The Accidental Reading List

12 books that guided a group of retirees toward understanding systemic racism.

Posted Jun 10, 2020

Patricia E Prijatel
Source: Patricia E Prijatel

Our church book club in Des Moines, Iowa, is a group of white—and white-haired—retired Episcopalians. We have a dozen or so members at any given time: a batch of teachers, a couple of writers, one lawyer, a deacon, a dental hygienist, a social worker, an insurance expert, an art historian, and a woodworker. We started with one lone male, but eventually, two other men joined.

We’ve been meeting for more than 10 years and we read fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, essays, and poetry. Occasionally we read a book that might be considered “religious,” but our reach is broad and eclectic. We embrace whatever piques our interest. Many books center around the causes we work on when not reading: criminal justice reform, food insecurity, voting rights, equality in education, the environment.

We have one rule: Somebody in the group has to have read, and recommended, any book to which we commit.

About six years ago, we started a blog in which we review the books we’ve read, basically for our personal reference. Many of those books reflect our own lives. But many have pushed us out of our comfort zone and reminded us that our black neighbors live in a different world than we do. We haven’t specifically gone looking for works by black authors—they have usually found us because of their vivid storytelling and powerful messages.

We meet every Friday morning and, back in the days when we had three-dimensional lives, we shared kolaches, scones, cookies, and cakes with coffee. The woodworker, my husband, usually made the treats. Now we see one another on Zoom.

But we always talk about the book. Always. And our discussions are remarkable. We’ve been together long enough that we can reference a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates while reading one by Isabel Wilkerson. And we see the patterns from book to book: black people working hard, getting good jobs, moving into nice neighborhoods, and then being faced with white flight, the closing of stores, property values plummeting, and the benign police presence being replaced with a repressive one. Of black men being charged with crimes they could not possibly have committed, and black women facing heartbreak after heartbreak, having to raise children on their own, with their only options being humiliating and menial jobs for which they are vastly overqualified and under-appreciated.

The more we read, the more we realize how little we know. We’ve moved our needles more toward understanding, and we’ll keep at it, knowing this will always be a work in progress.

The 12 books below, listed with a comment from the review on our blog, have provided an excellent foundation for our own lives, and maybe this accidental list can help others. We’ve read these books simply because they sounded interesting at the time. They look at systemic racism in the workplace, in prison, in housing; they show us the lives of former slaves, of corporate lawyers, and professional men and women not allowed to use bathrooms or stay at a motel or go to a decent school, or even live life without being constantly under suspicion.

They are all elegantly written and immensely readable. They introduce us to characters—real and fictional—whose spirits are tried by a social and economic system that requires them to live by a set of rules that puts barrier after barrier in their way and then judges them for not overcoming these formidable odds.

Reading is listening. For however long it takes to finish a book, the reader is hearing the author’s voice, acknowledging their reality and, ideally, understanding their message. We listen and we learn.

And so, our group of church ladies and gentlemen keeps reading, keeps listening, keeps discussing, keeps learning.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

In her massive, beautifully written and masterly account of the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the greatest untold stories of American History – the exodus of almost six million black citizens who fled the south for northern and western cities in search of a better life – forever changing the United States, especially the makeup of big cities. 

With stunning historical detail to describe the migration, Wilkerson focuses on biographies of three very different migrants; each representing a different decade as well as a different destination and each carrying with them a different set of circumstances that factored into their decisions to leave. The details of routine racial discrimination that these people faced both before and after migrating are horrifyingly vivid and impossible to ignore.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates has addressed this memoir to his 15-year-old son; he offers it as both a warning and a loving guide to living in 21st-century America. Early on, he relates the fears of his youth while growing up in West Baltimore. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid… The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats… which was their armor against their world.” In this world, everybody knew someone who had lost a child or adult life to violence, jail, or drugs. “I saw it (fear) in my own father, who loves you.” But if the young Coates got in trouble, which he said he often did, his father would crack the belt, “which he applied with more anxiety than anger.”

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative to defend those often wrongly condemned and trapped in the criminal justice system. He tells the story of what has happened in that system, to whom it has happened (mainly poor and/or dark-skinned people), why it has happened, what it costs – both in terms of dollars and suffering. But mainly he shows us people like ourselves, but without affluent white privilege: Walter McMillan, a black man sentenced to die for a murder he patently did not commit; Herbert Richardson, a traumatized young veteran who only meant to scare a pretty young nurse into his arms with a homemade bomb, but killed a child instead; and Marsha Colbey, a mother who suffered the sadness of a stillborn child, but was demonized as a murderous parent because she was very poor.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

Exhaustively researched and carefully crafted, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is an important book for anyone who is trying to understand institutional racism in America. But it is not an easy read. Alexander demonstrates how the war on drugs and the war on crime have fostered a culture that presumes criminality lies in the bodies and souls of black people, particularly black boys and young men. That presumption begets fear and that fear lies at the heart of all the incidents of police brutality that have been recently exposed. And so much more. It’s an essential read for those who once again try to enter the work of bringing about “a more perfect union.”

