Empathy Through Reading: Recommendations During Racial Unrest

Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Race and politics used to be a faux pa in casual conversation. No longer. Rightly, the topic is on everyone’s minds and is being brought up in conversations big and small, with people you love and some you hardly know. The rule of thumb is forgotten, but the intensity of the conversation that blacklisted it from dialogue in the past still remains and may be stronger than ever before. 

As such, I have had conversations about race a lot lately. Sometimes I speak well, generating positive conversation that edifies both sides. Sometimes I do not, and let emotions get the best of me, benefiting no one. But regardless of how the conversations go, I always am happy when, or upset when I do not, rely on the experts and authors that have informed my opinions and thoughts. I can never lean on their words and experiences too much, and I too often try and pass of my ideas as my own.

Reading has been the outlet to charge my empathy amidst a discourse that often hinges on function and politics. It provides a place that reminds me some humans are in need, some are not, some people can help themselves and others need to be helped, equality and equity are not the same, answers are always gray, and our kindness to each other must be stronger than any ideal we wish to stand for.

The politicizing of humanity’s treatment towards each other has the power to divide us. Behind the movements and political decisions, laws and bills, it grows increasingly difficult to see the other humans with unique experiences that are affected by these decisions. It is easier to see concepts and ideas, right and wrong. We see politics not people.

To remind myself and others about the people behind movements and political decisions, here are the books and essays that taught me about a life experience that I never had and gave me empathy when I was lacking.

I put them in the order that I think is most impactful. By the end of reading through this list, you will not have a new political allegiance (that’s not what this post is about), but I find it hard to believe that you (like what happened to me) won’t have more understanding and empathy towards your fellow man. And for that, I will forever be indebted to these authors.

  1. “Just Walk on By: Black Men in Public Space” by Brent Staples

A short quick essay that shows immense measure and control in a situation that no man should have to deal with let alone show restraint and perspective about. This essay is a great place to start reading because it deals with the concept of racial inequality at the most fundamental level. Black people don’t even have the same experience as us when they exit their homes and walk past other humans.

2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A profound book. Coates is, in my opinion, the leading voice in modern civil rights. Often harsh, always thoughtful, and rich in experience this poetic letter to his son shows how even his role as father needs to be different in order to prepare his son for the world. Because for him and his son, there is only the struggle.

3. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

A powerful fiction book about the narrator’s experience as a black man whose needs and concerns are invisible to others. A fictional portrayal of exactly what the previous two reads are about.

4. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Amidst MLK and Malcolm X, it is easy to overlook the power of James Baldwin’s voice. This book of ten of his essays is a terrific way to hear what he has to say. I would say that “Notes of a Native Son,” a personal recollection of his experiences, is the can’t miss section in this book. Born from a preacher background, Baldwin dares to demand change rather than ‘wait’ as they were so often told.

5. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Ostensibly not about race at all, Gladwell’s most popular novel is basically a book about privilege. Not privilege provided by race, but by circumstance. However, it is not hard to connect the dots and see that certain races are provided with better circumstances overall, which is the focus of the next readings.

6. Evicted by Matthew Desmond

A book that looks at housing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this book shows one of the major systemic issues that prevent people who live in low rent housing in the city from merely being able to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ as I used to believe was possible. Comprehensive and fair, Desmond follows both renters and rentees and provides stats and statistics about evictions and rent that will show how far back some people have to start in the race of life.

7. “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Of all the powder keg topics of conversation when talking about race, ‘reparations’ may be the most hostile. Now we are addressing giving our money…to the government… to give to someone else… for something I didn’t directly do… without a clear ear mark for said money. It’s not easy, no one should think it is. But so often the difficulty of the conversations makes people default to ‘impossible.’ Coates, in this article, makes the case, and does so so well, it doesn’t only seem possible, but necessary in some form. To make the case, he provides a terrific history of the terrible red-lining of urban housing, which shows how people didn’t end up in the predicaments in Evicted by themselves. White people put them there. 

8. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

A book about issues in the justice system, with an emphasis on capital punishment towards African Americans. This is a tough read. The feeling of losing all your freedom for reasons that don’t merit that type of punishment or for NO reason at all sits heavy in your stomach. While the world is talking about the need for systemic change because systems are opposing black people, this book makes the case and has been affecting people for some time now.

9. “A Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.

The most powerful and shared piece of writing about racial justice there is. MLK shows us why he was able to start a movement that had such an impact in such a hostile time. Sadly, his advice and insight is as necessary and prescient now as it was then. Afterall, he writes this letter from jail, which should give you a new view on his thoughts after reading Just Mercy.

10. “Small Changes: Why The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” by Malcolm Gladwell

So where do we go from here? Gladwell’s provides a path to answering that daunting question. “Small Changes” is a single essay that shows off everything that makes Gladwell great. His keen insight and unique vantage point on popular topics can help us understand how not to affect change in a time period where we can so easily tweet our support or cancel that which we do not like from the comfort of our own homes. He also diagnoses what makes movements like the civil rights movement in the sixties so powerful. Both those points are good to keep in mind right about now.

These resources provide the point of view of black men and women in America today. I did not include books and resources to show the oppressed and downtrodden of other groups. This is not ignorance. I could have written about Hillbilly Elegy and Educated and Under the Banner of Heaven or Infidel and A Long Way Gone and I Am Malala, or many more, all worthwhile reads. But right now there is an opportunity for change in one specific group, because of one specific movement. And I bear in mind the words of Dr. King in his letter from a Birmingham jail cell…

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

On the flip side, there are other terrific books that people can read towards the same end goal as this post. This is not a comprehensive list (and is written entirely by males). These writings just had the most impact on me, and I feel can have the biggest impact on others.

I hope you will check some of them out.

Click here for Did You blank It? homepage.

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