421 How to Be an Antiracist

howtobeanantiracistby Ibram X. Kendi, 2019

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a nonfiction book about anti-racism.

I’ve wanted to read Ibram X. Kendi’s followup to his phenomenal Stamped from the Beginning since it was published. His first work really changed the way I thought about racism in America (I argue that the book’s subtitle should be “Everything is Racist and So Are You”), particularly the theory that racism doesn’t spring from hate, but from economic greed that needed an oppressed class to thrive. We usually think of racism as an individual failing, but it’s much more of a top-down process, whereby the culture in which we live is steeped in racism and individuals have little choice but to have racist ideas implanted in their brains. Kendi’s sophomore effort tackles the work needed to liberate ourselves from these racist bonds. According to Kendi, there is no “not racist.” Either a person is a racist or an antiracist; no space exists in between.

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415 Sister Outsider

bsisteroutsidery Audre Lorde, 1984

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read an LGBTQ+ history book.

I’m not certain that this book truly qualifies as a history of LGBTQ people or the movement, but as Audre Lorde was certainly one of the most outspoken voices on sexuality, race, and gender and, therefore, highly important to the movement, I feel this book fulfills the spirit of the task, if not the specifics of it. I was first introduced to Audre Lorde when I was in grad school, but I sadly remember nothing of what I read, and she has remained a blind spot in my knowledge of feminist writers. When I saw this book as a suggestion for the task on the Goodreads thread, I jumped at the chance to get to know more about this pivotal writer and what her teachings could offer us today. The book is a collection of essays and speeches, spanning from 1976 through 1984, and covering a wide range of topics that deal with blackness, womanhood, lesbianism, motherhood, classism, and the need for allyship among all who are oppressed. Much of what she says is surprisingly still relevant, as we continue to deal with the same problems of inequality that have plagued us for centuries.

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414 Infectious Madness

infectiousmadnessby Harriet A. Washington, 2015

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a book that demystifies a common mental illness.

I found this book on a whim and was drawn to it by its premise. What if all the diseases we considered to be faults of the mind are actually the result of infectious pathogens? How would that change our understanding of mental illness? Would that finally give some legitimacy to those who are maligned for being mentally unwell? How would this change the healthcare industry as well as our own individual perceptions? The idea is fascinating, especially since science has already proven some previously thought mental ailments to be symptoms of viral or bacterial infections—Washington notes right away that the disease of paresis, which is characterized by dementia and paralysis, is absent in the developed world, as it is not a psychological illness in and of itself but a symptom of late-stage syphilis, for which we now have an easy and readily available cure. Washington attempts to investigate what else might be cloaked under the stigma of mental illness and whose origins might be located in a treatable infection. While the idea is a bold and necessary one, the manner in which she reports her findings in this book is, well, less than convincing.

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413 I Am Not Your Negro

iamnotyournegrobookby James Baldwin, edited by Raoul Peck, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro is Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary based on the writings of James Baldwin. In 1979, Baldwin began working on a book about America as told through the deaths of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The book was to be called Remember This House, but Baldwin never got past thirty pages of notes before his death in 1987. Twenty years later, Peck wrote to the Baldwin estate to ask for the rights to produce a film on the writer’s life and work. He wasn’t yet sure what form that film would take until Baldwin’s sister Gloria Karefa-Smart gave him the notes to her brother’s unfinished project, saying, “You’ll know what to do with these.” From this, Peck developed the idea to finish this book through the medium of film, with the three men and Baldwin serving as a means by which to tell the story of America.

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412 The Cross of Redemption

crossofredemptionby James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan, 2010

As I’m nearing the end of the Baldwin catalog, I’ve reached the posthumously published works. The Cross of Redemption is a collection of Baldwin’s published writings that were previously uncollected in any one book. These include various essays, speeches, letters, forewords and afterwords to other books, book reviews, and even a piece of short fiction. While there are some real gems to be found here, the problem with a collection like this is that it treats Baldwin’s work as a cohesive whole. His previous collections of essays were curated, and they were meant to tell a story together. That’s not the case here. There’s no thread that ties all of these together, other than the fact that Baldwin wrote them and the editor has decided that each piece of his writing is of equal importance and must be read. It’s not for the casual Baldwin reader or someone looking for an introduction to his works. I’d only recommend it for those who are trying to read everything he’s written or who are embarking on some sort of research project. That said, I did enjoy encountering some of Baldwin’s typical knock-out writing in this volume.

