Sunday, September 07, 2014

10 books

They say that everything goes around in cycles. Who can say, "Behold, something new!" It was here long ago, it the time of your ancestors it was here.

And so we find that once again the trendy thing on the Internet is talk about the books we have read. Five years ago, it was 15 books we had read that will stick with us forever. Now it's down to just 10 books. I could reprint the list from the last time around, but I figure, let's try to have a different take on it. After all, every book I've ever read will stick with me in some way, even if it's just to make me shudder every time the author is mentioned.

So, without further ado, here are 10 books that I have read that have fueled my understanding of race relations in modern America:
1. The Bible. This might not seem like a particularly obvious one, all things considered, but the Christian Scriptures have an amazingly progressive view of race growing from a thread that had emerged in Judaism during the time of the Babylonian captivity. Jesus confronted the racial discord of his day head-on, by healing Gentiles; by deliberately entering pagan territory to free people from unclean spirits; and in one famous example, by rejecting the racial superiority of his day to heal the daughter of a Canaanite woman. For his part, the Apostle Paul on a regular basis had to deal with the interracial conflict in the new Christian communities he was seeding throughout the ancient world. Like Jesus, he was progressive, telling people to respect their cultural and ethnic differences, and reminding them that love means welcoming one another. And ultimately, in the book of Revelation, John of Patmos describes a setting where people of every tribe, nation and language are united in worship.

2. "Black Like Me." "Black Like Me" is the true account of journalist John Howard Griffin and his journey through the South as a black man during the days of jim crow justice and segregation. Through a combination of melatonin pills, ultraviolet light treatments and a dye, Griffin made himself appear to be black, in order to better understand racism and how it affected society. The idea alone is incredible. That someone actually did this and then wrote about it, is nothing short of mind-boggling.

3. "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years." Taylor Branch's Pulitzer-winning work, first of three, chronicling the growth of the Civil Rights movement. The cast of characters is considerable, the detail mind-boggling, and the story timeless. I gained a much better understanding of what happened during the Freedom Rides, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The book shines remarkable light on a dark period a lot of us would rather not talk about, because we want to believe we've moved on.

4. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." When I read this book, it made me angry. Not at what happened to Douglass, but at what had happened to me. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was given no real sense in public school of what slavery entailed, or about the tremendous people, like Douglass, who rose much higher than society wanted them to. This was a man who taught himself how to read and write, who broke a slave-breaker, and whose story should be required reading for middle-schoolers throughout the nation.

5. "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano." Equiano's autobiography was an important contribution to the abolitionist movement in Britain in the late 18th century, because it it conveys not only the humanity of Africans but the essential barbarity of the English slave owners, who prided themselves on their culture and their piety. The book's got tremendous value historically, and also includes a first-person account of the Middle Passage. Unlike other slave biographies, Equiano's book in many ways reads the adventures of Sinbad, with its fatalistic declarations about the hand and will of God. Still, despite its perceived deficiencies, it's worth reading, particularly for people who have never read a slave narrative, or who think African Americans somehow benefit from the enslavement and debasement of their ancestors.

6. "Go Tell It on the Mountain," by James Baldwin. Told through a series of interconnected flashbacks at an overnight prayer service in post-WWI Harlem, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” peels back the veneer of righteousness of a deacon in a black holiness church, and reveals instead of a life of godliness a life of anger, hatred, adultery, and sin that has poisoned the lives of everyone around him. It's an angry book, and it deals with race in a despairing voice, as black characters revile one another – the character John admires his mother, but considers her powerless against his father’s brutality, and that appears to be the warmest he feels toward anyone – and hope for the future is cut off by these destructive dynamics, curtailed by white society, or severely limited by a God whose love is talked about but never seen.

7. "Letters from Birmingham Jail." I read this book for a religion course back in college, and wish I still had a copy. It's a collection of letters by Dr. King while he was in prison in Alabama, during the early days of the Civil Rights movement.

8. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." I read Maya Angelou's autobiography in college, and again last year when Oldest Daughter had to read it for high school.

9. "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Zora Neale Hurston was an amazing writer, and there is a lot to say about this book, but what lingers with me is one image she returns to again and again: the image of the black woman as the mule of the world. The white man doesn't want to carry a load, so he gives it to the black man; and he doesn't want to bear it, so he makes the black woman carry it instead.

10. "Invisible Man." I think of this book constantly these days, with Ellison's imagery of black invisibility.

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