A couple of days after the Charleston shooting, one of my favorite faith writers, Shauna Niequist, posted the following request to her Instagram: "Charleston shooting enraged me, broke my heart. I want to learn more about history of racism in US. What books/writers do you recommend?"
I love this. I loved this request, because too often, we don't know what to do. Something terrible happens, and it breaks us, but eventually, we move on. We heal, but we never really did anything with the pain.
Her request also feels like one I can fulfill. In the wake of a tragedy as large as the one in Charleston last week, we can feel a little helpless. I can feel a little helpless. There's not a lot I feel like I can do.
But I know books. I know the power they can have over their readers, how they can work evil or good, depending on the hands in which they fall. And I know what education can do for all of us, what putting ourselves in other people's shoes can mean for our empathy and perhaps ultimately, our decision-making.
Reading is one small step into opening our eyes.
If you're like Shauna, and this week, you're still reeling from last week's events, but lost as to what to do, try picking up a book. Try stepping outside of yourself. Try admitting you don't always know what you think you do. And if you're stuck on where to get started, here are a few suggestions (many of which I'm trying to stock in the shop this week):
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. This particular suggestion came up over and over again on Shauna's Instagram feed, but it's also one I've heard mentioned in the store and on some of my favorite podcasts. he New Jim Crow challenges the idea that racism in America ended after the election of Barack Obama, and author and advocate Michelle Alexander takes a hard look at the criminal justice system in particular and its flaws, the role it plays in communities of color.
PIcking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Our One Book selection for last year's community-wide read, Picking Cotton opened my own eyes to racial inequality and bias in the criminal justice system. Sometimes memoirs are "easier" for us to read because they introduce us to people who are more like us than not; your heart will break for Ronald and the 11 years he spent in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and you'll sympathize with Jennifer as she tries to overcome her fears and failures. The book sparked important discussions in our own community, and I'd imagine it would spark conversations around your dinner table, too.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy released right after last year's One Book celebration, and this was the title I recommended to customers looking for a good follow-up to icking Cotton. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice based in my college town of Montgomery, Alabama. There, Stevenson and his team defend the poor, the wrongly condemned, and the women and children often underserved or ignore in the criminal justice system.
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. I recommended this book after reading it a few months ago, and it's no less timely today. So much of the racial inequality in America seems tied up in our criminal justice system; in Ghettoside, journalist Jill Leovy tells the heartbreaking stories of gang violence in Los Angeles County and gives those of us unfamiliar with that world an inside look into how justice there functions.
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. Sometimes fiction teaches us in ways nonfiction can't. (Think To Kill a Mockingbird, another one you might want to pick up for a re-read in light of recent events.) Welcome to Braggsville tells the fictional story of four UC Berkeley students who stage a protest during a Civil War reenactment in the deep South. It's a coming-of-age story first, but it's also a look at what happens when cultures clash, and what we have to learn from each other.
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. When I was a junior in high school, my best friend gave me this book, maybe in part due to my fascination with journalism, or maybe so I would better understand her upbringing, I can't be sure. Either way, I'm due for a re-read. Written in the 1950s, Black Like Me follows John Griffin's journey from an affluent white journalist to an unemployed black man. (Journalist Griffin took medication to "cross the color divide.") Over 50 years later, and his story is still incredibly relevant.