ARTS & CULTURE
07/11/2016 05:14 pm ET | Updated Jul 18, 2016

Read These 23 Books And Authors When The Injustice Is Overwhelming

Words might not feel like much, but they are powerful and more needed than ever.

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After tragedies like those the nation has grappled with in the past week ― the shooting deaths of two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, at the hands of police officers, followed by a deadly sniper attack on police working a peaceful protest in Dallas on Thursday ― words can feel insufficient.

Still, words can be the greatest comfort when all other comforts seem to have fled: Words allow us to voice our anger and to know that others feel the same anger. Words are tools to advocate for justice. Words allow those of us who are shielded from the weight of the injustice we’ve witnessed this week to learn about the indignities and tragedies suffered by others, simply because of their race.

Writers like Jelani Cobb, Kara Brown, and our own Zeba Blay reckoned with yet another week of horrific killings of black men by police in words searing enough to cut through the numbness of shock. Buzzfeed recommended poems that capture the anguish of the black community.

In that spirit, our newsroom has recommended 23 books and authors to read to salve your grief and, for non-black readers, to come to a better understanding of the systemic racism that makes these tragedies feel routine. Read these books, seek out others like them, share them with your friends and family, and keep speaking up. Words might not feel like much, but they are powerful and more needed than ever. 

Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil, Lezley McSpadden

Simon and Schuster

The book has a memoir feel, but also pays tribute to her son. Reading from the extremely honest perspective of Michael Brown’s mom was compelling. She emptied her emotions into the book and made me reflect on her strength more so than her son’s tragic death. -Mariah Stewart

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

SPIEGEL AND GRAU

Between The World And Me gave a raw analysis of the world today. It’s one thing to hear people say, “It’s different for us,” it’s another to read powerful examples that will stick with you forever. -Christine Conetta

I remembered this this week: “So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” -Julia Bush

When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, Paula Giddings

W. MORROW

When and Where I Enter chronicles black women’s fight for justice and equality from the 17th century to the 1980s. One of the movements Paula Giddings focuses on heavily is the anti-lynching campaign led by Ida B. Wells that used various methods ― boycotting, letter-writing, international public shaming ― to successfully reduce the extrajudicial killings of black people in the U.S. -Ashley Calloway 

Soul on Ice, Eldrige Cleaver

DELTA

Eldridge gives a very honest and eloquent account of the struggle of being black in America that is just as relevant now as it was in 1968. -Marc Janks 

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

KNOPF

I tore through Americanah when I read it a couple years ago, immersed in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s moving and deliciously funny novel that follows Ifemelu, who moves to America from Nigeria and back again. A love story at its heart, Americanah is deeply personal, but it’s also a global examination of race, immigration and culture. Ifemelu writes a popular blog about race and the different experiences of Africans and African-Americans in the U.S. Her posts, woven throughout the novel, are witty and cutting observations on topics like interracial dating, natural hair and talking to white people about racism ― they could be considered required reading on their own. -Kate Abbey-Lambertz

Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde

CROSSING PRESS FEMINIST SERIES

This collection of essays and speeches by Audre Lorde is not only a seminal text within the realm of lesbian feminist studies, but groundbreaking in its ability to translate and speak to complex, intersectional identity for queer women of color. Lorde herself is powerful, evocative and masterful in her command of language ― especially in her poetry ― and reading her work is crucial to an emotional understanding of the unique struggles of queer, black women in the second half of the 20th century. -James-Michael Nichols

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color

Kitchen Table--Women of Color Press

This collection of writings is one of the most groundbreaking and important texts to come of the second wave feminist school of thought. Featuring the writings of some of the most influential queer feminists of color from the second wave, it is important for understanding not only how systematic racism functions within the world, but also within the history of the feminist movement itself. Crucial reading for anyone who wants to develop a nuanced understanding of this history of feminism and struggles of queer feminists of color for their voices to be heard and valued. -James-Michael Nichols 

Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon

Agate Bolden

I’ve always felt that as a white writer who works in online media, it’s basically my job to try to everything I can to understand ― as feelingly as possible ― what it’s like to be black in America. And antiseptic accounts only go so far ― you can’t get within country mile of empathy unless you can find a way to get steeped in the visceral and emotional lives of black people. Kiese Laymon’s novel, Long Division, and his book of essays, How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, will immerse you in a life lived without Caucasian skin, and (well, hopefully) change the way you look at the world. For a really excellent, shorter dose of the same, read Cord Jefferson’s essay, “Kanye West Knows You Think He Sounded Nuts On Kimmel.” -Jason Linkins

[insert] boy by Danez Smith 

YES YES BOOKS

It is heartbreaking how relevant, how immediate Smith’s verse is today. Through his poems he’s spoken out against George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson, and re-reading the salient sadness he expressed then feels like a new wound. There are times when being quiet, analytical, moderate, or passive can be powerful. With his poems, Smith reminds us that now is not one of those times. He dares to declare his pain, and uses beautiful bodily imagery to restore his own sense of self. -Maddie Crum

