What a year we’ve had. And what a time we have in front of us. Covid-19 is a seismic event that revealed cracks in the foundation of American society: from massive income and wealth gap, to the failings of a healthcare system that is tied to employment. Equally significant is the momentum of the social justice movement Black Lives Matter that sparked nationwide protests against hundreds of years of racial inequity, brutality and injustice.
When our world opens up again, we should ask ourselves: what kind of society do we want to live in? And how do we give meaning to the crisis that we’ve survived and are still enduring?
I recently read an opinion piece by columnist Leonard Pitts Jr who spent last year reading works by women. He noted that “my bias deprived me of whole vistas of discovery.”
“This past year, has served as a reminder to never be too smug about one’s own enlightenment. Because enlightenment is not a place one reaches but a process always ongoing. And it requires not just a willingness to acknowledge that one harbors biases but also a recognition that they will not go away on their own. One has to make them go away. And then one has to get up the next day and do it again.” Leonard Pitts Jr
In an effort to confront my own bias, over the past few years I’ve made a conscious effort to read more authors from backgrounds that are different from mine, with an emphasis on black authors. And in doing so I rediscovered some old favorites and was shaken to the core by new authors and stories.
Here are some recent reads that really affected me:
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
This epic, Dickensian story begins with the narration of 12 year old George Washington Black (aka “Wash”), an enslaved black boy on a Barbados plantation and follows his complicated friendship with Christopher Wilde, a white gentleman scientist, over decades and across continents. The savagery of the plantation is both physical and emotional, and when the death of a white man could implicate and endanger Wash, he escapes the island with Wilde in a hot air balloon. Wilde becomes Wash’s mentor, encouraging his skill at scientific drawings, and their exploits take them to the Arctic, Europe and Africa.
Though her story has the brutal backdrop of slavery in the nineteenth-century, Esi Edugyan is most interested in the invisible bonds between people. When Wash has an opportunity to separate from Wilde, he is filled with “a panic so savage it felt as if I were being asked to perform some brutal act upon myself, to sever my own throat” – a violence evocative of his harrowing past on the plantation. And yet Edugyan leaves behind “the confines of the conventional historical novel and transports readers into the giddy realms of Romantic-era travelogue and scientific exploration. In Washington Black, Edugyan has created a wonder of an adventure story, powered by the helium of fantasy, but also by the tender sensibility of its aspiring young hero, Wash Black.” (Maureen Corrigan, NPR)
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
As a child in Virginia, I thought the underground railroad was a real train tunnel that ran from south to north and that Harriet Tubman was the conductor. Colson Whitehead imagines such a secret subterranean railway complete with station agents and rail ties as the escape route in this brutal, epic journey of an enslaved woman Cora fleeing a Georgia plantation in pursuit freedom. Chased by a relentless bounty hunter, Cora is forced to flee state by state, each a different world with unique terrors in her odyssey.
Whitehead’s “narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.” (Doubleday) Meticulously researched from over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery, it reads like a horror novel. Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
With A Mercy, Toni Morrison offers a look at the earliest days of America in the seventeenth century, during a time just prior to the exponential expansion of slavery which became a principal foundation of American wealth. Seeking to separate race from slavery, Morrison’s four main female characters represent different kinds of servitude in 1682 in Virginia: Rebekka, the white mail-order bride from London; Florens, the black woman from a tobacco plantation; Lina, the Native American servant; and Sorrow, the “mulatto daughter of a sea captain,” make up this group of unmastered women whose story is a parable of the United States’ traumatic birth. The New York Times calls this one of Morrison’s most haunting works.
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
With Homegoing, first-time author Yaa Gyasi tackles 250 years of history on two continents. Alternating chapters follow the parallel paths of two sisters and their progeny, one on the Gold Coast of Africa where one sister remained (where Gyasi was born) and one in America after the other sister was captured and sold. Gyasi explores how the tragic consequences of slavery affect seven generations of a family. Each generation strives to break free from the past but also understand its context. Grand, lyrical and tragically haunting, this is a tremendous accomplishment for a debut novel.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
If I may borrow from Dave Eggers, this is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Ta-Nahisi Coates’ emotional memoir written to his son brings into sharp focus the systematic marginalization of black people in America. Coates describes growing up in Baltimore in the 80s, “where the written law was based on the contempt for the people who lived there.” The New York Times calls it “a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today.” This best seller solidified Coates as one of the most influential intellectuals of his generation. Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction.
So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
So You Want to talk About Race should be at the top of your antiracism book list. Ijemoa Oluo is a Seattle-based writer and public speaker with a searing voice for social justice. As the daughter of a white mother from Kansas and a black Nigerian father, Oluo has described her growing up with her brother as “black nerds raised by a white woman in a poor white neighborhood.” Drawing on her perspective as a mixed race black woman, she has written a book about systemic racism built over centuries and how that seeps into American institutions, culture and social behaviors.
“The book is for everyone. If you are white, it will make you see nuances of racism that you were probably not aware of, including within yourself, your loved ones, and coworkers. If you are a person of color, it will give you ways to respond calmly, rationally, and intelligently, even when dealing with the well-meaning “I’m not racist” white friend or coworker.” (Jenny Bahatt, National Book Review)
Despite the fact that So You Want to Talk About Race is a New York Times best seller, Oluo would prefer to live in a world that doesn’t need her book.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
This summer I attended a zoom meeting with Bryan Stevenson who reflected on how slavery in the US evolved into Jim Crow laws, voter disenfranchisement and mass incarceration. Accountability is the key to justice – we demand it when it comes to criminal acts and civil disputes, but we do not apply it to racial justice. Stevenson, who has dedicated his life to ending excessive criminal punishment, encounters this injustice every day in his professional life. In Just Mercy, he details how he came to this work – his journey as the great grandson of enslaved people in Virginia to law professor at NYU and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. It was thrilling to meet the man whose book I had read in my preparation to direct Death Row Stories for CNN, and I found him both an optimist and a realist. Even if you’ve already seen the film starring Michael B Jordan, I encourage you to read Stevenson’s story in his own words.
Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi
Since producing Salt Fat Acid Heat, I’ve become much more aware of food writers, so when one of the food world’s most acclaimed chefs Kwame Onwuchi published his memoir, I was all in.
“Notes from a Young Black Chef chronicles Onwuachi’s upbringing in the Bronx, his adolescent journey to Nigeria to live with his grandfather, his rocky rise through the ranks of the fine dining world, his appearance on Season 13 of Top Chef, and the opening and abrupt closure his ambitious Washington D.C. tasting menu restaurant, Shaw Bijou. Throughout the book, Onwuachi notably details the racism that he experienced working in some of America’s most acclaimed restaurants, including Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. One month after the book was released, Onwuachi received the Rising Star Chef of the Year Award from the James Beard Foundation for his work at Kith and Kin in Washington D.C.’s InterContinental Hotel.” (Greg Morabito, Eater)
The book, which includes more than a dozen recipes for dishes such as “hot chicken and waffles” and “steak and eggs,” is being adapted into a film starring LaKeith Stanfield and financed by A24.