These last few weeks in America have revived a centuries-old question: How do we end the legacy of racism and white supremacy in this country? As protesters march across the nation, seeking justice for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black Americans before them at the hands of the police, a lot of people are wondering how they can best fight racial injustice and white privilege—how we can begin the work of becoming better allies. (Newly acquainted to allyship? Here are some basic tenets.)
While there are various actions non-BIPOC can take right now—like donating to bail funds, voting, protesting (as safely as possible), talking about our whiteness (or non-Blackness), and calling political representatives—reading is a great place to start. Black people have been writing, and writing about inequality, since before America was “a thing,” and books offer direct paths to understanding the Black experience in this country. Reading Black voices isn’t in itself allyship or antiracism, but it’s an important part.
It’s also an action that supports Black Americans by: (a) buying books (from Black-owned bookstores, like those linked below); (b) recognizing Black experiences; and (c) reflecting on our own privilege and racial biases and working to correct them.
This list is not designed to paint a perfect, chronological history of racial oppression in this country—nor is it complete. Rather, the idea is that by reading outside our comfort zones, we’ll start to find answers to the initial question posed here. While some of these books are overtly designed to educate, others on this list are Black works of art, and should be read and appreciated as such.
So, from social critiques to memoirs and essays to fictional novels, the below list offers a step toward empathy, understanding, and some damn good writing.
1Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-LodgeAfter her blog post of the same title went viral in Britain, award-winning journalist Eddo-Lodge elaborated in book form. She expresses frustration with the way race and racism is discussed by those who are unaffected by it, and explores topics like white dominance, the inextricable ties between race and class, and the ways in which Black history has been strategically eradicated—as well as strategies for countering the racism that still exists in modern society. More than that, D.L. Mullen—proprietor of Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery in Chicago—says the book offers an important reminder: “It is not the place of people of color to do the work of breaking down racism.”Buy it: $18, brainlairbooks.com
2How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, by Crystal Fleming“Self-explanatory, LOL,” Mullen says. This funny, personal, no-holds-barred critique shatters rampant misconceptions about race. Fleming’s takeaway: Our racial politics are sorta-kinda-actually garbage, and many Americans are only just waking up to centuries of white supremacy and injustice. Fleming’s fresh and irreverent opinions are a must-read for understanding everything that’s wrong with our national conversation about race (spoiler: It’s a lot), and offers a road map for transforming acknowledgement into action.Buy it: $24, mahoganybooks.com
3Racism Without Racists, by Eduardo Bonilla-SilvaBonilla-Silva confronts the idea that “color-blind” racism has become the dominant ideology in America. It describes a set of beliefs you’ve probably heard many times over in this country, and it goes something like this: “I don’t see color; I just see people.” Bonilla-Silva argues that this narrow, reductive view of race dynamics actually works to cement a more invisible, more socially accepted version of racism, and justifies systems of race-based order in societies. “This book presents a discussion of why ‘color-blind’ thinking hinders racial equity,” explains Candice Bocala, Ed.D., faculty director of Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools, at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “It is written in a very academic manner, but [Bonilla-Silva’s] central framework of the four narratives of color-blind racism is powerful.”Buy it: $44, bookshop.org (Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery)
4The End of Policing, by Alex S. VitaleThis book sparks meaningful and timely discussion around policing, by revealing its brutal origins as a system of societal control. Vitale combines academic research with thoughtful opinion to explain why our current attempts at police reform—like diversification and better training—are failing to reduce race-based violence. The book “shows us what real alternatives to overpolicing would look like and how reducing the overall size and power of the police force can actually lead to stronger and safer communities,” says Maisy Card, author and public librarian. “He lays out concrete initiatives that people who want to support systematic change can advocate for.”Buy it: $18, brainlairbooks.com
5So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma OluoThe straightforward and actionable guide we need, this book addresses everything from the N-word and privilege to police brutality in America, in a way that seeks to unite often disparate racial groups. Oluo uses “simple, bold (and sometimes funny) language and stories” to build “a road map for self-reflection,” and clarifies “how to have thoughtful and productive conversations about race,” explains Bunnie Hilliard, owner of Brave + Kind Bookshop in Decatur, Georgia.Buy it: $16, bookshop.org (Brave + Kind Bookshop)
6Thick: And Other Essays, by Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D.In this book, McMillan Cottom uses humor, personal experience, and witty critiques to link the personal to the societal and to challenge everything you thought you knew about race, beauty, money, and whiteness. The bold, genius, and hilarious writer and professor shares her thoughts on being thick—literally and in spirit. “Every gender studies program should assign this along with its other staples,” says Elissa Bassist, editor of the “Funny Women” column at The Rumpus. “Plus, challenging whiteness challenges white readers, and the absolute least we can do is to be challenged.”Buy it: $15, bookshop.org (Turning Page Bookshop)
