Books that Merit Attention – August 2020

While there have been plentiful suggestions online (see especially padlet.com/nicolethelibrarian/nbasekqoazt336co) and through our libraries for reading about racism and white privilege, I am listing a few of my own suggestions that I’ve used in the  classroom at Saint Martin’s University. Each is written by a gifted writer.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, One World, 2015. A finalist for the National Book Award, this has become a classic. Coates, in the form of a letter to his son, recounts his own story of growing up black and male. What makes his story so compelling is that Coates learns and grows, his perspectives deepen through the human experiences of hope and pain and disillusion – and yet acknowledges to his son that his son is growing up in a different world and will have his own perspectives on matters regarding race. Coates is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow. I especially recommend that you listen to this memoir, which the author reads, as his passion comes through his voice. My students found lots to discuss here.

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas, Orbis Books, 2015. Douglas is an African American Episcopal priest and professor. My students grappled with and came to deeply appreciate what she had to say. Douglas was fired up by the murder of Trayvon Martin, which cut deep into the hearts of African American parents with beautiful black sons. As President Obama said, “Trayvon could have been my son.” She gives a succinct history of the crazy notion that “white” is better than “color,” an Anglo-Saxon myth of a superior race (where Hitler’s Aryan notion came from), analyzing how this myth grew into a monster. Then, grounded in her Christian faith, she explores the Jesus story in light of both the call to do justice and the hope that is ours, grounded in our sacred texts.

The recently retired Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, IL, one of ten African American prelates in the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a discerning pastoral on #Black Lives Matter. You may not agree with everything he says but he is a thoughtful person whose personal experience of bigotry mixed with his high level of education is evident in the document. Go to ilcatholic.org/wp-content/uploads/Racial-Divide-Revisited.pdf

 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone, Orbis Books, 2013. James Cone was considered the “father of American Theology,” the first to write a truly American theology (not based on the European traditions of theology) and a contemporary of Gustavo Gutierrez (the father of Liberation Theology), Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King. Maybe not the “favorite” on campus, but definitely deeply appreciated. Makes sense of the cross and the crucifixion of Jesus in a way my students hadn’t thought about before.

 

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, Random, 2015. My students, every semester, emphatically state that of all the books they read that semester, this is by far their favorite. And it’s already a classic. Yes, some of you saw the movie (well done but covers only one thread of Stevenson’s memoir). Stevenson, who has dedicated his life to ending the death penalty, won a US Supreme Court case that ended life in prison without possibility of parole for minor children,is a compelling storyteller. First “meet him” in his Ted Talk, then read his memoir, then go to eji.org (Equal Justice Initiative) to become more familiar with his work. Here you will learn about a memorial to victims of lynching – reminding us that we must face the truth of our shared history before racism has a chance to die—and a museum to the history of slavery, each in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson and his staff sought out every name of each victim of lynching around the U.S., acknowledging them each by name in the memorial. As peaceful protesters have chanted, “Say their name! Say their name!” The memorial has now grown to include American Indians/Indigenous who were also lynched. Then watch the documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. Stevenson is another
MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow.

There are many novels, excellently conceived and executed, on the experience of being a person of color. Yet the most poignant novel I’ve read that paints the hellish cost of slavery and Jim Crow, written beautifully by a now-deceased African American writer is The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips, Soho Press, 2018. Then there is The Last Thing You Surrender: a novel of World War II by Leonard Pitts, Jr, Agate Bolden, 2019. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer (and columnist).

 

How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, One World, 2019. Kendi is a brilliant yet rare scholar who can explore and explain complex ideas in accessible terms without ‘speaking down’ to his reader. He challenges us that to say, “I am not racist,” (even if that were true) is not enough. Silence kills (and has killed over the centuries). We must actively act against racism, which is one reason why young people are chanting, “say their name!” Kendi’s parents are evangelical Christians but he himself needed to disown his religious tradition because of the complicity of Christianity in defending slavery, Jim Crow, and the never-ending cycle of violence against persons of color throughout this country’s history. Kendi is also the author of Stamped From the Beginning. The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Bold Type Books, 2016, which won The National Book Award. Well-written; a great choice for you history buffs.

Now watch Naomi Klein’s documentary, This Changes Everything, based on the book by the Same name (my students were stunned watching this). Watch a video or two on the global efforts of beekeepers to stop the death of bees and to help the hives thrive. Visit greenbeltmovement.org to learn about Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and on that site watch the Documentary on her life’s work: Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai (Marlboro -roductions, 2008). Then read (or reread) Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si.

For a contemplative approach to our ongoing environmental devastation and the harm it does to our soul, read or listen to Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology by Douglas Christie, Oxford University Press, 2012. Christie is an exquisite writer and his use of sources is broad. He ties in early monastic and desert spirituality as an antidote to our current nightmare. Even though he addresses environmental concerns, his work easily applies to racism as well. Watch the Priory Spirituality Center’s ongoing list of programs and retreats on Zoom for a
program based on this book to be scheduled in early 2021, and you’ll have an opportunity to discuss with others what you’ve learned and to raise your questions.

Email me at lswan@stplacid.org if I’m not keeping you busy enough! But keep LEARNING, a deeply-held Benedictine value.