and the books are generally quite recent, this is not to diminish the importance of writers like James Baldwin, W.E.B. Dubois, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Audre Lorde, and so many others whose works are as essential today as they were when they were published.
Books for Children and Young Adults are listed below. (Click here.)
The events that have precipitated the protests going on in the streets are only recent manifestations of a problem that has plagued our country for centuries. To read more about the troubled history of race relations in the United States, civil rights, the heroic struggle for change, and many other relevant subjects, there are hundreds of recent acquisitions listed here and here to provide crucial historical context. And be sure to click on the linked subject headings in bibliographic records—they will lead you into the riches of our collection and to books you didn't know you were looking for.
All books below are in our collection, or on order. Click the titles to view them in our online catalog. You may place a hold by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read the Library's Commitment to the Black Community here.
Afropessimism | Frank Wilderson III
NEA Literature Fellow and Hurston/Wright Legacy Award winner Frank B. Wilderson III combines trenchant philosophy with lyrical memoir in an exploration of Blackness and the perpetual cycle of slavery that continues to define it. Drawing on works of philosophy, literature, film, and critical theory, he shows that the social construct of slavery is hardly a relic of the past, but the very engine that powers our civilization. Wilderson deliberately provides no solution, and instead suggests that acknowledgement of these conditions can lead to enlightenment about our inherently racialized existence. Kirkus: “An essential contribution to any discussion of race and likely to be a standard text in cultural studies for years to come.”
After reading his book, Toni Morrison wrote, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Heaped with praise and prizes, including the National Book Award, Between the World and Me became a sensation. Written as a letter to his 15 year old son, Coates wrestles with the hazards of being a black man in America today. Among the most moving stories he recounts is the killing of his college friend Prince Jones, senselessly murdered by a police officer. It is a story whose details mirror those of so many others, though in Coates’s hands, still manages to shock. For the power of this story and the remainder of the book, Morrison concluded simply, “This is required reading.” See also Coates's We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of journalism (ebook also available).
Busted in New York and Other Essays | Darryl Pinckney; foreword by Zadie Smith
In these twenty-five essays, Darryl Pinckney provides a view of our recent racial history that blends the social and the personal. Reminding us that "white supremacy isn't back; it never went away," he traces the lineage of black intellectual history from Booker T. Washington through the Harlem Renaissance, to the Black Panther Party, to today's Afro-pessimists, and celebrated and neglected thinkers in between. Among the essays are “In Ferguson,” an account of his experience reporting on the shooting of Michael Brown; “Black Lives and the Police,” which discusses how the camera has exposed and changed the dynamic between the two groups; and the titular “Busted in New York,” a description of a broken criminal justice system as seen from Pinckney’s seat in the Tombs.
A Colony in a Nation | Chris Hayes
Nearly every empirical measure—wealth, unemployment, incarceration, school segregation—reveals that racial inequality has barely improved since 1968, when Richard Nixon became our first “law and order” president. Emmy Award-winning news anchor Chris Hayes contends that our country has fractured in two: the Colony and the Nation. In the Nation, the law is venerated. In the Colony, we obsess over order, fear trumps civil rights, and aggressive policing resembles occupation. Hayes explores how a country founded on justice now looks like something uncomfortably close to a police state in a book that Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “an essential and groundbreaking text in the effort to understand how American criminal justice went so badly awry."
In this story of New York City's complex history of police brutality against the black community, Clarence Taylor outlines efforts to curb police power ranging from the 1940s to the mayoralty of Bill de Blasio. Taylor challenges the belief that reform is born out of improved relations between communities and the authorities, arguing that the only real solution is to radically reduce the police domination of New York's black citizens. Kirkus: “[Taylor’s] authoritative knowledge of his urban narrative and controlled prose doesn't mask anguished urgency about the disturbing topic. … An important social history.”
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race | Jesmyn Ward, ed.
Ward is the National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones. In The Fire This Time, she uses James Baldwin's 1963 examination of race in America," The Fire Next Time” (ebook), as a jumping off point for a collection of essays and poems about racial tensions in twenty-first century America. The collection features some of the most important writers working today: Carol Anderson, Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, Natasha Trethewey, Isabel Wilkerson, Kevin Young, and more. “An absolutely indispensable anthology” (Booklist). Note that in addition to The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin's collected essays are not to be missed.
Activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s historically informed account of how the Black Lives Matter movement punctures the illusion of a postracial America, arguing that the image of a “colorblind” society undermines the state's capacity to challenge discrimination. Connecting structural racism and class oppression, she calls for an end to capitalism as a necessary condition for abolishing racialized state violence. Her holistic approach to the social, political and economic dimensions of the prevailing racial order concludes that new solidarities must be forged to shape a radical new world. The Guardian: “A penetrating, vital analysis of race and class at this critical moment in America's racial history.”
Founder of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, Ibram X. Kendi reorients the conversation about racial inequality from the goal of passively refraining from racism to the concept of active antiracism. Weaving critical theory together with his own personal story of awakening, Kendi maps the path of understanding false hierarchies of human value, to changing the daily perception of them and their intersectional consequences. His approach to uprooting racism and inequality on both a social and personal level is an instruction manual on how to effectively contribute to the formation of a just and equitable society. The New York Times: “A confessional of self-examination that may, in fact, be our best chance to free ourselves from our national nightmare.” Also check out Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Kendi’s previous book and winner of the National Book Award. (An edition of Stamped for younger readers is also featured below in the YA/Children's section.)
I Can't Breathe: A Killing On Bay Street | Matt Taibbi
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner died on a Staten Island sidewalk in NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s illegal chokehold. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry in the Black Lives Matter movement, but a grand jury ultimately declined to indict Pantaleo. Matt Taibbi’s report on Eric Garner’s life depict the man in full, flaws and contradictions intact, while examining the conditions that made his death possible. Discussing issues of policing, mass incarceration, the underground economy, and racial disparity in law enforcement, Taibbi creates a case study that reflects our society’s broken approach to dispensing criminal justice. Boston Globe: “A complex and textured examination of the complicated personalities, flawed legal system, and politics revolving around the police killing of forty-three-year-old Eric Garner.”
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness | Austin Channing Brown
Brown's memoir chronicles her journey to becoming an activist. Her experiences force her to ponder exactly who is helped by ideas of "racial reconciliation," which in her estimation too often allows white people to seek credit for recognizing crimes of the past and do nothing to fix things today, while asking African Americans to provide absolution as to continue to endure injustices. The focus of her narrative is on the author's recognition of, and fight against, "America's commitment to violent, abusive, exploitative, immoral white supremacy, which seeks the absolute control of Black bodies." Kirkus praises Brown for "candid self-reflection...and pulling no punches as she lambasts white culture for being, even at its most liberal, myopic and self-serving."
The Making Of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea | Christopher J. Lebron
Published in 2018, this book traces the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement in a condensed and accessible intellectual history. Drawing on the work of revolutionary black public intellectuals, including Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Anna Julia Cooper, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr., Lebron places this relatively young movement in the context of a long history of African American philosophy and protest. For a first-hand look at the founding of Black Lives Matter, see When They Call You a Terrorist: a Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, below.
Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism | Allissa V. Richardson
Richardson is an activist and professor, and her exciting new book examines how, at the height of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, African Americans filmed and shared evidence of fatal police encounters in US cities—using little more than the device in their pockets. These dispatches from the street inspired a global debate on excessive police force which claimed the lives of African Americans at disproportionate rates. Richardson places current activists using smartphones and social media in the context of a centuries-long lineage of black witnessing, going back to the slave narratives of the 1700s that inspired the Abolitionist movement.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness | Michelle Alexander (ebook available)
Jim Crow laws were used to control African Americans following the abolition of slavery and created a caste system that maintained the status of black citizens distinctly below whites. Michelle Alexander argues that, alhough finally eliminated by the courts, The1964 Civil Rights Act, and 1965 Voting Rights Act, the caste system has been perpetuated by mass incarceration as a system of social control. Not only does it keep an outsized percentage of black men in prisons, but once released, they are without basic rights like voting or serving on juries. Further, once someone has been labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly available to use against them again, as it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in housing and employment. In The New York Times, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “Two years after Obama’s election, Alexander put the entire criminal justice system on trial, exposing racial discrimination from lawmaking to policing to the denial of voting rights to ex-prisoners. This bestseller struck the spark that would eventually light the fire of Black Lives Matter.”
Marc Lamont Hill connects recent tragedies, like the murders of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and the poisoning of the residents of Flint, MIchigan, to the civic histories which lead to these outcomes. By connecting policies related to policing, housing and welfare to these horrors, he exposes the systemic mechanisms that disadvantage people who are poor, black, brown, immigrant, queer, or trans —the "Nobodies" of his title. The New York Times: “Hill’s book is a worthy and necessary addition to the contemporary canon of civil rights literature. He delivers what feels like a dispatch from a war. Nobody is a clear-eyed look at the actors on both sides of the battlefield, and explains how we came to this.”
