A memoir in essays about race that is as lucid as the issue is complicated.
Though Bernard (English and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies/Univ. of Vermont; Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White, 2012, etc.) is a scholar, her latest book is almost devoid of jargon. Instead, the writing is deeply felt, unflinchingly honest, and openly questioning. The author makes no claims to have all the answers about what it means to be a black woman from the South who has long lived and worked in the very white state of Vermont, where she might be the first black person that some of her students have encountered. From the evidence on display here, Bernard is a top-notch teacher who explores territory that many of her students might prefer to leave unexplored. She is married to a white professor of African-American Studies, and she ponders how his relationship with the students might be different than hers, how he is comfortable letting them call him by his first name while she ponders whether to adopt a more formal address. The couple also adopted twin daughters from Ethiopia, which gives all of them different perspectives on the African-American hyphenate. But it also illuminates a legacy of storytelling, from her mother and the Nashville where the author was raised and her grandparents’ Mississippi. “I could not leave the South behind. I still can’t,” she writes, and then elaborates on the relationship between blacks and whites there: “We were ensnared in the same historical drama. I was forged—mind and body—in the unending conversation between southern blacks and whites. I don’t hate the South. To despise it would be to despise myself.” The book’s genesis and opening is her life-threatening stabbing by a deranged white stranger, a seemingly random crime. Toward the end of the book, she realizes that “in every scar there is a story. The salve is the telling itself.”
An internationally renowned expert on implicit racial bias breaks down the science behind our prejudices and their influence in nearly all areas of society and culture.
MacArthur Fellow Eberhardt (Psychology/Stanford Univ.; co-editor: Confronting Racism, 1998) challenges the idea that addressing bias is merely a personal choice. Rather, “it is a social agenda, a moral stance.” Relying on her neuroscientific research, consulting work, and personal anecdotes, the author astutely examines how stereotypes influence our perceptions, thoughts, and actions. Stereotypes, such as “the association of black people and crime,” are shaped by media, history, culture, and our families. A leader in the law enforcement training movement, Eberhardt recounts high-profile cases of police shooting unarmed black people, and she documents her own fears as a mother of three black sons. Though “more than 99 percent of police contacts happen with no police use of force at all,” black people are stopped by police disproportionately and are more likely to suffer physical violence. Only a tiny fraction of officers involved in questionable shootings are prosecuted, and convictions are rare. Through her work, the author teaches officers to understand how their biases inform their interactions with the communities they are charged with protecting and serving. She shares informative case studies from her work with Airbnb and Nextdoor, an online information-sharing platform for neighbors, when bias among the sites’ users led to racial profiling and discrimination. Eberhardt also looks at bias in the criminal justice system, education, housing and immigration, and the workplace. A chapter on her visit to the University of Virginia after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville is, much like the book as a whole, simultaneously scholarly illuminating, and heartbreaking. Throughout, Eberhardt makes it clear that diversity is not enough. Only through the hard work of recognizing our biases and controlling them can we “free ourselves from the tight grip of history.”
Compelling and provocative, this is a game-changing book about how unconscious racial bias impacts our society and what each of us can do about it.
The noted African-American literary scholar and critic examines the tangled, troubled years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
From the outset, writes Gates (African and African-American Research/Harvard Univ.; 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro, 2017, etc.), there was, among whites, a profound difference between being opposed to slavery and advocating equality for emancipated black people. Alexis de Tocqueville, he notes, warned of the latter that since “they cannot become the equals of the whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies.” Meanwhile, countless enemies emerged among the white population, from unreconstructed Southerners to the architects of Jim Crow laws. Gates argues, with Frederick Douglass, that freedom without the vote is meaningless, and those laws did all that they could to suppress suffrage. Meanwhile, there was the hope that a “New Negro” would emerge to change affairs once and for all—a trope, Gates notes, that emerged anew with the election of Barack Obama, a metaphor “first coined as a complex defensive mechanism that black people employed to fight back against racial segregation.” Other mechanisms were born of necessity even as white culture found endless ways to appropriate from black culture while never accepting its authors. In a highly timely moment, Gates discusses the history of blackface, which was put to work in depictions of lascivious, predatory black men advancing the “thought that the ultimate fantasy of black males was to rape white women”—a thought that soon became an “obsession.” Reconstruction failed for many reasons, and the ethos that followed it was no improvement: The period under consideration, as the author recounts, marked the rise of “scientific” racism, of “Sambo” images that were “intended to naturalize the visual image of the black person as subhuman,” reinforcing the separate-and-unequal premises of Jim Crow itself. Gates suggests that it’s possible to consider the entire history of America after the Civil War as “a long Reconstruction locked in combat with an equally long Redemption,” one that’s playing out even today.
