Summer is often a time to relax with a good, light novel or four. Why not use this summer as a time to learn more about social justice and the change each person can make? Books on social justice offer us lessons on social experiences, relationships and aspects of history that are below the surface. They offer another perspective and might even inspire us.
Here’s an offering of books that teach.
Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 2010.
In the years following the Civil War, Southern legislators designed “Jim Crow” laws to thwart the newly emancipated Black population, notably curbing voting rights. Under the laws, Black people also, increasingly, found themselves “relegated to convict leasing camps that were, in many ways, worse than slavery.” If Jim Crow was an effective means of controlling the Black population, then modern mass incarceration, Alexander argues, is its successor.
— The Guardian
Jorge Argueta. Somos Como Las Nubes/We Are Like the Clouds. 2016.
Somos Como Las Nubes/We Are Like the Clouds is a moving collection of bilingual free verse poems. This is one of the few books that I have encountered about the heartbreaking experiences of children who leave their homes to embark on their journey to the United States. This collection … begins with poetry depicting the experiences and sights of the children’s home countries. The poetry then shifts to the journey that children take to get to the United States. The author includes poems that describe the fears of traveling on La Bestia (a fast-moving train that many migrants use to travel), discuss being accompanied by “coyotes,” and describe children’s feelings as they cross the deserts.
— Sanjuana C. Rodriguez, Ph.D.
James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time. 1963.
A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document
It consists of two "letters," written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both Black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism. Described by The New York Times Book Review as "sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle ... all presented in searing, brilliant prose," The Fire Next Time stands as a classic of our literature.
Kate Bornstein. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. 1994.
A thoughtful challenge to gender ideology that continually asks difficult questions about identity, orientation and desire. Bornstein cleverly incorporates cultural criticism, dramatic writing and autobiography to make her point that gender (which she distinguishes from sex) is a cultural rather than a natural phenomenon. The chapters range from “fashion tips” on her writing style to dialogue between herself and another about the “nuts and bolts” of the surgical process of a gender change (which she has undergone). Confronting transgenderism and transgendered people is not easy for many individuals, but Bornstein does it in a way that sparks debate without putting her audience on the defensive.
Sandra Cisneros. The House on Mango Street. 1991.
The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.
Told in a series of vignettes — sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous — it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become.
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. 2015.
In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of Black women and men — bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a Black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Matthew Desmond. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. 2016.
In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond provides a revealing ethnography of how housing insecurity fuels a cycle of poverty, trapping generations of Americans in an intractable system stacked against poor renters. Throughout his book, Desmond reveals how governmental programs, landlords and the grueling continuous search to find safe and affordable housing ensnares already vulnerable populations in a perverse cycle, where evicted families increasingly pay a greater share of their income for rent, making it nearly impossible to escape poverty.
— David Prudente, Northeastern University
Robin DiAngelo. White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. 2018.
In … White Fragility, DiAngelo attempts to explicate the phenomenon of white people’s paper-thin skin. She argues that our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discomfort, so that they fall to pieces at the first application of stress — such as, for instance, when someone suggests that “flesh-toned” may not be an appropriate name for a beige crayon. Unused to unpleasantness (more than unused to it — racial hierarchies tell white people that they are entitled to peace and deference), they lack the “racial stamina” to engage in difficult conversations. This leads them to respond to “racial triggers” … with “emotions such as anger, fear and guilt,” DiAngelo writes, “and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.”
— The New Yorker
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. 2014.
American Indian activist and scholar Dunbar-Ortiz (The Great Sioux Nation) launches a full-bore attack on what she perceives as the glaring gaps in U.S. history about the continent’s native peoples. Professional historians have increasingly been teaching much of what Dunbar-Ortiz writes about yet, given what she argues is the vast ignorance of the Indigenous experience, there still remains a knowledge deficit that needs to be rectified. She describes the U.S. as “a colonialist settler state, one that, like the colonialist European states, crushed and subjugated the original civilizations in the territories it now rules.
— Publishers Weekly
Michael Eric Dyson. Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. 2017.