This was brought to our attention as a request from a Library member last month. Benjamin Crump is a noted attorney who has been involved in several high-profile civil rights trials. In his 2019 book, he draws on this career to “reveal the systematic legalization of discrimination in the United States, and particularly how it can lead to genocide—the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a people.” (He defines “colored people" as “Black and brown people, and people who are colored by their sexual preference, religious beliefs, or gender.”) The book also includes his twelve "personal action steps" to combat systemic racism.
Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment | edited and with an introduction by Angela J. Davis
This 2017 volume features contributions from “the nation's foremost scholars of policing, race, and the US criminal justice system” (Choice) examining the experiences of black men at every stage of the criminal justice system. Topics like racial profiling, implicit bias, police accountability, prosecutorial discretion, and poverty are explored in depth and are viewed as a perpetuation of slavery’s legacy. Library Journal notes that “almost all [of the essays] move beyond calls for reform to respond with practical suggestions for change to make black lives truly matter….For general readers, students, and experts alike, these essays provide much-needed data, analysis, and insights into the disparities throughout U.S. society and its criminal justice system.”
Suddler takes a historical look at stories familiar from recent headlines, examining the aggressive criminalization of New York’s black male youth going back to the 1930s. Choice recommends this book for those “interested in law enforcement, New York City, African American studies, masculinity studies, late-20th-century US history, and, sadly, current events.” The book is scholarly (NYU Press), but reviews note that it is accessible for general readers.
The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge | T.J. English
Charting a historic but all too familiar era of violence and urban chaos throughout New York City’s 1960s and '70s, journalist T.J. English follows the lives of a corrupt cop, a militant Black Panther, and an innocent young African American man framed by the NYPD for a series of crimes, including the brutal and sensational murder of two white women. Detailed interviews with officers, prosecutors, activists, and journalists dive into the pattern of hostility between a corrupt police department and a besieged black community—one that refuses to stay in the past. The New York Times: “A swashbuckling, racially charged nightmare [that’s] worth reliving.”
So You Want to Talk About Race | Ijeoma Oluo
Oluo guides readers through subjects ranging from intersectionality and affirmative action to white privilege and "model minorities" in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life. She closes the book with a chapter on action like pressing for reform in schools, unions, and local governments, boycotting businesses that exploit people of color, and voting for candidates who make diversity, inclusion, and racial justice a priority.
Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter | Tehama Lopez Bunyasi & Candis Watts Smith
This 2019 book is described by the publisher as a “primer” and a “guide.” The authors seek to inspire readers to address issues of racial inequality and to provide them with a basic toolkit for becoming knowledgeable participants in public debate, as well as racial justice and antiracism activists. Library Journal: “Designed for readers invested in antiracist work explored from an academic standpoint, the book contains peer-reviewed articles and well-researched studies, and nicely balances statistics, research, and academic theory with more vernacular concepts...[and] provides actionable steps people can take to avoid complacency and complicity; essential reading on social justice.”
Stop and Frisk: The Use and Abuse of a Controversial Policing Tactic | Michael D. White and Henry F. Fradella
In “stop and frisk” policing, officers stop, question and frisk citizens who they view as potential suspects on the streets. First ruled as constitutional in 1968, it has gone to become a foundation of many cities’ policing operations, including New York’s. By 2011, the NYPD recorded 685,000 "stop-question-and-frisk" interactions with citizens; in 2013, a landmark decision ruled that the police had over- and misused this tactic. The authors here offer insight into the history of racial injustice that has all too often been a feature of American policing, and how officer discretion while employing stop and frisk can easily lapse into illegal racial profiling. They propose concrete strategies for improvement. They also argue that stop and frisk did not contribute as greatly to the drop in New York's crime rates as many proponents (including Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg) have claimed. “A fascinating book about stop-and-frisk jurisprudence and practice, with a primary focus on its use over the past several decades by the New York City Police Department...Accessible [and will appeal] to a variety of different audiences” (Journal of Criminal Justice and Law).
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America | Michael Eric Dyson
Dyson is University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, the author of acclaimed books on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and also an ordained Baptist minister. This book is constructed as a sermon examining racism, police brutality, economic injustice against black Americans, societal indifference, and most closely, the social construct of “whiteness” in the United States. Writing in The New York Times, Patrick Phillips describes Tears We Cannot Stop as a “fiery sermon, and an unabashedly emotional, personal appeal... and one of the most frank and searing discussions of race I have ever read.” Dyson also includes an extensive reading list.
