24 books for white people to read beyond Black History Month These great reads will help any reader discover the rich range of the African-American experience

For many years I was a clueless white guy. I suffered from one-ness. What I really needed was two-ness, and maybe three-ness and four-ness. I came to see my whiteness not as privilege but as insufficiency, thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois and his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk.

In a remarkable passage, the great scholar, author and activist described the Negro as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Here is the good news. I am not there yet, but I am gaining on two-ness. My white skin is no longer a prison of cluelessness. With the help of African-American friends and colleagues, I am beginning to see America through the eyes of not the Other but others. Through their generosity, I have been invited to ask questions. I heard or saw things I didn’t understand. I did not yet know how to learn, nor did I have the courage to ask a question that might come off as racist. My fear was met by encouragement from the likes of Rev. Kenny Irby, DeWayne Wickham, Dr. Karen Dunlap, Keith Woods, Dr. Lillian Dunlap. “Don’t worry,” they indicated by one means or another. “Ask away. No one is going to leave the room or show you the door.”

Some of my clueless questions:

“When I see a police car, unless I am speeding, I think protection. Tell me why when you see a cop car you may think oppression?”

“I don’t get the absence of so many black fathers in the lives of their children. What is up with that?”

“I have learned to hate the N-word. When I hear it from black rappers, should I be offended?”

“I keep running into this idea of ‘good hair’ vs. ‘bad hair.’ As someone with very bad hair, I think that anyone with any kind of hair has good hair. What am I missing?”

There came a time during these interrogations when I felt a little fatigue setting in from my colleagues. And then Karen Dunlap, my boss and president of the Poynter Institute, made it explicit. It gets tiring, she explained, bearing the burden of white people’s ignorance about black people and African-American culture. “You know,” she gave me a Sunday school teacher look, “you could read something.”

Read something. Yes, read something!

And so I have. Over the past two decades I have developed quite a nice collection of what I might generally describe as African-American literature, some of it written by white journalists or scholars but most of it created by black poets, playwrights, scholars, novelists, essayists and critics. My collection is now large enough to be displayed, and I recently did just that in the library of the Poynter Institute.

I am not claiming this to be an expert collection of works, and certainly not a model one. But it is my collection, and I believe it has made me a better friend, colleague, parent, citizen and human being. I offer this list, with brief annotations, at the END of Black History Month to encourage readers not to limit their learning to the shortest month of the year.

So please learn, grow — and enjoy.

  • My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, by Howell Raines. A superb oral history of the key moments and key figures of the struggle.
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. “What color is God?” a dark-skinned boy asks his light-skinned mother. “God is the color of water.”
  • Reporting Civil Rights (Parts One and Two) Library of America edition of great American journalism on race and social justice, 1941-1973.
  • The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity, edited by Arlene Morgan, Alice Pifer and Keith Woods. Rich examples reveal the power of inclusiveness in all the stories we tell.
  • The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault. A great biography of a great American artist by the historian who also gave us Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. Before Rosa Parks became an American icon, a young teenage girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat on a bus. Written for young readers, but important for all.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. First came slavery, then came segregation, then came mass incarceration.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Framed as a letter to his adolescent son, the author digs down to consequences of the continuing exploitation of black people in America. By the author who has made the most eloquent case in favor of reparations for continuing effects of slavery.
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. “Stares unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery.” Another must-read is The Bluest Eye, a terrifying novel about cultural definitions of beauty and the tragedy of self-hatred.
  • Fences, by August Wilson. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, this play depicts what it means for a father to love his son — even at times when he doesn’t like him.
  • Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone, by DeWayne Wickham. An orphan, black and poor, grows up to be one of America’s most prominent newspaper columnists.
  • Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. If I had to recommend a single volume, this anthology would be it: more than 700 pages of history, literature and insight.
  • In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker. Glowing essays expressed in what the author of The Color Purple calls “Womanist Prose.”
  • March (Books One, Two and Three), a trilogy, graphic-novel style, on the life and times of congressman John Lewis, with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. A work for adults and young readers.
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, by Condoleezza Rice. This family memoir by the former U.S. secretary of state carries us back to when she was 8 years old and her young friends were murdered in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. Widely hailed by critics of all races as “a vivid tapestry of America.”
  • Race Matters, by Cornel West. From W. E. B. Du Bois to Cornel West, African-American intellectuals have helped Americans of all colors understand the sources of racism and the need for change.
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. The 1912 short novel narrates what it means for a person of mixed race to “pass for white” within the system of American apartheid.
  • The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The stories behind the stories of civil rights, including the inspirational courage and leadership of African-American journalists and publishers.
  • On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, her poetry captures a unique vision of the love and spirit of those who struggled against segregation.
  • Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. Bought this as a college student in 1968 along with Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! by Julius Lester. Written from a California state prison by a key figure in the Black Panther movement.
  • Black and White Styles in Conflict, by Thomas Kochman. Are black people and white people the same — or different? Turns out, the answer is “both,” according to the white sociologist who drills down into American culture to reveal the sources of our misunderstanding.
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Framed as a letter to his young nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. A searing call for justice.
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. The poet was black a black man in a white world, a gay man in a straight world. His experience of two-ness created, I would argue, one of the most impressive bodies of poetry in American history. Were there not an unofficial color line in the Pulitzer Prize judging, he would have won — and more than once.

