James Jackson III was on vacation when Black Lives Matter protests began to sweep the nation last week. He was grateful that so many people reached out to him with uplifting messages and questions, but at the same time, he found it frustrating.
“It took riots in several states, and I don’t agree with rioting, but it woke up a lot of people,” said Jackson, founder of the Utah Black Chamber. “When people started reaching out, it was like, ‘Well, where have you guys been? This whole time we’ve been trying to tell you this.’”
The protests over the death of George Floyd, who repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck on Memorial Day, have spurred many white and nonblack Americans to want to learn more about racism in this country. Books old and new on race and criminal justice are on bestseller lists, The Associated Press noted, from James Baldwin’s classic “The Fire Next Time,” published more than 50 years ago, to a board book for children from National Book Award winner Ibram X. Kendi, “Antiracist Baby,” that comes out next week.
People’s thoughts and perspectives are influenced by “who they’re raised by and who they’ve been surrounded by,” Jackson said, and reading about others’ points of view can lead to change.
“If [people] just take a moment and dive into some books for themselves, do their own research from authors and speakers who have the facts, the data and their own experiences,” he said, “people can come back and have a civil dialogue, find some common ground, find ways where solutions can be made and both sides can come to agreement that change needs to happen.”
Here are books recommended by four black Utah leaders.
James Jackson III, founder and executive director of the Utah Black Chamber
Jackson has a target audience in mind for “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo, 2018.
“I really recommend this book particularly to white males,” Jackson said. “It might be a challenging read for them, but those who do read it can get perspective on things.”
He also suggests reading “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh, first published in 1989 in Peace and Freedom Magazine and easily found online.
“Be aware of privilege, you’re born with it,” Jackson said. “There’s nothing wrong about being born with it, but learn that you have it, understand it, and use that privilege to enact change.”
He also recommends “How To Be An Antiracist,” also by Ibram X. Kendi, 2019, and Kendi’s May essay in The Atlantic, “Who Gets to be Afraid in America.”
Charnell Peters, a facilitator with YWCA Utah’s Woke Words program for young women of color
For a good introductory book about Black Lives Matter and how it came to be, try “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, 2016, Peters said.
“I think a lot of people kind of missed out on Black Lives Matter the first time around ... or didn’t really know where it was coming from,” said Peters, who is a doctoral student at the University of Utah studying race and communication, and the author of “Unbecoming,” a poetry chapbook.
Peters also recommends “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, 2020. “This is kind of a remix, they’re calling it, of a book that came out earlier that was written for adults,” she said.
This new version of that previous book, titled “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” is directed toward teens and young adult readers who are wondering, “How do I engage in antiracism? What does it mean to be a part of this?” Peters said.
“I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” by Austin Channing Brown, 2018, is a memoir about a black woman in predominantly white spaces and what that means in her life, Peters said.
It’s particularly interesting for Utahns, she said, because Brown is a person of faith, and she challenges white Christianity, white nonprofit organizations and white liberalism.
“Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” by Safiya Noble, 2018. “It’s really about how algorithms and visual media play a role in racism as it is today,” Peters said.
Many people are interested in technology and social media, she said, and this book “connects everyday racism, structural racism with digital media in really accessible ways.”
Crystal Rudds, assistant professor of English at the University of Utah
Rudds highlights the importance of having uncomfortable conversations about race from a young age.
She suggests “A Kid’s Book about Racism,” by Jelani Memory, 2019 — adding she would “love to see more books like this on the shelves of day cares in Utah.”
The book gives a clear explanation of what racism is, in terms a child can understand, she said. It also gives tips for how to spot racism and what to do when you see it.
Rudds also recommends “How Racism Takes Place” by George Lispitz, 2011, and “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein, 2017.
Both books, Rudds said, “move us beyond our personal biases to thinking about the structure of systemic racism, particularly how it plays out in policies like housing.” Violence is not the only way racism is manifested; these books show how it’s perpetuated beyond police brutality, she said.
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison, 1987, is “an amazing historical perspective about slavery and its aftermath,” according to Rudds. The novel won Morrison the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and gives a brutal depiction of what life was like for slaves who were freed from plantations after the Civil War.
As for poetry, Rudds recommends “Citizen: An American Lyric,” by Claudia Rankine, 2014. “It gives really great insight into contemporary race relations, particularly among the middle class,” Rudds said.
Nkenna Onwuzuruoha, facilitator with YWCA Utah’s Woke Words program for young women of color
Onwuzuruoha, a doctoral student in writing and rhetoric studies at the University of Utah, has recommendations across genres. She has taught composition and social justice courses at the U., Salt Lake Community College and Westminster College.
Autobiographies: “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker, 1983, and “Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs,” Pearl Cleage, 2014.
These memoirs provide black women’s perspectives for readers who “want to know, ‘What does it feel like? What are the emotional, internal processes?’” Onwuzuruoha said. Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Color Purple.”
Poetry: “Black feeling, Black talk, Black judgement,” Nikki Giovanni, 1968, and “Olio,” Tyehimba Jess, 2016.
Jess won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry with “Olio.” In it, Jess “explores the lives of people outside of slavery, like a couple of years right after it,” asking, “What does it feel like? What are you going through? What is the emotional trauma?” Onwuzuruoha said.
History: “Black Power on Campus: The University of Illinois, 1965-75,” Joy Ann Williamson, 2003, and “Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York,” Carl Suddler, 2019.
“A lot of people want to know about past movements and past relations with law enforcement,” Onwuzuruoha said. Williamson’s book focuses on college students and young people trying to get access to higher education in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., while Suddler’s book outlines the post-war era with black youth and police, she said.
Novels: “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” James Baldwin, 1953, and “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Jesmyn Ward, 2017.
These novels are more “subtle” than other books on this list, but they capture how race integrates into everyday life, Onwuzuruoha said.
Social Justice 101: “Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought,” Beverly Guy-Sheftall, 1995, and “Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education,” Robin DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy, 2017, second edition.
“I know a lot of people are looking for basic information, 101” on justice and equality, Onwuzuruoha said, and these books provide that. DiAngelo’s name “comes up a lot” in this genre, she said. DiAngelo also wrote the bestseller “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
‘This is how change happens’
While genuine interest is appreciated, the recent onslaught of questions from those who now want to learn more about black Americans’ experiences can be overwhelming, Jackson said.
“We’re thankful that COVID keeps us working from home because we don’t want to go in the office, because we’re uncomfortable with the nation being so divided,” he said.
“All the conversations that are going to come up, the questions that people are going to ask us — some of us are ready for that, and some of us aren’t because it’s exhausting.”
Jackson, who grew up in Taylorsville, initially thought about how much has not been changed by decades of protests and riots. But when he saw a map showing protests now underway in all 50 states and several other countries, he said, he started to see the potential of this moment.
“Embrace [the peaceful protests] people are doing because this is how change happens,” Jackson said. “What people remember most about the Civil Rights Acts is that they went into place because of peaceful movements that Dr. Martin Luther King made. Now, here we are in 2020, still doing the same things. Walking across bridges and streets with our signs up.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.