Wesley Lowery is a national reporter for the Washington Post who covers law enforcement and justice; was the paper's lead reporter in Ferguson, Missouri, covered the Black Lives Matter protest movement; and was part of a team of journalists awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for coverage of police shootings. For this book, he conducted hundreds of interviews, critically examining the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs from the perspective of the following crucial question: "What does the loss of any one life mean to the rest of the nation?"
Laurence Ralph, an anthropology professor at Princeton, details and illuminates the root causes and severe consequences of police violence against people of color in America. Using an epistolary form, Ralph writes personal letters that turn his academic studies of police violence in Chicago into an indictment of the senseless and seemingly unceasing violence committed by those charged with serving the public. The Nation: “It is impossible to read The Torture Letters without the nagging realization that right now, somewhere in the United States, a similar story is playing out in real time. This book matters."
The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago | Flint Taylor
Flint Taylor is one of the founding members of the People’s Law Office, a civil rights firm that specializes in wrongful conviction cases. The Torture Machine of the title has two meanings. One refers to the black box used by Chicago police to deliver electric shocks to suspects in an effort to elicit confessions. The other refers to Chicago’s bureaucratic machinery that has allowed this and other police torture to go unpunished for decades, undermining justice and sending innocent men to prison. Taylor leads the charge to uncover the torture and corruption, eventually winning numerous exonerations. Chicago Tribune: “The story of state-sponsored crimes in Chicago is powerful enough without embellishment, and Taylor lets it speak for itself. It’s a terrifying tale of justice lost, and eventually found.”
When They Call You a Terrorist: a Black Lives Matter Memoir | Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele; foreword by Angela Davis
In 2013, in the wake of the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the acquittal of Martin’s killer, Patrisse Khan-Cullors co-founded Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. Khan-Cullors delineates the harsh realities of her childhood, growing up black and poor in Los Angeles watching her brothers become victims of the war on drugs. Her activist education begins in her childhood in community organizing groups and leads to the successes of the Black Lives Matter movement. Library Journal hails the memoir as a “searing, timely look into a contemporary movement from one of its crucial leading voices."
In 2011, antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe the counterproductive reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged and the emotional defensiveness that helps to maintain the racial status quo. Here she examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what can be done to promote more constructive engagement. Offering a framework for developing white racial stamina, DiAngelo invites white progressives into a conversation about their culture of complicity. The New Yorker: “The value in White Fragility lies in its methodical, irrefutable exposure of racism in thought and action, and its call for humility and vigilance.”
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide | Carol Anderson
Anderson Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University, and the author of the acclaimed 2018 book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy. White Rage began as a widely-read op-ed in the Washington Post, a response to use of the term "black rage" used by the media to the describe the protests of African Americans in the wake of Ferguson in 2014. In the op-ed, Anderson wrote this was actually "white rage" at work: "With so much attention on the flames," she argued, "everyone had ignored the kindling." In this book, Anderson carefully shows how, since the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains, regularly employing state power to do so. Familiar points of history are examined in this light, and she ends by bringing the story up to Charleson, SC, and the rise of Trump politics.
Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America | edited by Ibi Zoboi
A collection of short stories centering on the experiences of black teenagers and emphasizing that one person's experiences, reality, and personal identity are different than someone else's.
A graphic novel about starting over at a new school where diversity is low and the struggle to fit in is real.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You | Jason Reynolds
This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi's National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America, and inspires hope for an antiracist future.
All American Boys | Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
In an unforgettable novel, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and the country bitterly divided by racial tension.
Writing letters to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., seventeen-year-old college-bound Justyce McAllister struggles to face the reality of race relations today and how they are shaping him.
Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil, who was unarmed, at the hands of a police officer. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl's struggle for justice.
Two dynamic, creative young women stand up and speak out in a novel that features their compelling art and poetry, along with powerful personal journeys that will inspire readers and budding poets, feminists, and activists.
Behind You | Jacqueline Woodson
After fifteen-year-old Jeremiah is shot by police, the people who love him struggle to cope with their loss as they recall his life and death, unaware that 'Miah is watching over them.
The Other Side | Jacqueline Woodson
In this picture book, two girls, one white and one black, gradually get to know each other as they sit on the fence that divides their town.
Pride | Ibi Zoboi
In a timely update of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Zoboi skillfully balances cultural identity, class, and gentrification against the heady magic of first love in her vibrant reimagining of this beloved classic.
Further Reading for Historical Context
Stella by Starlight | Sharon Draper
March | John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (a graphic novel trilogy)
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March | Lynda Blackmon Lowery; as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley; illustrated by PJ Loughran
The Rock and the River | Kekla Magoon