James Baldwin

James Foote via Getty Images

The essays, the fiction, everything. As Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote last year, “Today, among my generation of black writers and readers, James Baldwin is almost universally adored.” And for white readers reared in the sheltered comfort of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the Dream,” Baldwin takes us straight to the difficult truths American life tries so mightily to shield us from. -Gregory Beyer

Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin 

BEACON

This is a reflection on being a black American from one of the greatest literary minds. As he examines contemporary art and literature, and life in Harlem and beyond, James Baldwin makes you examine your own identity and beliefs as a black person in this country. It culminates with an essay that affirms not only the existence of black people in America but our place as Americans. -Ashley Calloway

Native Son, Richard Wright

HARPER AND BROTHERS

A classic worth re-reading and re-reading. -David Wood 

Kindred, Octavia E. Butler 

 

Beacon

Over the years, science fiction has done a fair job of casting contemporary problems in new light, stripping them of the context that gives rise to bias, allowing readers to process complexity through stories of time travel, contagion and alien technology. Octavia E. Butler’s Afrofuturist work tackles themes of trauma and segregation in similar ways, but as a sci-fi writer well aware of the ways her genre had ignored the nuances of race, class and gender before her, she stands out. Her book Kindred, sometimes categorized as fantasy, follows a black woman swept between two time periods ― California in the 1970s and Maryland before the Civil War. From the construction of racial identities in America to the tainting of collective memory decades later, the novel is a powerfully intimate history that ponders what emancipation requires. -Katherine Brooks

Citizen, Claudia Rankine

GRAYWOLF PRESS

Citizen is required reading for anyone who doesn’t think that racism isn’t a real, visceral experience ― especially for black women. It taught me a lot as a white woman and I’m still learning so many things because of it. -Jenavieve Hatch

This book really put the mental state of black people during weeks like this in perspective. It also let me know that I’m not alone in being paranoid, anxious, angry and frustrated. -Julia Craven 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs

PENGUIN

Americans seem incapable of confronting their past, but Jacobs is a must-read. It’s a real story that seems unreal in so many ways. This book explains so much about our seeming inability to confront our racist and slave-owning past. -Jenavieve Hatch

Ishmael, Daniel Quinn

BANTAM

Quinn’s writing of “takers” and “leavers” is perfect allegory to lay down the context for how the world we live in today was formed. Whilst not being a black activist novel, I felt the book helped me understand how imperialism lead to the problems that we are mired in today. -Jacques Morel

The Heart of a Woman, Maya Angelou

RANDOM HOUSE

Aside from being the most sensational writer, she uses her own personal narrative as a black woman and mother as a backdrop to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an amazing story that takes you everywhere from San Francisco to L.A. to Harlem to Cairo. -Jenavieve Hatch

Welcome to Braggsville, T. Geronimo Johnson

WILLIAM MORROW

In a morbidly funny, ultimately heart-wrenching novel about a white kid from a quiet Southern town with a yearly Confederate army reenactment, Johnson prods at our comforting illusions about how healed our country’s racial wounds are, how equal black people are today, and how post-racial our society has become. It’s revelatory, tragic, and feels practically ripped from the headlines, though it’s pure fiction. -Claire Fallon

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

BLOOMSBURY

Ward, a brilliant fiction writer (Salvage the Bones), turned to memoir after five young men close to her died within four years. The book doesn’t just mourn for them, however; it indicts the racist system that circumscribed their opportunities and their life paths. For white readers trying to grasp the pervasive damage caused by white supremacy in the lives of black Americans, accounts like Ward’s are indispensable. -Claire Fallon 

The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998

W. MORROW

This collection was my favorite in undergrad, as I was trying to get a better understanding of who I was after being thrust into a predominately white environment for the first time. Nikki Giovanni narrated her life and the times in which she lived in a way that still resonates decades later. There was protest and defiance, but also love and vulnerability. And “Ego Tripping” is one of those poems I reach for when I need inspiration or reassurance as a black woman: “I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal/I cannot be comprehended/except by my permission.” -Ashley Calloway 

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, Mychal Denzel Smith

Nation Books

A book from a young black author who, in my opinion, will experience “hockey stick” growth very soon. I always loved his opinions on the context of the race relations back when he would come on HuffPost Live and to read it in book form is invigorating. Invisible Man is written with the hindsight of years of activist writing that did leave out many voices ― ignoring the efforts of black women, homophobia, transphobia and glossing over mental illness ― including it into a great book on today. -Jacques Morel

After the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, Smith began to write his own account of being a young black man in a world where young black men are constantly scrutinized in fear, yet rarely seen. His book explores the crushing weight of trying to grow up in a place so threatening that you barely expect to survive to adulthood, the confusion of becoming a black man when the templates are “Barack Obama” and “Akai Gurley,” and the inhuman pressures faced by black people fighting to find their own identities in a sea of hostile stereotypes. One thing the world needs more of is many, many more great accounts of the true lived experiences of people of color, and Smith’s is an excellent addition. -Claire Fallon

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay 

Harper Perennial

Gay critiques the world in a way that deconstructs many of its problems and inherent misogyny while accepting that she is not perfect and, at times, is a mess of contradictions. It was a very satisfying read and made me realize that I don’t have to be perfect ― I just have to constantly make an effort to get there. -Jacques Morel

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