7Sister Outsider, by Audre LordeThis collection of essays, written between 1976 and 1984, is “for anyone who is at a loss for words or is afraid of their own voice and of speaking up…about anything,” says Bassist. Within the book Lorde explores her own intellectual development and emerging self—in regard to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—highlighting the ways in which systems of oppression are intertwined. “Lorde has taught me a lot that I should never have to ask,” Bassist says. “So now my every reaction comes with a secondary rereaction of practiced ‘awareness.’”Buy it: $17, cafeconlibros.com
8All About Love: New Visions, by Bell HooksThis book offers essential reading about how we think about love, culture, and one another. Hooks highlights radical but straightforward considerations of the way interconnectedness manifests in both our intimate and public lives: What it means to give and receive love, rethinking the kind of self-love that will bring more compassion into our relationships, and the power of love to end communal and societal struggle. “She reminds us that life should be rooted in love,” Mullen explains. “It’s impossible to be racist if you’re living accordingly.”Buy it: $14, frugalbookstore.net
9Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence, by Derald Wing SueWithin this five-section book, Sue uses research, vignette examples, and theoretical discussion to highlight why it’s become difficult for us all to talk about race. This book demands reader introspection on the ways in which we’re all implicit in silencing conversations about race, and suggests social change is reliant on both the vulnerability and courage required to communicate honestly—regardless of our own racial identities. “It also contains good advice about how to encourage more race talk and how to facilitate dialogues about race,” Bocala says.Buy it: $27, bookshop.org (Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery)
10Parenting for Liberation: A Guide for Raising Black Children, by Trina Greene BrownBrown fills a critical gap with this guidebook for parents and guardians of Black children. Her work, which spans personal anecdote, reflective prompts, and practical exercises, encourages readers to dismantle harmful narratives about Black family life—and gives them the tools to parent with liberation rather than fear. “It’s about how Black children can have freedom and joy in their lives, within a context of trauma and violence,” says Jamia Wilson, author, speaker, and the executive director of The Feminist Press.Buy it: $20, brainlairbooks.com
11Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, by Bell HooksThis books is a record of Hooks’s desires and visions to make classrooms grounds where freedom can be learned. It suggests a new kind of teaching with a clear goal: To help students transgress the ideas and structures creating boundaries around race and sexual identity. “This is a book to read and reread across a lifetime, whether you are a ‘teacher’ or not, to keep disrupting the learning practices our white supremacist educations instilled,” says Atom Atkinson, director of writing programs at Catapult.Buy it: $54, bookshop.org (Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery)
12The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel WilkersonThis book chronicles three Black citizens, of almost 6 million, who fled the South between 1915 and 1970 in search of better lives and opportunities. Wilkerson brilliantly captures historical details, and “sets the stage for why communities of color have continued to struggle, despite efforts to remove themselves from the harsh grips of racial strife in America,” Hilliard says. “The text humanizes history with a vivid account of their lives as they navigate the search…for what they believe will set them free.”Buy it: $18, mahoganybooks.com
13The Racial Healing Handbook, by Anneliese A. SinghYep, you’ll need a pen to take notes and do your homework. This interactive workbook centralizes around the idea that for society to heal from racism, we need to come to terms with collective feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety; unlearn the process of racism; and reeducate in ways that can bridge racial divides. “Plan to take an in-depth look at your history, friendships, and experiences with racism,” Hilliard says. “This is a great guide and framework to help navigate racism, check your privilege, and make meaningful progress toward becoming a racial ally.”Buy it: $25, brainlairbooks.com
14Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, by Eve L. EwingIt’s safe to say that, as a student, then teacher, and now a scholar studying Chicago’s public schools, Ewing knows them well. This book illuminates the racist politics at play that were responsible for a wave of school closures in 2013—leaving 12,000 children, 88% of them Black, without a pivotal neighborhood touchstone. “While the book speaks specifically to her city (and mine), it’s a profound examination of how systemic racism affects our institutions, and what community activists and organizers are doing to fight it,” says author and writing teacher Megan Stielstra.Buy it: $15, bookshop.org (Turning Page Bookshop)
15Letter to My Daughter, by Maya AngelouThese essays offer a series of compassionate, honest, and absorbing lessons from one of our best-loved writers. It’s Angelou’s guide to living well, for her daughters everywhere. (“I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters,” Angelou writes.) The book details her turbulent life, while “speaking truth to power,” Wilson says. “There’s so much in it that resonates related to the grief we’re feeling now, the collective outrage, and the indignities Black people experience as part of overt and covert racism.”Buy it: $17, loyaltybookstores.com
