by Toni Morrison, 1992
To round out my Year of Toni Morrison, I thought I would dip into one of her nonfiction books. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is a compilation of three lectures on, you guessed it, whiteness in literature. This is a topic I’ve often pondered myself, as you can walk into any bookstore and find an “African-American” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” section, but there is no “White” section. While finding a “White” books section would be, no doubt, horrifying, the truth is that it does not exist because white is considered to be the default and every other race or ethnicity is positioned as the other. “African-American” is a demographic, not a genre, and yet we treat these authors – and readers – as if it were. “Until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white,” she writes. “I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination.” Me too, Ms. Morrison. Me too.
by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2017
“Required reading” is a phrase I’ve been using a lot these days, but it’s still the phrase I would use to describe the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was with bated breath that I placed a hold on his new book a month prior to its publication and I gleefully picked it up from the library on the day it was released. I had thoroughly enjoyed Between the World and Me and was excited to get my hands on this collection of essays. Now, perhaps because I had just read Michael Eric Dyson, whose dynamism cannot be matched, or perhaps because I had such pent up anticipation, which never leads to anything but disappointment, I found I was less enamored of this book than I expected I would be. I hadn’t realized this wouldn’t be new material and, accordingly, it did not attack the subject manner in the way I had assumed it would. I don’t read The Atlantic, so while the material was new to me and I was glad to be able to access it in a collected volume, I felt that they didn’t quite come together to paint a cohesive picture. But, there is still so much to be gained from Coates’s words and I will argue with anyone that his voice is a necessary one in our world today.
by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903
There is a certain sense of wonder – or is it chagrin? – when reading a hundred-year-old book that exemplifies the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Such is the case with W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays published at the turn of the 20th century that are, sadly, as poignant today as they were a mere 40 years post-Emancipation. Race relations have no doubt improved greatly since then, yet not so much as to prevent the reader from sitting slack-jawed and wondering if Du Bois were writing these words today. He and his ideas are far from obsolete.
by Rebecca Solnit, 2014
Ah, mansplaining. Who among us hasn’t suffered to listen to a man tell us what we already know? In my case, it’s most often come from those telling me how to run my business when they have no knowledge of said business and no idea why I’ve made some of the very valid decisions I’ve made (like, what you are insisting I do is, in fact, illegal in this state). Mansplaining is not new, but the term gained quite the life after the publication of the essay that bears the same name as this book. What starts as a humorous anecdote of Solnit being schooled on a book that she wrote turns into a much needed examination of women’s silencing. And before you’re quick to jump to the defense, Solnit readily admits that [hashtag] not all men are like this. I know not all men are like this too, but I’ll be damned if not all women have been affected by some of the behavior she discusses in this essay collection.
by Laura Jones & Heather McDaid, eds., 2017
Leave it to Book Riot to not only force me to read outside of my typical bounds, but also to lead me right to the perfect books at the perfect times. When I read their article extolling British indie publisher 404 Ink‘s Nasty Women: A Collection of Essays & Accounts on What It Is Like to Be a Woman in the 21st Century, I jumped at the chance to use it to fulfill the “read a book published by a micropress” challenge task. While the book went immediately out of print on the day of its release – International Women’s Day – I was pleased to receive notice the very next day that the ebook was available for immediate download. Download I did and not only am I glad to have crossed off this difficult task, I’m happy to have done it while also providing support to the authors speaking on these very necessary subjects.
by James Baldwin, 1963
“A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”
I read that sentence and it was as if I had been struck. Much of the book hit me in this way, coming at me as if its words were desperate to be seen. For although The Fire Next Time was written over 50 years ago, its message is, to put it indelicately, TIMELY AS FUCK. This should be history, I thought to myself. I should not be able to identify with this as closely as I do. We should have moved past this by now. Yet there I was, feeling the full weight of Baldwin’s call to action as if it had been published yesterday. It is disheartening and maddening to know how much we need Baldwin’s writings today, but how amazing it is that we have his voice to put out into the world what many of us struggle to put into words. We need writers to do this for us and, even after his death, James Baldwin does the job perfectly.
by Leslie Jamison, 2014
I was first drawn to The Empathy Exams when I read an article about its titular essay. In it, the author recounts her days as an actor of sorts, one who mimics ailments for medical students to diagnose in effort to improve their skills. The essay interested me because, a) I had no idea such a thing existed, and b) how else would doctors learn to listen to patients and not run them over with their own ideas of their problems? Empathy is no doubt lacking in our society…from those with privilege refusing to understand the plight of those without to those who would enact laws that have no effect on them to, yes, those who would attempt to cure a body without listening to the one inhabiting said body. Empathy is a great topic to tackle. I wish I could say Jamison did it better.