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13 great books about the Black experience in America

Six of the 13 nonfiction books on the black experience in America.
(Graywolf Press/Bloomsbury USA/Haymarket Books/Scribner/Seven Stories Press/The New Press)

As the collective anguish over the killings of Black people by police has led to protests across the country and around the world, many African Americans have taken to social media and news media to request that white people stop asking them to help them understand what’s going on. Resources exist on multiple platforms that range from toolkits to lists of anti-racist organizations, locally focused syllabi and concrete actions to take in support of racial justice.

Roxane Gay has repeatedly noted that empathy is expanded by literature. As a white woman, I’ve been protected from the pressures felt daily by Black people in America. My options for educating myself include listening and reading widely, learning of that feeling the poet Claude McKay described as being “sharp as steel with discontent.”

I taught nonfiction for over a decade at a state university. Each semester, I put together readings designed not only to model outstanding writing but also to broaden the perspectives of my mostly white students. What follows is a list of memoirs and essay collections that have helped us sharpen ourselves with understanding, followed by links to four dozen other writers — a starter syllabus of the Black experience to help us all become better listeners.

Get live updates from Los Angeles Times journalists as they report on protests across the U.S. after the death of George Floyd while in police custody.

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"So You Want to Talk About Race" by Ijeoma Oluo
(Seal Press)

So You Want to Talk About Race

Ijeoma Oluo

Oluo celebrates the gifts that Black culture has given her, including jazz and the cookout. But she also writes of the blowback she encountered in her native Seattle, where few Black people lived. As Oluo spoke of the various forms of discrimination that affected her, white discomfort left her isolated.

Men We Reaped


Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward has collected numerous awards and honors for her stunning novels, but this memoir is her response to the “silence … of our subsumed rage, our collective grief.” She compares her life to those of five young men from her community, all of whom are dead as the result of conditions in a racialized America. One of them was her beloved brother. Ward’s orchestrates a requiem for those lost.

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"Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family" by Mitchell Jackson.
(Scribner)

Survival Math


Mitchell S. Jackson

In his novel, “The Residue Years,” Jackson exposed readers to a Portland far from Portlandia. The title of this memoir refers to the calculations he made as a young man every day. Taking readers inside his extended family, Jackson recounts their participation in The Great Migration, their encounters with the justice system and strategies for survival, as well as Jackson’s own path to becoming a writer.

Brothers and Keepers


John Edgar Wideman

Wideman has written 21 works of fiction and nonfiction about the Black experience. In his memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh and the academic track that led him toward an intellectual life, the burdens of racism never disappear. His story navigates the divergent paths taken by him and his incarcerated brother, Robby.

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"How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir" by Saeed Jones.
(Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster)

How We Fight For Our Lives


Saeed Jones

As a teenager growing up in Texas, Jones had wrestled with the feelings provoked by other men’s bodies. The murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard taught him that “[b]eing a black gay boy is a death wish.” Yet Jones endured and embraced his sexuality. His relationship with his Buddhist mother forms the backbone of this affecting story.

Hood Feminism


Mikki Kendall

Black feminists going back to the Combahee River Collective have argued that mainstream feminism is largely centered in the experiences of white women. Kendall interrogates the various ways feminism elides issues like food insecurity and violence. She provides chapter after chapter articulating responses to culture, demonstrating not just what Black women have endured but the solutions they have to offer.

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"Busted in New York and Other Essays" by Darryl Pinckney.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Busted in New York


Darryl Pinckney

Pinckney is a longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books and a novelist. These collected essays comprise cultural critiques and deep dives into the Black experience. He celebrates the genius of blackness, analyzes what happened in Ferguson, Mo. and the legacy of President Barack Obama and interpolates his own reflections on life as a Black intellectual.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable


Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

“I must also be a witness for those who did not make it,” Angela Davis told NFL great Michael Bennett. In his book, Bennett reflects on his developing years in Louisiana, playing in the NCAA and the brotherhood he found among his NFL peers during the 2017 protests.

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Sleepaway School


Lee Stringer

Stringer wrote in “Grand Central Winter” about his experiences with homelessness, but here he narratives his early life with his mother and his struggles in the classroom, where he was labeled as a “child at risk,” with flashes of surprising and refreshing humor.

Claudia Rankine, author of "Citizen."
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Citizen


Claudia Rankine

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“because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying” writes Claudia Rankine in her sublime collection of poetry and prose. Including personal stories about the weight of racism, Hurricane Katrina, the denigration of Serena Williams, police killings and more, “Citizen” plunges readers into a world of pain, but softens the blow with writing so beautiful that my breath caught in my throat.

The New Jim Crow


Michelle Alexander

The caste system instantiated by laws referred to as Jim Crow created legal differences in the rights claimed by white and Black people. While the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act largely demolished the existing laws, legal scholar Alexander documents how policies of mass incarceration and courtroom inequality have led to a new caste system.

Kiese Laymon, author of "Heavy."
(Scribner)

Heavy


Kiese Laymon

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My first awareness of Laymon’s work began with his 2011 essay “How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” which rocked me back. In “Heavy,” he writes about weight, sexual violence and the ties that bind us to family but can stifle an evolving voice. Many of the chapters address his mother directly, speaking thorny truths.

The Brother You Choose


Susie Day

Paul Coates and Eddie Conway met as young men in Baltimore in the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. When Conway went to prison in 1970 based on flimsy evidence, Coates advocated for him. Coates (father of Ta-Nehisi) founded Black Classic Press and maintained his friendship with Conway despite the 44 years the latter spent in prison. Day has compiled and edited their wide-ranging conversations.

For further reading, the authors below, have written poetry, fiction and nonfiction grappling with the legacy of 400 years of black American life.

Kevin Young, Robin Coste Lewis, Morgan Parker, Colson Whitehead, Natasha Trethewey, Percival Everett, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ibram X. Kendi, Roxane Gay, Sarah M. Broom, Alice Walker, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Samantha Irby, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, James McBride, Brit Bennett, Gayl Jones, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Lauren Wilkinson, J. California Cooper, Ernest J. Gaines, Walter J. Mosley, Attica Locke, Henry Louis Gates, Audre Lorde, Ralph Ellison, Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson, Mat Johnson, Victor LaValle, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Eve Ewing, Nella Larson, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Charlos Johnson.

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Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.


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