A provocative, lucid, and urgent contribution to the study of race in America.
A dynamic, impressive debut memoir from the Whiting Award–winning author of The Residue Years (2013).
Following his award-winning debut novel, Jackson (Writing/New York Univ.) looks back on the specific chaos of historical, cultural, and familial forces that, despite the continued presence of open wounds, allowed them a chance at redemption in their home of Portland, Oregon. As he writes, “there’s the history that’s hit the books, what for all time should live in its ledgers, but…I must keep alive the record of where we lived and how we lived and what we lived and died for,” so it doesn’t slip “into the ether.” The author chronicles the complicated influences that have shaped his life, weaving through the Reaganomics era and its attendant uneven burden on black families, which led to expanding precariousness and subsequent street-scheming and entrenched pipe-dreaming. In his lyric memoir in essays, Jackson navigates family strife, crime, guns, toxic masculinity, substance abuse and addiction, and the meaning of “hustle,” among countless other timely topics. The author also makes it clear that there’s no room for pity, neither for his own choices nor those of his mother, who struggled with addiction, or the collection of black men he homages as the “composite Pops” who raised him. These are powerful stories of survival in the face of tremendous odds, rendered in a consistently intriguing hybrid of the street-cool hip-hop mathematics of Mos Def and the bluesy, ancestry-minded prison-cell work of Etheridge Knight (especially “The Idea of Ancestry”). The narrative hits its peak when Jackson motions beyond the tenuous spectacle of a moment to understand what came before it and to hope about what deliverance might come after it even while admitting, sometimes ashamedly so, that he is still wrestling with it all.
A potent book that revels in the author’s truthful experiences while maintaining the jagged-grain, keeping-it-a-100, natural storytelling that made The Residue Years a modern must-read.
A coming-of-age memoir marks the emergence of a major literary voice.
A prizewinning poet, Jones (Prelude to Bruise, 2014) tends less toward flights of poetic fancy and more toward understated, matter-of-fact prose, all the more powerful because the style never distracts from the weight of the story: the sexual awakening and struggle for identity of a young black man raised in Texas by a single mother, a Buddhist, who herself was the daughter of an evangelical Christian. He and his mother were both damned to hell, according to his grandmother, who nonetheless loved both of them. There is a lot of subtlety in these familial relations: the son not willing to recognize the implications of his loving mother’s heart condition, the mother struggling with her son’s sexuality. The “fight” in the title is partly about the fight with society at large, but it is mainly about the fight within the author himself. “I made myself a promise,” he writes. “Even if it meant becoming a stranger to my loved ones, even if it meant keeping secrets, I would have a life of my own.” Jones documents the price he paid for those secrets, including the shame that accompanied his discoveries of self and sexuality. “Standing in front of the mirror,” he writes, “my reflection and I were like rival animals, just moments away from tearing each other limb from limb.” One of them was the loving son and accomplished student; the other, a young man drawn toward denigrating and debilitating sexual encounters, devoid of love, with white men who objectified him as black and even with straight men. One almost killed him and made him feel like this is what he deserved. “This is that I thought it meant to be a man fighting for his life,” writes Jones. “If America was going to hate me for being black and gay, then I might as well make a weapon out of myself.”
A memoir of coming to terms that’s written with masterful control of both style and material.
Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.
In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.
Brilliantly incisive essays, speeches, and meditations considering race, power, identity, and art.
A prominent public intellectual even before being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, novelist Morrison (Emerita, Humanities/Princeton Univ.; The Origin of Others, 2017, etc.) has lectured and written about urgent social and cultural matters for more than four decades. Her latest collection gathers more than 40 pieces (including her Nobel lecture), revealing the passion, compassion, and profound humanity that distinguish her writing. Freedom, dignity, and responsibility recur as salient issues. Speaking to the Sarah Lawrence graduating class in 1988, Morrison urges her listeners to go beyond “an intelligent encounter with problem-solving” to engage in dreaming. “Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one” that can foster empathy—a sense of intimacy that “should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action.” To graduates of Barnard in 1979 she recasts the fairy tale of "Cinderella," focusing on the women who exploit and oppress the heroine, to urge her audience to “pay as much attention to our nurturing sensibilities as to our ambition.” “In wielding the power that is deservedly yours,” she adds, “don’t permit it to enslave your stepsisters.” In an adroit—and chillingly prescient—political critique published in the Nation in 1995, she warns of the complicity between racism and fascism, perceiving a culture where fear, denial, and complacency prevail and where “our intelligence [is] sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned.” “Fascism talks ideology,” she writes, “but it is really just marketing—marketing for power.” Speaking at Princeton in 1998, she considers the linguistic and moral challenges she faced in writing Paradise, one of many pieces offering insights into her fiction. Aiming to produce “race-specific race-free prose,” she confronted the problem of writing about personal identity “in a language in which the codes of racial hierarchy and disdain are deeply embedded”—as well as the problem of writing about the intellectually complex idea of paradise “in an age of theme parks.”
