Last spring, books on anti-racism and race in America topped the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists: “How to be anti-racist” by Ibram X. Kendi, “So you mean race By Ijeoma Oluo, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, and others.
In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and the widespread Black Lives Matter protests, non-Black readers seemed genuinely determined to find out more about systemic racism and why people of color had had enough. Considering how whitewashed history programs tend to be in the United States, the books were a much-needed remedial lesson for many who took them.
But the rush to buy or consult anti-racist non-fiction was ultimately short-lived. In November, in Portland, Oregon, writer and bookseller Katherine Morgan wrote about how disheartening it was to see people cancel their orders for some of these titles after finding out that due to demand unprecedented, many had been out of stock.
Ash Mone, a librarian and blogger, was also disappointed that interest in black American history declined again. She also couldn’t help but wonder: why weren’t people reading fiction too? Where was the increased demand for novels focused on black experiences and written by black authors?
“I kept thinking about how this says a lot about the fact that some people can only relate to non-fictional representations of black pain and struggles and cannot try to get into a fiction book or TV show with a majority of black characters or positive experiences, ”Mone told HuffPost.
“If the only media you watch with black people presents us as oppressed, disadvantaged and reminds you of how different we are, that’s a problem,” she says. “It tells me that a lot of people can only relate to us above us.”
Why black fiction matters
Why should you make it a point to read fiction? Studies say that fiction strengthens our empathy for others in ways that non-fiction does not.
In a 2013 article published in Science, people were asked to read either literary fiction or genre fiction, non-fiction or nothing. Next, the researchers measured the improvement in participants’ empathy on “theory of mind” tests. Simply put, “theory of mind” simply refers to your ability to imagine what might be going on in someone else’s head and understand why people may have different values and desires than you do. yours.
People who were credited with literary fiction showed the best improvements on empathy tests. People who read non-fiction, popular genre fiction, or nothing at all haven’t gotten a boost in scores. (Why literary fiction instead of genre fiction, such as a successful thriller? Researchers say that works of literary fiction tend to demand a little more from the reader; books feature complex plots and characters whose ” inner life is seldom easily discernible but deserves to be explored. ”)
“Diversifying what we read, what we watch, where we eat and where we shop can save us from ignorance.”
– Abbigail Glen, bookseller in North Carolina
“Fiction allows you to connect to the human condition in ways that non-fiction couldn’t,” said Amanda M. Leftwich, co-host of LibVoices, a podcast for and about librarians of color. “It conveys the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes for a short period of time, which, in turn, can engender empathy in the reader.”
Take “The Vanishing Half,” Brit Bennett’s recent novel about two identical, fair-skinned black twins, one of whom tries to pass off as white across mid-20th-century America. Through this lens, Bennett delves into the social, political, and economic privileges that are bestowed on someone who is white (or white on the side).
But Bennett’s book also describes universal experiences, of course: for example, how strained sibling relationships can be and how a sibling’s life choices and missteps can impact an entire family for decades.
“When you look at books and movies with stories other than wrestling, you see that they help us humanize ourselves,” said Shannon Bland, founder of the popular online community Black Librarians.
“For black people, seeing media that always shows us that we are struggling can be traumatic and triggering,” she said. “Today black writers hold reality, but they uplift, celebrate and inspire too.”
Don’t stop reading fiction about black life. Read the coming-of-age novels of queer Vietnamese American poets, books that weave into Native American history written by members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, read love stories of Iranian immigrants. There is a whole world of literature outside of the “white shit” category that gets all the attention. (Sorry, Johns Updike and Cheever, we still love you. We just need to see other people.)
“The fiction of people of color teaches what non-fiction does not: that we are not here just to teach whites how to be better people nor to be a table book that people leave out to show. how educated they are, “Mone mentioned.
As North Carolina bookseller Abbigail Glen recently told HuffPost, “Diversifying what we read, what we watch, where we eat and where we buy can save us from ignorance.”
Be sure to read on Black Joy, not just Black Trauma
Much has been written about how black trauma-focused films reach the pinnacle commercially and critically, while films that highlight black triumphs rarely win awards or win large audiences.
To a lesser extent, this is also true for literature. Given our history, slavery, racism and the influence of colonialism are inescapable common denominators, much needed in the fiction of black American authors. When teachers assign required readings to black authors, works like “The Color Purple” and “Beloved” usually make the list.
But as you strive to read more black fiction independently, make sure you don’t just read about black trauma. Also read books that celebrate and appreciate black joy.
Don’t stop reading the greats – Zora Neale and James Baldwins’ Hurstons – or stick to the intellectually heavy stuff. Librarians we spoke to also recommended reading fun books. To get started, read the Stacey Abrams romance novel series. (Yeah, this Stacey Abrams. The woman really does everything.)
“I know this passage is controversial, but don’t just read the fiction of Toni Morrison and other ‘black intellectuals’ that are socially acceptable in academia and that everyone reads,” Mone said. Also read the romance and ‘trashy’ fantasy of black authors. “
Mone’s two main recommendations at the moment? Two novels for young adults: “Legendborn” by Tracy Deonn, a young adult fantasy that weaves the legend of King Arthur with Southern Black culture, and “Piecing Me Together” by Renée Watson, which tells the story of Jade, a high school student from Portland who won a scholarship to St. Francis, a predominantly white private school.
“Publishing is hard enough for black people,” Mone said. “If you want to support us, you can’t just read the few trending books about our pain that they allow us to write – and you certainly shouldn’t support the books about our pain and our struggles that we don’t. have not written. ”
Alexandria Brown, librarian and speculative adult and young adult fiction critic, also recommended Tracy Deonn, along with fellow YA writers Tiffany D. Jackson, Dhonielle Clayton, and Bethany C. Morrow.
“They all create amazing young adult fiction that showcases the varied experiences of black youth,” she says. “Tochi Onyebuchi has also written powerful young adult books, and his adult novel ‘Riot Baby’ is to be taught in high school, that’s as well.
Meanwhile, author Akwaeke Emezi “explores queerness, gender expression and darkness in unique and fascinating ways,” said Brown.
Once you start to diversify your playlists, keep going. POC’s experiential-centric stories from all genres are important – and just plain fun to read – every day, not just during Black History Month.
“I think it’s already a good step for white people to read non-fiction books for the purpose of educating themselves,” Mone said. “But there is also so much great fiction out there.”
And that should go without saying: make sure you’re not only reading. If you are truly committed to being anti-racist and an ally, that requires immediate action, not just an awesome Goodreads profile.
“Beyond reading these books, I care about what white people are going to do the next time a racist runs for office, or what they are going to say the next time their loved ones or in-laws parents will make a racist joke, ”Mone said. “At the end of the day, you can read all the books in the world, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to stand up for us in the way that matters most.”