5 Nonfiction Books on Race in America

There has been a flood of books in response to the growing national conversation about race and the lives of persons of color. I’ve recently read (or, perhaps more accurately, inhaled) several books that explore the past and present of race in the United States, particularly Black America. From personal memoirs to comprehensive histories, these books expose realities swept under the rug and question existing policies that continue to disenfranchise racial minorities in the U.S. with a compelling balance of humanity, anger, and hope.

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang (Picador, 2016)

We Gon' Be Alright book coverThis series of essays is about race relations in the U.S., specifically Black America. Chang explores the history of segregation, desegregation, and the resegregation we’ve been experiencing since 1989; provides a clear history of Ferguson and exploration of its implications; and questions the goal of “diversity.” He also delves into some of the less explored aspects of race relations: the interactions and conflicts between different racial minorities, including the #NotYourMule hashtag and the history of relations between Asian Americans and Blacks. Written with clarity, focus, and heart, We Gon’ Be Alright offers valuable historical context to understand how we got to where we are today as well as insight into the important issues moving forward from here.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2017)

Luiselli_TellMeHow_9781566894951_1024x1024We talk a lot about immigration in the U.S. these days, from The Wall to travel bans to Dreamers and beyond. But how often do those of us who have not experienced immigration firsthand step back and realize what goes into getting to and staying in the U.S.? The forty questions referenced in this title are the forty questions that make up the intake questionnaire for undocumented children, a document Luiselli fills out while interviewing unaccompanied child migrants as a volunteer interpreter for the federal immigration court. Through these forty questions, Luiselli explains where these children come from, why they are leaving, why they are coming, and what they do once they cross the border. Interwoven with Luiselli’s own story of applying for a green card, Tell Me How It Ends provides the human side of immigration that we often forget as political stories dominate the headlines. Luiselli writes with anger, passion, and conviction, making these essays must-reads for anyone trying to understand immigration and immigration policy today.

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page (Beacon Press, 2017)

978-080707898-3Passing, in this book, is when someone of one identity (racial, gender, sexual, or economic) is intentionally or unintentionally seen by others to be of a different identity. Each of these essays is written by a different writer about their experiences passing. While certain essays read stronger and clearer than others, all are worth reading to learn of the challenges different minorities face every day, challenges that arise from passing or may push them to try to pass. Each essay is a glimpse into someone’s life, their anxieties and shames, their passions and dreams, their family histories and personal developments. The result is a person-to-person opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes for a stretch of their memory, an experience that strengthens our capacity for understanding, empathy, and compassion. These are the stories I’m frequently not reading or hearing anywhere else, which makes We Wear the Mask all the more worthwhile. 

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) 

9780812984965A New York Times bestseller, this book has been read far and wide already—and for good reason. Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and specializes in defending those already in our criminal justice system, including persons on death row, children who have received life sentences without chance of parole, and victims of violence while incarcerated. Two stories run throughout the length of the book: Stevenson’s own development as a lawyer, which serves as an introduction to the different problems with the criminal justice system in the U.S. today, and the story of Walter McMillian, a young black man on death row for a crime he did not commit. We all have some idea that the criminal justice system is broken, but Just Mercy tells the story of just how broken, damaging, and life threatening it really has become, while still showing the progress that is being made, slowly but surely. An absolute page turner that is equal parts memoir and history, Just Mercy is worth every bit of hype it has received. 

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson, Ph.D. (Bloomsbury, 2016)

9781632864123White Rage is the history class we all deserved and never got. It is divided into five sections: Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Brown v Board of Education, Civil Rights, and Obama. Most of us know a bit about how each of these historical moments came about, but little about what happened afterwards. White Rage tells the story of everything white powers in all levels of government, local organizations, press, and more, did to undo them. It truly is a book about how white rage resulted in delaying, hindering, or even rolling back these movements we herald as turning points in our nation’s history. White Rage is a slim book and a quick read that is packed with historical information, statistics, and references, providing that crucial historical context to understanding why race relations are what they are today.

[Photos, in order of appearance, courtesy of Macmillan Publishers, Coffee House Press, Beacon Press, Penguin Random House, and Bloomsbury Publishing]

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