Last Sunday marked the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri — a day that many citizens in Ferguson and all over the country honored with marches, protest, and, of course, by hash-tagging #BlackLivesMatter. Racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration are serious, ongoing, and unacceptable issues, and there are plenty of ways to learn more about what's going on, and to show your support for #BlackLivesMatter.
Black Lives Matter is more than a hashtag. It is also a grassroots activist movement, founded by three black activists: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. They created Black Lives Matter in response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin to death in 2012. Since then, more than 1,000 Black Lives Matter protests, demonstrations, strikes, and Freedom Rides have taken place in the U.S. and all over the world.
Whether you consider yourself an active part of the movement, an ally, or are simply someone who wants to inform yourself beyond all the headlines, these 11 books — curated from social media recommendations, blog posts, university syllabi, socially conscious bookstore picks, and my own reading — will definitely make you think much more deeply about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry in 2014, Claudia Rankine's Citizen catalogues the instances of racism — intentional or otherwise — that occur every day in the United States, and the effects that racism has on the black community and the United States as a whole. Page 134 of the text is particularly striking: down the left side of the page runs the repeated line "In Memory Of" and in each reprinting Rankine adds the names of more black victims of police brutality.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith
This one-woman play tells the story of the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, which were sparked by the acquittal of police officers who were accused of using excessive force in the famously videotaped arrest of Rodney King. The monologue-driven play is based on interviews — some directly reproduced in the text — with rioters, a Rodney King juror, the Los Angeles police chief, a California congresswoman, and other residents of Los Angeles.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, The Warmth of Other Suns details the migration of almost 6 million black Americans who began leaving the rural south in 1915, in search of a better life, and continued this mass-relocation to urban regions of the northeastern, midwestern, and western United States through the 1970s. In part the book contains biographies of a former-sharecropper, a Civil Rights activist, and a physician who each faced issues of racism, economic insecurity, and familial destruction.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
This is a brave and honest memoir that weaves the deaths of five young black men into the narrative of author Jesmyn Ward’s own young life. Ward tells the story that is almost always lost among all the headlines today: the young men in Men We Reaped are neither saints nor criminals, but are instead wholly beautiful, humanly flawed young men who were essential to their communities, and who, regardless of any personal struggles or failings, died too young and unnecessarily.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu is the strong and unforgettable female protagonist in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Americanah . Credited with being "a modern love story," this is also a book about how race uniquely affects education and class, and describes the experience of foraging a home for oneself outside one's own culture. Adichie writes about about what it means when an African immigrant discovers that she can simultaneously be at home everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
John Howard Griffin was a white journalist from Dallas, Texas when, in 1959, he set out to write what is arguably his best known work — Black Like Me . After disguising himself as a black man, Griffin spent 6 weeks riding Greyhound buses and hitchhiking across Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, keeping a journal of his experiences with racism, and his observations of segregation.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Former litigator Michelle Alexander takes readers behind the nameless, faceless statistics of the men who live behind the bars of American’s prison system. In The New Jim Crow Alexander demonstrates that communities of color — and black men in particular — are specifically targeted for arrest and incarceration. This book shows just how far the United States still is from our purported "post-racial" “color-blindness.”
Native Son by Richard Nathaniel Wright
Set in 1930s Chicago, Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who knew he was bound to end up in jail without even knowing what crime it would be for. This novel takes a close look at the urban racism, poverty, segregation, and frustration faced by blacks in America. Published in 1940, Native Son is credited with being the first novel that "told the most painful and unvarnished truth about American social and class relations." It's impossible to ignore the direct links between the racism portrayed in this book, and the systemic racism in the United States today.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction, Alice Walker's The Color Purple tells the story of African-American women living in rural Georgia during the Great Depression. Narrated by Celie, who meets readers when she is 14 years old and spends her life surviving horrifying acts of domestic abuse, this novel takes a critical look at gender roles, rape, and violence.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
This 1963 bestseller introduces the American Civil Rights Movement through two essays, and explores the dangerous legacy left by centuries of slavery in the United States. Beginning with author James Baldwin's young life in Harlem, New York, The Fire Next Time tells a story of the anger, frustration, hopelessness, and hope felt within the black community. Baldwin's writing acts as a call to action for both white and black Americans to let go of assumptions and ignorance, and to work together towards a more free, more just society.
Assata by Assata Shakur
This autobiography by Black Panther activist Assata Shakur tells the story of Shakur's 1977 conviction as an accomplice to the murder of a white police officer — based on questionable evidence — and subsequent incarceration, escape from prison, and eventual political asylum in Cuba. Shakur, who has at times been labeled a terrorist by the American media for her affiliation with the Black Panther Party, writes of her personal experiences with racism in the United States, and what events called her to a life of activism.