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409 One Day When I Was Lost

onedaywheniwaslostby James Baldwin, 1972

It wasn’t until I did some research for my podcast episode about The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s film that I learned that, while several writers attempted to write a script based on the book, Lee ultimately chose Baldwin’s effort on which to base his epic masterpiece. One Day When I Was Lost is the screenplay that was never realized on film. Baldwin chronicled some of the difficulties of writing for Hollywood in The Devil Finds Work, in which he relates that he was encouraged to increase the action sequences and learned that the script would be cut to emphasize entertainment. Baldwin abandoned the project, and his writing was produced only in book form until Lee decided to work from it in the early 90s. As such, the book bears strong resemblances to the resulting film. It doesn’t necessarily feel complete, but it is a clear stepping stone to what I consider to be the best movie I’ve ever seen.

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404 Octavia’s Brood

octaviasbroodedited by adrienne marie brown and Walidah Imarisha, 2015

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read an SFF anthology edited by a person of color.

When I saw this book suggested in the Goodreads thread for this task, I knew immediately that it would be the one I would choose. With Octavia Butler being my 2018 Year Of author, I couldn’t pass up the chance to read a collection of stories that had been inspired by her own fiction. Add to the fact that these science-fiction stories all deal with social justice in some way, and you have something that’s 100% up my alley. In fact, editor Imarisha posits in her introduction that all social justice work is science fiction. When we imagine a world without war, violence, prisons, or capitalism, that is speculative fiction (the broader category which includes science fiction, fantasy, and horror). Imarisha further invokes the term “visionary fiction” to refer to science fiction that has “relevance toward building new, freer worlds from the mainstream of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power.” That’s what all of these works aim to do: offer criticism for our world’s shortcomings in order to build worlds in which all might be free.

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398 Blues for Mister Charlie

bluesformistercharlieby James Baldwin, 1964

Blues for Mister Charlie is Baldwin’s second play, and it’s one that draws inspiration from then-current events. In his author’s note, Baldwin explains that it is based on the case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman. The murderers were known—the accuser’s husband and his half-brother—but were acquitted by an all-white jury of beating, mutilating, and shooting the boy. While we know now that Till’s accuser fabricated this claim, it was certainly suspected at the time, and Baldwin gives credence to these suspicions in a story that centers around the killing of a young black man accused by a white woman of grabbing her. His murderer also goes free, the court justifying his actions of both killing an innocent man and lying on the stand when questioned about it. 

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396 Nothing Personal

nothingpersonalby James Baldwin, 1964

In 1964, Baldwin collaborated with the photographer Richard Avedon to produce a collection of photographs underscored by Baldwin’s prose. That essay has since been republished as a stand-alone work, allowing the focus to be entirely on Baldwin’s critique of the problems plaguing America. As is often the case, his words seem to reach out from beyond the years to describe us as we are today. Although only about 50 pages, the essay is a grand introduction to Baldwin’s most frequently visited topic: the problem of race in the supposed “land of the free.”

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395 The Amen Corner

amencornerby James Baldwin, 1954

James Baldwin’s stepfather was a Baptist preacher, and when Baldwin was a teenager, he, too, felt called to preach. However, his work with the church was short-lived, as he quickly came to see it was steeped in racism and hypocrisy. This disillusionment is one of the main points of focus of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and it resurfaces here in his first play, published shortly thereafter. The Amen Corner centers on Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a church in Harlem. Her sister Odessa, 18-year-old son David, and estranged husband Luke also factor into the story. When Luke returns to Margaret’s life, she soon learns that the church she has so lovingly devoted her time to is not the fount of unwavering support she believed it to be.

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