How to Be an Antiracist weaves a solid theoretical description of racism with a very personal memoir of how he came to term with each aspect, starting as a third grader who noticed that the teacher called on the white students much more often than others–and bravely pointed that out to her. (Many of the experiences he relates show him in decidedly non-hero roles, which makes the book all the more credible and interesting.)
Not surprisingly, it’s a lot more difficult to be an antiracist than simply not be a racist, and I wish that the book had more practical suggestions on how to proceed, but it’s thought- and action-provoking.
The author of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race considers himself black, and certainly his father does (his mother is white) but has blond, blue-eyed children with his wife, also a white woman. And it makes him think about race, racism, and our perhaps unnecessary obsession with categorizing people in rigid categories.
There Will Be No Miracles Here starts and end in a combative and confusing mood–but do persevere to the (vast) middle part, which tells the story of a rough childhood, followed by a football scholarships to Yale and entry into Wall Street. This is not a simple success story, and the author takes great care to explore the stunning contrast between his impoverished neighborhood and the halls of power, as well as the prejudices and twisted logic that allow schools and other institutions in poor neighborhoods to wither while the rich congratulate themselves on helping a chosen few to escape.
You would be bitter, too.
Breathe: A Letter to My Sons is both a memoir of the author’s experience of racism, sometimes blatant, as with the high school teacher who was a great teacher, but only for the white kids in her class, sometimes less obvious, in the Ivy-League universities where she studied and now teaches, but still there. There are some touching moments, as when she explains who Jesse Jackson is to her sons, for whom he would be lost in the past, and others when she laments along with other parents the loss of boredom in favor of screens.
The Nickel Boys stars an African-American high schooler who seems just about perfect: smart, hard working, kind. But after accepting a ride to college in a stolen car, he is sent to a hellish reform “school” where boys, and especially African-American boys are half-starved, beaten, and abused, sometimes to death. Basing the story on an all-too-real institution, the author recreates the inexorable grinding down of a promising young man (and his cohort) at the hand of sadistic, corrupt administrators.
The book reminded me of Solitary, which tells contemporary, but just as horrifying story of racist prison abuse, with the difference that the inmates in Solitary are grown men.
Susan Straight’s family, considered jointly with her ex-husband’s, contains an astonishing number of remarkable women who fled poverty, violence, slavery, and quite a number of bad men. In The Country of Women recounts their stories, moving from the present to the distant past in chapters that hopscotch across time and the country, and Switzerland as well. There is also a warm description of how her neighborhood sustains her and her daughters, and in turn expects her to help all manners of relatives and friends of the family. Family pictures enliven the lot
In The Gone Dead, Billie James’s black father died in suspicious circumstances, years go, in Mississippi, and his daughter, who grew up with her white mother in Philadelphia goes back “home” to investigate. She will face a hostile set of neighbors and family members who just don’t want to revisit the past, let alone share it with her. Some characters, and notably an ambitious academic who is writing a biography of her dad, a poet, are aptly drawn, but the story itself is elongated to the point of ennui. Too bad because the plot is compelling and complex.