Short, emotional, literary, powerful ― Tears We Cannot Stop is the book that all Americans who care about the current and long-burning crisis in race relations will want to read.
As the country grapples with racist division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice soars above the rest with conviction and compassion. In his 2016 New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot Stop ― a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how Black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted.
Andrea Elliott. Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City. 2021.
Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, is sure to linger in the minds of many readers long after the last page has been turned.
The book takes on poverty, homelessness, racism, addiction, hunger, and more as they shape the lives of one remarkable girl and her family. The invisible child of the title is Dasani Coates. We meet Dasani in 2012, when she is 11 years old and living with her parents, Chanel and Supreme, and seven siblings in one of New York City’s shelters for families experiencing homelessness. At the time, Elliott is researching what would become a five-part series featuring Dasani in The New York Times. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist ultimately follows Dasani and her family for a period of eight years, tracking a stunning array of heartrending tragedies and remarkable triumphs.
Cathy Park Hong: Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. 2020.
Halfway through her debut essay collection, Minor Feelings, author and artist Cathy Park Hong makes clear her mission: “I have some scores to settle ... with this country, with how we have been scripted.”
The "we" here are Asian Americans and how we’re seen in this country in a time when the us-versus-them dynamic can feel overpowering. In Minor Feelings, the author asks us to reconsider the effects of racism against Asian Americans and how it persists.
“The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write,” she notes, “I’m shadowed by the thought that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport.”
Deepa Iyer. We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future. 2015.
Iyer asks whether hate crimes should be considered domestic terrorism and explores the role of the state in perpetuating racism through detentions, national registration programs, police profiling and constant surveillance. She looks at topics including Islamophobia in the Bible Belt; the “Bermuda Triangle” of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim hysteria; and the energy of new reform movements, including those of “undocumented and unafraid” youth and Black Lives Matter.>
In a book that reframes the discussion of race in America, a brilliant young activist provides ideas from the front lines of post-9/11 America.
Ibram X. Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist. 2019.
Kendi’s argument is brilliantly simple. An idea, action or policy is either racist – that is, contributing to a history that regards and treats different races as inherently unequal — or it is antiracist, because it is trying to dismantle that history. There is nothing in between. There is no pure state of racism or antiracism: people of all races and backgrounds can fall into either category depending on their ideas, actions or the policies they support.
… Antiracism takes effort. Kendi has made clear in his previous work that he rejects the idea that racism is born out of ignorance. Racism, history shows, is born out of its profitability and utility. It is rooted in patriarchy and capitalism. To stand against it requires acknowledging what he calls “the metastatic cancer” that has seen “racism spread to nearly every part of the body politic.”
— The Guardian
Martin Luther King Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1967.
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In this prophetic work, … he lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America’s future, including the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing and quality education. With a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to global suffering, asserting that humankind — for the first time — has the resources and technology to eradicate poverty.
Maxine Hong Kingston. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. 2011.
Kingston’s swift, effortlessly flowing verse lines feel instantly natural in this fresh approach to the art of memoir, as she circles from present to past and back, from lunch with a writer friend to the funeral of a Vietnam veteran, from her long marriage (“can’t divorce until we get it right. / Love, that is. Get love right”) to her arrest at a peace march in Washington, where she and her “sisters” protested the Iraq war in the George W. Bush years. Kingston embraces Thoreau’s notion of a “broad margin,” hoping to expand her vista: “I’m standing on top of a hill; / I can see everywhichway— / the long way that I came, and the few / places I have yet to go. Treat / my whole life as if it were a day.”
John Lewis. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. 1999.
An eloquent, epic firsthand account of the civil rights movement by a man who lived it — an American hero whose courage, vision and dedication helped change history. [The late John Lewis, t]he son of an Alabama sharecropper, … led an extraordinary life, one that found him at the epicenter of the civil rights movement in the late ’50s and ’60s. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was present at all the major battlefields of the movement. Arrested more than 40 times and severely beaten on several occasions, he was one of the youngest yet most courageous leaders.
Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider. 1984.