Powerful, highly compelling pieces from one of our greatest writers.
A novelist turns to nonfiction to illuminate the refugee experience, focusing mostly on her Iranian family but also reporting the sagas of many others fleeing poverty and violence.
The word “ungrateful” in the title is intended sarcastically, even bitterly. For Nayeri (Refuge, 2017, etc.), winner of the UNESCO City of Literature Paul Engle Prize, that word signifies the misguided mindset of privileged individuals in stable nations who treat desperate refugees with suspicion, condescension, or even outright cruelty. Those unkind hosts falsely believe that refugees expect something for nothing, that maybe those fleeing to save their lives will somehow displace welfare benefits and jobs in a new land. With inventive, powerful prose, Nayeri demonstrates what should be obvious: that refugees give up everything in their native lands only when absolutely necessary—if they remain, they may face poverty, physical torture, or even death. The author, who was born during the Iranian Revolution and came to the U.S. when she was 10, grew up with her brother in a household run by her physician mother and dentist father. However, their relative privilege could not keep them safe from Muslim extremists involved in the revolution. Nayeri’s father learned to compromise his principles to get along, but her mother rebelled openly, converting to Christianity. The extremists threatened to kill her and take her children, so her mother gathered her children and fled, leaving Iran secretly via a risky route. Nayeri’s father stayed behind, eventually remarrying and starting a new family. The refugees subsisted for 16 months in squalor, mostly in a compound in Italy. Nayeri’s mother, desperately working every angle, used her wits and solid education to gain entry to the U.S. The author uses some time-shifting to unfold the narrative, which she divides into five sections: escape (from Iran), refugee camp, asylum (in the U.S.), assimilation, and cultural repatriation.
A unique, deeply thought-out refugee saga perfect for our moment.
A distinguished scholar writes to her sons about the joy, possibility, and grace of black life amid ongoing American struggles with race, gender, and class.
Carrying on an iconic legacy of public letters from black writers—think James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Kiese Laymon, among many others—Perry (African American Studies/Princeton Univ.; Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, 2018, etc.) reflects on her family history, tying it together with cultural allegories to impress upon her sons the precious inheritance found within black social life and the pursuit of a livelihood full of “passion, profound human intimacy and connection, beauty and excellence.” A multidisciplinary and acclaimed researcher, Perry uses references throughout the slim volume that range across centuries and the global black diaspora, across folklore, music, and visual arts as well as the influence of numerous faith traditions. “The people with whom you can share the interior illumination,” she writes, “that is the sacramental bond.” She breaks down the structures of violence and marginalization that black children face while uplifting the imaginative and improvisatory space for them to focus on their becoming, to not be trapped in misnarrated stories or “forced into two dimensions when you are in four.” Echoing Baldwin’s distinctive “Letter to My Nephew,” Perry emphasizes the critical life discipline of making choices—not in the shallow sense of choosing success or achievement but rather within the depths of the long, historic freedom struggle to answer important questions—e.g., “How will you treat your word? How will you hold your heart? How will you hold others?” Deeply intergenerational, the book blurs intended audiences to call all of us to face up to legacies of injustice while insisting on the grace and conviviality necessary to imagine just futures.
A masterfully poetic and intimate work that anchors mothering within the long-standing tradition of black resistance and resourcefulness.
The chief TV critic of the New York Times sums it up: “Without TV, there’s no Trump.”
