Tom McKone: Books to increase understanding and to fight racism 

This commentary is by Tom McKone of Montpelier, a former English teacher, principal and library administrator.

Sometimes Black History Month begins with celebrations of Black joy, but this year, with yet another brutal police killing of an unarmed Black man fresh in mind, it begins in horror and sadness. 

Joy will return in time. Meanwhile, we move on, determined that we are going to end the hatred and violence and create a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive society for all. 

As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Reading can help us to better understand what anti-Black racism is, how pervasive it is, and what we — as individuals, groups and a society — can do to end it; however, reading won’t make a difference unless it prompts us to act against racism in our daily lives, our workplaces, communities, and places of worship, and in how we vote and what we support. 

In that spirit, I’m going to recommend five current authors and six books, each addressing the challenges we face from a different angle. We are all learning, and these books are good reads for any adults, regardless of their background or identity. Although all five of these authors are Black, most of them comment about how much they, themselves, are learning. I will also give very quick info about some additional authors and books, including a few for younger readers.

  • If you have time to read only one book right now, I recommend “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” by Clint Smith. Smith visited historic sites — from Jefferson’s Monticello plantation to a Louisiana maximum-security prison that used to be a plantation — to see how the story of slavery is being told today. 

A gifted and engaging writer, Smith uses his personal experiences and conversations with tour guides and other visitors to explore our past and to reflect on how it is still with us. It’s 290 pages, packed with good stories, interesting people and wisdom.

  • In “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” Heather McGhee shows how racism is hurting the American economy and all groups of people, not just people of color. McGhee effectively dispels the false idea that to help Black people economically, you have to hurt white people. The book is filled with experiences of real people, making it a very readable 289-page treasure.
  • Ibram X. Kendi may be the leading antiracist voice in the nation. The cover of “Stamped From the Beginning” aptly calls this 500-page book “the definitive history of racist ideas in America.” 

Almost exactly half that length is “How To Be an Antiracist,” which describes how racism and antiracism look in various aspects of society, showing how deeply embedded racism is but also how to combat it. Kendi’s books contain a lot of information and can be intense; they are very popular and I like them. However, some people find them challenging to read.

  • Michelle Alexander wrote “The New Jim Crow” in 2010, and followed it up with a new preface in 2020. The book shows how our criminal justice system is grossly unfair to Blacks, especially Black men. 

Sadly, a decade later, when she decided to write an updated version, there wasn’t much to update because only details and not the central problem had changed. Instead, to the 2020 edition, she added a 35-page preface. Another engaging read, this is 325 pages, with plenty of real-life stories. This is especially timely.

  • The sixth book is Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give,” which was the Vermont Humanities 2020 Vermont Reads selection. 

This novel centers on the killing of an unarmed, Black teenage boy by police during a traffic stop. It is fiction that seemingly forever rings true. Readers quickly get immersed in what families, friends and communities go through. Considered a young adult book — but 444 pages long — it is engaging for not-so-young adults, too.

That is a painfully short list with some serious omissions. Isabel Wilkerson has written two extraordinary books that humanize history: “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent” (our society isn’t as fluid as we think) and “The Warmth of Other Suns” (about the Black migration north, told through experiences of families). 

Ta-Nehisi Coates shines in both “Between the World and Me” (an extended letter to his son about being Black in America) and “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” (essays from the Obama years).

“Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time and Mine,” by Burlington writer Emily Bernard, beautifully tells a dozen absorbing family stories. 

In his moving memoir, “Heavy,” Kiese Laymon opens up about several challenges he has faced in addition to racism, including “family, weight, sex, gambling, and writing.”

In “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,” John McWhorter disagrees with some of his fellow Black writers — including Kendi and Coates — comparing the dominant antiracism efforts to an inflexible religion that is “actively harmful to Black people.”

White social justice advocate Tim Wise’s book of essays, “Dispatches from the Race War,” pushes other white people to become actively involved in fighting racism.

Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson and Nic Stone (the pen name for Andrea Nicole Livingstone) are popular, award-winning authors who write for middle-grade readers and young adults, and who take on tough topics. Woodson also writes for younger children, and “Brown Girl Dreaming,” her young adult novel written in verse, was the 2017 Vermont Reads book.

Another book that was a Vermont Reads choice (for 2019) is the first volume of civil rights leader John Lewis’s “March” trilogy. He wrote these graphic novels with Andrew Aydin; they are illustrated by Nate Powell. For those who haven’t tried graphic novels, these would be a good introduction to them.

Author Kekla Magoon, who lives in Montpelier but has a national reputation, has written fiction and nonfiction for all ages, from young children to adults. In “Revolution in Our Time,” she traces the history of the Black Panther Party, and corrects many false impressions. Her Robyn Hoodlum Adventure Series for middle schoolers (with a biracial girl as the hero) is fast-moving and fun.

That’s just a beginning, but you have plenty of resources to keep you going, including your local librarians and booksellers. Neither of them has everything on hand, but either can get you anything you need.


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