A collection of 15 essays written between 1976 and 1984 gives clear voice to Audre Lorde’s literary and philosophical personae. These essays explore and illuminate the roots of Lorde’s intellectual development and her deep-seated and longstanding concerns about ways of increasing empowerment among minority women writers and the absolute necessity to explicate the concept of difference — difference according to sex, race, and economic status. The title Sister Outsider finds its source in her poetry collection The Black Unicorn (1978). These poems and the essays in Sister Outsider stress Lorde’s oft-stated theme of continuity, particularly of the geographical and intellectual link between Dahomey, Africa, and her emerging self.
Heather McGhee. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. 2021.
It’s a self-defeating form of exclusion, a determination not to share resources even if the ultimate result is that everyone suffers. McGhee writes about health care, voting rights and the environment; she persuasively argues that white Americans have been steeped in the notion of “zero sum” — that any gains by another group must come at white people’s expense. She talks to scholars who have found that white respondents believed that anti-white bias was more prevalent than anti-Black bias, even though by any factual measure this isn’t true. This cramped mentality is another legacy of slavery, McGhee says, which really was zero sum — extractive and exploitative, like the settler colonialism that enabled it. She writes that zero-sum thinking “has always optimally benefited only the few while limiting the potential of the rest of us, and therefore the whole.”
— The New York Times
Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie and Kay Whitlock. Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. 2012.
Queer (In)Justice is a searing examination of queer experiences as “suspects,” defendants, prisoners and survivors of crime. The authors unpack queer criminal archetypes like “gleeful gay killers,” “lethal lesbians,” “disease spreaders” and “deceptive gender benders” to illustrate the punishment of queer expression, regardless of whether a crime was ever committed. Tracing stories from the streets to the bench to behind prison bars, they prove that the policing of sex and gender both bolsters and reinforces racial and gender inequalities.
— Beacon Press
Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. 1970.
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author’s girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of Black, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves’ garden do not bloom, Pecola’s life does change — in painful, devastating ways.
The Bluest Eye remains one of Toni Morrison’s most powerful, unforgettable novels — and a significant work of American fiction.
Jason Mott: Hell of a Book: A Novel. 2021.
In Hell of a Book, an African American author sets out on a cross-country book tour to promote his bestselling novel. That storyline drives Jason Mott’s novel and is the scaffolding of something much larger and more urgent: since his novel also tells the story of Soot, a young Black boy living in a rural town in the recent past, and The Kid, a possibly imaginary child who appears to the author on his tour.
Throughout, these characters’ stories build and build and as they converge, they astonish. For while this heartbreaking and magical book entertains and is at once about family, love of parents and children, art, and money, there always is the tragic story of a police shooting playing over and over on the news.
Ijeoma Oluo. Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. 2020.
What happens to a country that tells generation after generation of white men that they deserve power? What happens when success is defined by status over women and people of color, instead of by actual accomplishments?
Through the last 150 years of American history — from the post-reconstruction South and the mythic stories of cowboys in the West, to the present-day controversy over NFL protests and the backlash against the rise of women in politics — Ijeoma Oluo exposes the devastating consequences of white male supremacy on women, people of color, and white men themselves. Mediocre investigates the real costs of this phenomenon in order to imagine a new white male identity, one free from racism and sexism.
As provocative as it is essential, this book will upend everything you thought you knew about American identity and offers a bold new vision of American greatness.
— Seal Press
Tommy Orange: There There. 2018.
In that 10-page prologue, Orange wittily and witheringly riffs on some 500 years of Native people’s history, a history of genocide and dislocation presented mostly through the image of heads. He begins with a description of the "Indian Head test pattern," a graphic that closed out America’s television programming every night during the age of black-and-white TV. He then catapults backwards to 1621 and the first Thanksgiving, then bebops through a litany of Indian massacres in American history.
Aarti Shahani. Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares. 2019.
The Shahanis came to Queens — from India, by way of Casablanca — in the 1980s. They were undocumented for a few unsteady years and then, with the arrival of their green cards, they thought they’d made it. This is the story of how they did and didn’t; the unforeseen obstacles that propelled them into years of disillusionment and heartbreak; and the strength of a family determined to stay together.
Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares follows the lives of Aarti, the precocious scholarship kid at one of Manhattan’s most elite prep schools, and her dad, the shopkeeper who mistakenly sells watches and calculators to the notorious Cali drug cartel. Together, the two represent the extremes that coexist in our country, even within a single family, and a truth about immigrants that gets lost in the headlines. It isn’t a matter of good or evil; it’s complicated.
Ultimately, Here We Are is a coming-of-age story, a love letter from an outspoken modern daughter to her soft-spoken Old-World father. She never expected they’d become best friends.
— MacMillan Publishers
Clint Smith. How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. 2021.
How the Word Is Passed recounts Smith’s visits to historical sites in America and West Africa to interrogate how slavery and its deleterious aftermath are taught. Smith interviews white and Black tour guides on how they educated themselves about the sites where they work. He also interviews members of the public on their reactions to new information presented on the tours. Smith grounds his work in scholarship, citing primary sources such as letters and speeches, a wide range of historians, and the indispensable oral histories of former enslaved people recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project (part of the New Deal). The result is an eminently readable, thought-provoking volume, with a clear message to separate nostalgic fantasy and false narratives from history.
— The Washington Post
Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. 2014.
An unforgettable true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to end mass incarceration in America — from one of the most inspiring lawyers of our time.
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law office in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to defending the poor, the incarcerated, and the wrongly condemned.
Just Mercy tells the story of [Equal Justice Initiative], from the early days with a small staff facing the nation’s highest death sentencing and execution rates, through a successful campaign to challenge the cruel practice of sentencing children to die in prison, to revolutionary projects designed to confront Americans with our history of racial injustice.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. 2019.
The story of housing discrimination in America is complicated and rooted in a long history of racist policies stretching back to slavery. Well into the 20th century, the government systematically discriminated against Black homeowners through a process known as “redlining,” which constrained who could get decent mortgages for good homes and where those homes could be built.
In the ’70s, the government abandoned redlining in an attempt to level the playing field for everyone. This was seen as an improvement on overtly racist policies, but, in reality, the new practices reinforced the very problems they hoped to solve.
Taylor argues that the abolition of redlining led to a new type of housing discrimination, something she calls “predatory inclusion.” Under this model, bankers and real estate brokers worked in tandem with the government to support housing policies that fortified racial inequalities and made billions of dollars for the private sector.
James Welch. Fools Crow. 1987.
Set in Montana shortly after the Civil War, this novel tells of White Man’s Dog (later known as Fools Crow, so called after he killed the chief of the Crows during a raid), a young Blackfeet Indian on the verge of manhood, and his band, known as the Lone Eaters. The invasion of white society threatens to change their traditional way of life, and they must choose to fight or assimilate.
The story is a powerful portrait of a fading way of life. The story culminates with the historic Marias Massacre of 1870, in which the U.S. Cavalry mistakenly killed a friendly band of Blackfeet, consisting mostly of noncombatants.
Ida B. Wells. The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader. 2014.
The broadest and most comprehensive collection of writings available by an early civil and women’s rights pioneer. Seventy-one years before Rosa Parks’ courageous act of resistance, police dragged a young Black journalist named Ida B. Wells off a train for refusing to give up her seat. The experience shaped Wells’ career, and — when hate crimes touched her life personally — she mounted what was to become her life’s work: an anti-lynching crusade that captured international attention. This volume covers the entire scope of Wells’ remarkable career, collecting her early writings, articles exposing the horrors of lynching, essays from her travels abroad, and her later journalism. The Light of Truth is both an invaluable resource for study and a testament to Wells’ long career as a civil rights activist.
— Chicago Public Library
Isabel Wilkerson. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. 2020.
Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment. This is a topic that major historians and novelists have examined from many angles, with care, anger, deep feeling and sometimes simmering wit.
Wilkerson’s book is a work of synthesis. She borrows from all that has come before, and her book stands on many shoulders. Caste lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing.
— The New York Times