My Journey with American Racism and the Books that are Teaching Me

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. As I have read articles, listened to speeches, and reflected on how far we still have to go, I have been challenged, on a personal level, by how far I still have to go with my own understanding of American racism.

Like America itself, I want to think of myself as post-racial. And yet, I speak up when I should be silent. I sit in silence when I should speak up. I speak out of pride rather than humility. I misplace my role, identity, and responsibility.

Recently, I had a chance to speak out loud words on behalf of Stephon Clark, the young black man shot by police in Sacramento. To my shame, I chose to be silent. And this after defending myself for posting about it on social media by saying that I speak up about these issues in my everyday life, not just online. Except, this time, I didn’t. I could list off endless reasons for why I didn’t. But the end of all of that, the simple fact is, I just chose not to speak up.

That choice has left me with an overwhelming sense that I have not come quite as far as I hoped I had in my journey with American racism. After all this time, I still pick and choose when to engage. I am still willing to let things I hear slide. I still miscommunicate. And I still sit back when it is inconvenient for me to stand up.

Couple this with an article I read called “The White Allies’ Guide to Collecting Aunt Linda,” in which I was challenged by #4 and #7,  and I am left this week humbled, convicted, and unsure of my process.

When this happens, I find it helpful to look back and remember how this process started. Growing up in Nigeria, I had identity issues the likes of which would make Rachel Dolezal squirm. Additionally, I also had to wrestle deeply with colonialism issues. But those are stories for another day. This is about my journey with American racism, so I will start when I moved here at 18.

I moved to downtown Chicago with no clue about winter, wind, and being white in America. More importantly, I had no clue what it was like to not be white in America.

Almost immediately, I realized that racism was alive and well in the United States, and in the north no less. And here I had innocently believed this to be a southern thing of the past. Not so! I could not even count the ways I saw, every day, my black peers being treated differently. It was shocking, frustrating, largely ignored, and NEVER publicly discussed. It did not make any sense to me.

It was a very confusing time of disillusionment and anger for me. I quickly learned that I did not have a place to express my frustrations. My white friends got angry, defensive, and would not talk about it, my black American friends were hurt by my ignorance and reminded me that I was part of the problem, and my international friends were just trying to figure it all out too.

Thankfully, I met very patient, very gracious black American friends who were willing to talk to me openly about what life was like for them. They helped me start to see and slowly understand the recent history that kept racial tensions so high.

Then in 1999, Amadou Diallo, a young, unarmed, black man was shot 41 times by police in New York City. His story changed the story for me. This racism problem that I had seen on a personal level, now became glaringly real on a systemic one. I was once again shocked by the callousness and anger shown towards black men.

But I still could not see my own role in the system. I’m not from here, I kept telling myself. I was raised in a black African country, this issue has nothing to do with me. I am nothing like “those people.” I was too busy working through those aforementioned identity issues to take on anymore culpability at that time.

Then, thirteen years later, Trayvon Martin was shot. And something his story gave way in me. I think because he was so young and I was a parent by then, I saw his murder in a whole new light. I was no longer willing to be silent or ignorant of my own implicit biases and role in those systemic problems. It was time to get over myself, stop seeing this as other people’s problem, and start working on my own actions and words.

There are many, many articles, posts, and most importantly, people who have helped me (and continue to do so) on this ongoing journey towards racial equity in America. It is often a one step forward, two step back kind of learning. But here are a few of the books that have helped change and shape my thinking and understanding the most.

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson) – This book revolutionized my understanding of the American justice system. It has become one of the few books I try to make a point of re-reading.

Divided By Faith (Michael Emerson and Christian Smith) – If I only had one book to suggest to white American Christians, it would be this one. It serves as a vital, must-hear challenge.

Trouble I’ve Seen (Drew Hart) – I have entire chapters of this book underlined. Again, this book is of particular importance to white American Christians.

Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson) – I learned more about American history from this book than anything I ever learned in school. The true stories of the intentional, institutionalized racism that African Americans faced leaving the Jim Crow south are devastating and must be heard.

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander) – I read this after reading Just Mercy and it challenged everything I thought I knew about the “justice” system.

And Still I Rise (Henry L. Gates) – This book follows the PBS special “And Still I Rise” and is an excellent historical resource. Gates’ America Behind the Color Line is also a very good book to read.

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates) – Something about the way Coates writes speaks to me. He has a way of conveying harsh truths in an unreserved, direct way that forces me to listen and hear him.

Tears We Cannot Stop (Michael Eric Dyson) – I will be honest, I kicked and squirmed through almost every page of this book. Dyson does not hold back in his “sermon to white America.” Everything in me wanted to say, “I don’t do that.” This is probably exactly why I needed to read this book, and then read it again.

Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance) – This may seem like a strange book to have on the list, but it did help me a lot. It was eye-opening and made sense of many things I had seen. But the thing that helped me most in my racial understanding, was when Vance admitted that even growing up the way he did, he, as a white man, recognized that he still had privileges available to him that a black man would not have.

We Were Eight Years in Power (Ta-Nehisi Coates) – My phone is filled with pictures of quotes from this book. I first read a library copy and couldn’t highlight. When I tried writing quotes I wanted to remember down, I realized I was just transcribing the book. Then I started taking pictures. They are many. The chapter on reparations was particularly poignant.

In addition to these current authors, there are five authors from the past that have greatly impacted my journey. They are:

  1. Frederick DouglassNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a fantastic place to start.
  2. W.E. B. Du BoisThe Souls of Black Folk should be required reading.
  3. James BaldwinNotes of a Native Son is where I recommend starting with his writing. While not in book form, the movie “I Am Not Your Negro” was made from his writing and is also excellent.
  4. Maya Angelou – Today would be Angelou’s 90th birthday and she is deeply and greatly missed. Her poetry speaks beyond her with remarkable voice. “Still I Rise” is essential reading.
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr – While not immediately thought of as an author, I include him in this category because it is through reading that I have “heard” his speeches. I am consistently challenged by his speeches and writing. Letters from a Birmingham Jail has become a particular favorite, one I read regularly as a way of keeping my priorities, motives, and intentions rightly ordered.

As I have learned from these books, I am reminded that my goal and hope of arriving, of being done learning is flawed, unrealistic, and misplaced. My goal has to change. This is not a “one and done” kind of education. This is a moment by moment, day by day, self check kind of education. A continual, hopefully, progressing education. An education in humility, openness, empathy, and action.

 

 

 

 

 

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