What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
W. E. B. Du Bois is well known for writing “The Souls of Black Folk,” a book of essays published in 1903. But not many people have read Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880,” released in 1935. It has, though, become increasingly influential among political writers who recognize its parallels to our own Redemption-like historical moment.
Du Bois showed how — far from the tragic era as Jim Crow historians had framed it for decades — formerly enslaved people and antiracist whites came together to form new Southern governments that attempted to spread power to the people and enact policies for the people, only to be overthrown by a racist planter class dividing and conquering and dispossessing and killing and voter suppressing. In the final chapter, Du Bois argued we can never have a truthful history “until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race.” With too many historians still regarding the defense of white historical figures as more important than truth, Du Bois’s prophesy remains relevant today.
Do you count any books as comfort reads, or guilty pleasures?
I count biographies to be my comfort reads. There is something about following the life story of historical figures that brings me comfort. Perhaps because the great biography is an engaging way to learn history, and the complications of someone’s personal story allow me to learn about my own personal story. I read two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies in the last year: “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” by David Blight, and “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,” by Jeffrey C. Stewart. Last year, I also read Peniel Joseph’s “The Sword and the Shield,” a masterful joint biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And in 2018 I quickly consumed Imani Perry’s brilliant biography — “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.” This biography was especially comforting at a time when I was recovering from cancer treatment. In the last few chapters, Perry chronicled Hansberry’s cancer and death with astounding grace and care.
You’re at the forefront of a recent wave of authors combating racism through active, sustained antiracism. How do you advise readers to approach books like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” books with conflicted or hard-to-parse racial attitudes?
I’d advise readers of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to ensure they are also reading books like “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” “White Rage,” by Carol Anderson, Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All,” Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s “The Condemnation of Blackness,” Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness,” Brittney Cooper’s “Eloquent Rage,” “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Thick,” “Fatal Invention,” by Dorothy Roberts, “Begin Again,” by Eddie Glaude Jr. and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” — to name a few of the critically acclaimed nonfiction books that can nurture an antiracist critical eye. I’d advise readers to approach all books with an antiracist critical eye, even books on race. When we actively read with a critical eye, we protect ourselves from unknowingly consuming a book’s hard to parse racist ideas. But this isn’t just about books. How we read old and new books is no different from how we read society, past and present. We must read all characters — living and dead, fictional and real — with respect and not diminish them, or allow them to be diminished because of the color of their skin. At the same time, we cannot allow racism to be diminished and overlooked in literature, in policy, in power.