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

This young adult novel was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the title comes from rapper Tupac Shakir’s THUG LIFE philosophy (and tattoo), an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody. Shakir says, "What you feed us as seeds, grows and blows up in your face." When you force kids to live in a community that offers few opportunities besides drug dealing, you allow children to grow up broken and angry. But those are our kids, even if they don't look or act like us—or we like them—and their world is connected to ours. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Ideally, we would be motivated to help black children get the same benefits as white because that is simply part of a just society. But THUG LIFE reminds us that, no matter our motivation, our inaction will come back to hurt us all.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

This memoir follows the early years of Angelou’s amazing life, which was framed by being a black woman of talent and ambition in the early decades of the 20th century—she was born in 1928—and by a rape when she was 8 years old. She was so traumatized by the rape that she refused to speak for several years. A teacher brought her out of her shell by recognizing her love of books and encouraged her to read out loud. Her teenage years added additional difficulty—she grew to be six feet tall, had no self-confidence, believed she was ugly, and had been stung more than once by bigotry. The book shows the personal, cultural, economic, and career challenges she faced and how she persevered to become one of America’s most respected and honored writers. 

The Color of Water, by James McBride

The Color of Water is told in two voices, which alternate throughout the book. In telling his mother’s story, along with his, James McBride addresses racial identity with compassion, insight, and realism. It is, in a word, inspiring. His mother is Jewish, his father is Black. James reports that he grew up in “orchestrated chaos,” with his eleven siblings in the poor, all-black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. As a child, he became aware that his mother was different from others around him. She was white, and she kept secrets. It is her voice, unique, incisive, at once unsparing and ironic, that is dominant in this paired history and its richest contribution. In the answer that gives the book its title, she says “God’s not black. He’s not white. God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.” 

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Celestial and Roy have been married a little over a year when he is falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison. They’re both smart, educated, ambitious, highly focused, and African-American. He’s a marketing pro, she’s an artist. He’s her muse, she’s his inspiration. Tayari Jones follows the couple through Roy’s incarceration, building up layers of background stories to question just what marriage is and how being African-American defines it. This is a story of affluent Americans who face challenges typical of many couples, but who also have the issue of race as a threat in the shadows. Roy is clearly innocent, yet it takes his lawyer five years to work past the bigoted local justice system to get him cleared. Then he returns to find what home now looks like and to deal with a brittle spirit that has endured evils he never knew existed.

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

Mbue, herself an immigrant from Cameroon, writes about two couples, one Cameroon, the other their upscale employers in New York City. She weaves the difficult decisions that many immigrants face—tenuous finances that cannot withstand a crisis in a county that mistrusts them no matter how hard they work because of their color—with the looming financial crisis of 2008.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison says she intended her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel to be disorienting, and she succeeded. She throws readers into the internal chaos faced by former slaves, who live in a constant state of grief, anxiety, and determination. This book is the ultimate definition of showing rather than telling. As we read, our minds try to make sense of a story that is non-linear to the extreme, that is usually unclear and unexplained. But Morrison wants us to experience, at least to a small degree, what it felt like to be a slave. "Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another," says the main character, Sethe, late in the book.

Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

Two men return to the Jim Crow world of the Mississippi Delta from World War II; one is black, one is white. Both have lived a life far freer than the one they now face. Ronsel Jackson is the son of sharecroppers, and Jamie McAllan is the brother of the owner of Mudbound, the cotton farm that ties the two men and their families together. It’s a miserable place, the owner’s house little more than a shack, the people mired both in mud and a system of rules that keeps everybody—black, white, men, women—in their narrowly defined space.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Obama takes readers by the hand on an intimate tour of everyday African-American life and ambition, while recounting her rise from modest origins to the closest America has to nobility. Gracefully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny, she invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her from her childhood to the White House. Despite her family’s challenges and her “female blackness,” she managed to go to Princeton, then Harvard Law, and then to work at a prestigious law firm where she met Barack, fell for him and his wanderlust, while Barack was grounded by her traditionalism.