I didn’t think about race a lot. I never needed to, as I lived in a fairly homogeneous German farming town in rural America. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it turns out the rest of the world isn’t homogeneously white and had different stories to tell, stories that were and are influenced by race. If you’ve never had to think about race or perhaps want to do some more thinking, here are some great suggestions.
1. Native Son by Richard Wright
The story is a gripping, heart-wrenching train-wreck. Bigger Thomas, a black man in a ghetto of Chicago, must continually react to a white society that views black men as threats. The confines placed around his life are a mix of racial prejudices and economic inequalities, systemic differences brought about by racism, racism-bred poverty, and classism. Crime has always held financial appeal and freedom, although Bigger confesses wanting to be an aviator.
Through the narration, Bigger never expects us to excuse his crimes, some of which are horrific. What he does is beg us to see his humanity and dignity even though they’ve been continually denied to him. Bigger has no academic rhetoric to describe the racism he faces, but shares his experiences and frustrations that allow readers to feel his pain.
2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Help by Kathryn Stockett came out in 2009, and by 2011 a very popular film adaptation was released. The story is told by Aibileen Clark, Minny Jackson, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. Aibileen Clark is a black woman caring for a white family’s children, Minny Jackson is Aibileen’s friend, another black woman, who takes zero sh*t from white employers but also doesn’t stay employed, and Skeeter is a white woman who recently graduated college and wants to be a writer. Skeeter befriends Aibileen and wants to share the conditions under which black folks are working, which is difficult for a white woman and downright dangerous for the black women.
This is one of the few instances where I enjoyed the book and the movie equally. It won several awards, and rightly so. If you can’t get into the book, I absolutely suggest the movie.
3. The Dilemma of a Ghost by Ama Ata Aidoo
The Dilemma of a Ghost touches not only on racial differences, but ethnic and cultural differences. It also digs deeply into marriage and expectations of women across traditions. Aidoo shows in The Dilemma of a Ghost how racial lines only tell part of the story.
Ato, returning from university in the USA, surprises his family by revealing that he married a woman before coming home. His family asks him how he could leave them and marry a white woman. When they learn she’s African American, they’re aghast that their son could marry the descendent of a slave.
Eulalie, the black African American woman that Ato has married, is equally uncomfortable coming to Ghana with her new husband. The expectations placed on her as a woman and a future mother are unfamiliar and unwelcome, the food is strange to her, and she feels lied to by her husband and her dream of Africa.
4. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
I very recently read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and was absolutely absorbed. The narrator, 14 year old Lily Owens, is a white girl who runs away with Rosaleen, a black woman working as a maid in Lily’s house.
Lily has grown up sort of knowing that people are treated differently because of their skin color. Learning the depths of racism appall her, but perhaps what surprises her more is how the black women around her in the book fight back. The novel begins with Rosaleen refusing to be demeaned by a group of white men, and in the end, Lily has learned from black women the importance of loving oneself regardless of color or community, and finding strength within oneself and others.
The Secret Life of Bees deals with a lot of themes: love, abandonment, shame, abuse, and race, to name a few. The relationship between the female characters creates a beautiful sisterhood while also highlighting racial inequalities and how people and women deal with them.
5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Fiction award for Americanah. This is the only book on this list that I haven’t read, although I have read other works by Adichie. She’s an incredible author, having written several novels and short stories. Even if you haven’t read her books, you’ve likely heard some of her words on Beyoncé’s track Flawless.
The main character, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States of America. She has everything she needs, and yet finds herself overwhelmed by the racism directed towards her. Ifemelu writes a provocative and popular blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” in which she explores what she calls Racial Disorder Syndrome.
Maybe, like me, race was very rarely an issue or a topic of conversation growing up. Maybe you dealt or deal with racial issues or racism every day. Either way, race influences people’s stories around the world, and it’s important to hear people’s stories. If you’ve never thought about race before, these are some great books to show you why you ought to. They’re insightful, touching, compelling, and most of all, fantastic books.
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