In his stellar debut, Poniewozik demonstrates how Trump, over a period of four decades, “achieved symbiosis” with the TV medium: “Its impulses were his impulses; its appetites were his appetites; its mentality was his mentality.” As TV evolved from America’s homogenizer (the three major networks) to fragmenter (cable TV), Trump “used the dominant media of the day—tabloids, talk shows, reality TV, cable news, Twitter—to enlarge himself, to become a brand, a star, a demagogue, and a president.” Recounting how Trump, who was born in 1946, grew up with TV, the author details how he cultivated a famous image and leveraged celebrity, becoming a reality TV star in the 2000s and a politician in the 2010s. “Playing ‘Donald Trump’ became his full-time job.” His telling analyses of Trump’s appearances on The Apprentice, Fox & Friends, and The Howard Stern Show will come as revelations to readers unfamiliar with those programs, on which Trump emerged as an antihero, known for “being real” rather than honest, in the manner of the not “conventionally likeable” people on reality TV. As Poniewozik writes, he “spent a lifetime in symbiosis with television, adopting its metabolism, learning to feed its appetites.” For Trump, cable TV news, with its “constant fear and passion” and need to “agitate their viewers, not settle them,” was a perfect fit. His daily tweeting is based on careful study of his most popular tweets—those provoking “shock, insult, rage.” The author chronicles Trump’s actions against a deeply insightful history of vast changes in the media and popular culture during the period. TV, he writes, proved “the perfect medium for his sensibility, for picking fights, for whipping up people’s hatred and fear and resentment, for taking the express lane around logic.”
This intelligent eye-opener belongs on the small shelf of valuable books that help explain how Trump created his base.
In her first book, the founder of Brooklyn-based Common Justice convincingly attacks the conventional wisdom about violent crimes, appropriate punishment, and how to repair the criminal (in)justice system.
Sered’s organization brings together crime victims and perpetrators to experience a process known as restorative justice. Common Justice always begins with the crime victims, who are rarely heeded and often downright ignored by police, prosecutors, and judges. The author and her small staff listen carefully to victims of all kinds of violence. In most jurisdictions, a large percentage of perpetrators are never arrested. If an arrest occurs, well over 90 percent never reach the trial stage, and the vast majority of plea-bargained convictions terminate in private, with the victim nowhere near the negotiating venue. Even when conventional wisdom maintains that a prison sentence is a positive outcome for the victim, Sered has learned that rarely do victims heal quickly—if ever. The physical injuries and/or mental anguish do not disappear simply because a perpetrator is incarcerated. In addition to destroying myths about victimhood, the author attacks incarceration as a positive outcome for anybody, especially because prisons offer no accountability from the perpetrator that reaches the victim and no rehabilitation that benefits society eventually. Violence in every neighborhood must be attacked at its roots, Sered argues convincingly, and the evidence is overwhelming that mass incarceration never halts ongoing neighborhood violence. “If incarceration worked to secure safety,” she writes, “we would be the safest nation in all of human history….If incarceration worked to stop violence, we would have eradicated it by now—because no nation has used incarceration more.” The author provides clear, specific evidence for her contention that the new conventional wisdom must be survivor-centered, accountability-based, safety-driven, and racially equitable. The case studies of restorative justice that punctuate every chapter offer undeniable proof that Common Justice’s tactics are succeeding and should be more widely applied.
A top-notch entry into the burgeoning incarceration debate.
A standout memoir that digs into vital contemporary questions of race and self-image—among the most relevant, “What is proximity to the idea of whiteness worth and what does color cost? And the reverse?”
Williams (Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, 2010), a 2019 New America Fellow and contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, moves away from the “Black Man” label to offer a chronicle of why he is aiming to think of himself as “an ex–Black Man.” Raised in the 1980s in New Jersey by a “black” father and a “white” mother, the author grew up thinking of himself as black. The trigger for writing this lyrical, incisive memoir was the birth of his daughter in 2013, followed by a son. They are also mixed-race given the author’s marriage to Valentine, a Frenchwoman. (The family resides in Paris.) Though Williams is determined to move beyond categorizations of “black” and “white,” in order to communicate clearly in this memoir, he knows he must rely heavily “on our language’s descriptive conventions,” which he explains in the opening author’s note. We see the author’s psychological struggle as he thinks through the conundrums, including what the confusion might mean for his white-looking children. In the hands of a lesser writer, the back and forth of his pondering could have sunk the memoir. However, it succeeds spectacularly for three main reasons: the author’s relentlessly investigative thought process, consistent candor, and superb writing style. Almost every page contains at least one sentence so resonant that it bears rereading for its impact. The lengthy prologue is grounded heavily in discussions of race as a social construct. Part 1 takes readers through Williams’ adolescence, Part 2 through his marriage, and Part 3 through dealing with his family on both sides. In the epilogue, the author speculates on “the shape of things to come.” Shelve this one alongside Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math, and Imani Perry’s Breathe.