16The Fire Next Time, by James BaldwinA searing book of essays by one of America’s favorite authors, this influential text from the emerging civil rights movement details intersectionality between race, religion, and more. Through Baldwin’s life in Harlem and two open “letters,” he urges Americans, BIPOC or not, to fight the terrible racism imprinted on the soul of a nation. “This is a book that all Americans should read again and again,” says Julia Fierro, author and founder of The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. “And Baldwin’s book should be read with The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, an anthology edited by Jesmyn Ward.”Buy it: $13, frugalbookstore.net
17Heavy: An American Memoir, by Kiese LaymonIn his memoir, Laymon uses the personal to draw attention to a great American paradox: a nation obsessed with opportunity and progress, yet skilled in the avoidance of who that advancement is for. Each provocative reflection invites the reader to explore what a lifetime of deception does to a Black body, a Black family, and a country on the edge of collapse. “Laymon is a phenomenal writer who gives the reader the great privilege of access to his most intimate experiences, both physical and emotional,” Fierro says. “I felt changed after reading Heavy.”Buy it: $26, mahoganybooks.com
18Everyday Antiracism, edited by Mica PollockWithin this collection of essays, various scholars and educators pose challenging questions about race in schools. Along with each prompt, experts offer a slew of effective ways that educators can analyze classroom interactions, incorporate race into curriculums, address racial categories and inequality, and close achievement gaps in their classrooms. Essays are “short enough to be read through in one sitting,” Bocala says. “Each chapter ends with three takeaway points: a ‘principle’ to summarize the big idea, a ‘strategy’ to suggest implications of the idea, and a ‘try tomorrow,’ with a concrete suggestion for action.”Buy it: $23, bookshop.org (Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery)
19How We Fight For Our Lives, by Saeed JonesJones’s memoir weaves together a series of vignettes about growing up as gay Black man in the South. Each narrative pieces together a yearning to know where he belongs—in his family, in his country, and in relation to his wants and fears. “The language is breathtakingly gorgeous, with each story building toward the bigger picture of race and queerness and grief and love in America,” Stielstra says.Buy it: $26, mahoganybooks.com
20Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, edited by Glory EdimFrom editor Glory Edim, the founder of the popular Well-Read Black Girl book club, and a whole canon of powerful Black writers—including Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward, and Tayari Jones—comes an anthology dedicated to the importance of recognizing ourselves in literature. Each essay offers an ultra-timely reminder of why we turn to books in times of struggle. Wilson says about reading Edim’s work: “I feel like I’m in church.”Buy it: $20, mahoganybooks.com
21Discourse on Colonialism, by Aimé CésairePublished in France in 1955, this classic essay influenced a generation of scholars and activists fighting for liberation in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean—and 20 years later the civil rights movement in America. Césaire describes the brutal impacts of colonization on all parties, and reminds us that a just society first requires decolonized minds. Discourse—a “blistering indictment” of the “violent protocols of Western empire”—offers “necessary historical context for those new to contemporary struggles against racism, police brutality, mass incarceration, and other encroaching threats to freedom and justice,” says Rich Blint, program director of Race and Ethnicity at The New School.Buy it: $16, bookshop.org (Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery)
22Caucasia, by Danzy SennaThis book chronicles the life of a mixed-race family with two daughters: Birdie (who appears white) and Cole (who’s dark enough to fit in with the other kids at their Afrocentric school). When their parents divorce, Birdie and Cole are split up, at a loss for how to find one another. According to Wilson, it’s a “beautiful, powerful, and haunting” work on “the politics of race” in America—a must-read “for someone who might want to explore and understand the complexities of race, beyond skin tone.”Buy it: $15, loyaltybookstores.com
23Native Son, by Richard WrightThis novel tells a powerful and unsparing tale of a young Black man who, in the grips of hopelessness, poverty, and panic, kills a young white woman. Wright highlights how main character Bigger Thomas, like many other Black men, had the odds of jail time stacked against him from the start. “This novel transformed my perspective more than any other novel I’ve read,” Fierro says, “shattering the ignorant preconceptions I had about race and class, and rearranging my perspective so I had the beginning of a new understanding of the immense challenges people of color experience.”Buy it: $17, mahoganybooks.com
24Sula, by Toni MorrisonMorrison traces the lives of two young Black girls from small-town Ohio, following them along their very different paths into womanhood—where, ultimately, they’re demanded to confront and reconcile their differences. Together, their stories offer two intimate and moving portraits of life as Black women in America. “Morrison’s complicated consideration of the contradictions of Black life in the context of white supremacy adds an accessible existential dimension to the purely sociological analyses of our ongoing racial emergency,” Blint explains.Buy it: $15, mahoganybooks.com
25Homegoing, by Yaa GyasiIn this book, two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born in different villages in Ghana. Effia marries a rich Englishman and lives a cushy life in Cape Coast Castle. Esi is sold, with thousands of others, into the slave trade bound for America. Gyasi’s novel follows both sisters and their parallel lives, generation after generation, showing a family shaped by two sides of history. “What [Gyasi] did here—illustrating the effect of systemic racism and colonialism on every generation of a Black family across 400 years—was so ambitious and masterfully executed,” Card explains. “While it doesn’t delve too deeply into any particular moment in time it answers the question of how America got to where we are now with such clarity and precision.”Buy it: $16, mahoganybooks.com