In building this list, I emphasize again that it is only special in that it is mine, and in that it has led me to a place I wanted and needed to be. There are countless worthy works not on my list, and countless more that are soon to be written. If I may borrow a phrase from the late Julius Lester: Look out, Whitey! Read some of these books and, who knows, you may get a clue. May there be two-ness in your future — and more.

Neither Cornel West nor Ta-Nehisi Coates is giving us his best Black intellectual debate should be about more than name-calling

For the two of you not in the know, Cornel West scribed a scathing indictment of Ta-Nehisi Coates, blasting him for his supposed failures as a prominent black intellectual. Coates’ initial defiant response on Twitter gave way to him leaving the social media platform altogether, deleting his account.

Should older thinkers like West cede the black public intellectual landscape to younger cohorts like Coates? I’ve heard this question posed in personal interactions and have spotted people answering yes on social media.

The idea, to be honest, repulses me — telling a brilliant person like West to shut up and let others take the mic smacks me as downright odd. I believe this idea flows from the fraudulent and destructive notion that we black folk need representatives to stand on the mountaintop and air our grievances to white America. West, so this argument goes, prosecutes the wrong case, and thus he must be locked in a closet while others, who sing songs resonating better with our hearts, occupy center stage.

I could see if West engaged in racial betrayal, was a duplicitous Negro who could never be trusted to serve as an honest participant in our national race conversation. But that’s not the argument I’m wrestling with here. So, no, I can’t co-sign telling West to shut up, and neither should anyone else.

We should deal with West’s arguments as warranted. If his arguments hit with a whimper, as many claim, then defeating them should be easy, no?

Concentrate on that.

While seeing how black writers have responded to West’s piece, I have focused on one of the various tantalizing threads regarding this ordeal. I want to pull on it here.

Some maligned West for supposedly being fueled by petty jealousies and charged to Coates’ rescue like an overprotective parent. Since I have little way of determining what spurred him to compose his screed and don’t think his motives matter much, I will ignore this issue. If jealousy inspired his critiques, they could still be right. People fall victim to a basic logical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem: seeking to discredit an argument by discrediting the person making it.

I think many attacked West personally, in part, based on a belief that many black folk endorse: that we should eschew arguing in public, fearing how ill-intentioned white folk might employ secrets learned from internal debates to harm our interests. I’ve written about this at length before, so I feel free not to belabor the point. But, simply put, black folk must cease acting like we need to agree in public or reserve some conversations for times when nonblacks cannot hear us. This distorts intraracial dialogue, inhibiting our ability to debate strategies for full emancipation.

One issue I have noticed about black thinkers living today, as opposed to black thinkers who have long since died, is the unwillingness to critique black people in public. To read many black writers today is to get the sense they have nothing of note to utter to other black people beyond white supremacy debilitates us in this or that way.

I want to yell, “Do you have anything critical to say of your people? Do you think we are getting everything right? Can we improve our situation with any changes? Have you even contemplated these questions? If not, why are you even here?” A race writer whose every piece fits the black-folk-as-victim narrative needs to search for other stories reflecting the full complexion of our people.

Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “We must frankly acknowledge that in the past years our creativity and imagination were not employed in learning how to develop power. We found a method in nonviolent protest that worked, and we employed it enthusiastically. We did not have leisure to probe for a deeper understanding of its laws and lines of development. Although our actions were bold and crowned with successes, they were substantially improvised and spontaneous. They attained the goals set for them but carried the blemishes of our inexperience.”

Here, King examines himself, the movement to which he belonged, and his people. He noticed some good, some bad and some areas of improvement. And he put pen to paper and shared his thoughts with the world. This sort of thinking, regrettably, is in shorter supply now, to our people’s detriment.

I think those who most stridently defended Coates did so, at least in part, because they fail to understand the full role of the black intellectual: One must train the microscope outward as well as inward.

Many black folk are catching hell right now, writhing in pain, searching for an avenue for an improved future. We will never help those of us struggling most if we fail to examine ourselves critically and be willing to chastise when necessary.

Now let’s examine West’s piece on the merits. On the whole, I found it to be sloppily written and sloppily argued. He makes two basic points. One undeniably fallacious. One undeniably correct.

First, he argues that Coates represents the “neoliberal wing” of the “black freedom struggle.” He fails to define what he means by neoliberal. I know the term as a purely economic one, but he’s using it in a newer sense as reflected in recent scholarship. According to Michael Harriot of The Root, West once defined neoliberal as such:

Well, “neoliberal” is somebody of any color who sees a social problem and does three things; privatize, financialize and militarize. You’ve got a problem in the schools, privatize the schools, push back public education. Bring in the financiers, the profiteers. Make money on the test, make money on the teachers while you push out the teachers unions, and then you militarize the schools. You bring in security. We’ve got precious young brothers and sisters in the ‘hoods going to schools like you and I going through the airport. That’s the militarization of the schools. Police, the same way. Outsource, militarize right across the board, so that a neoliberal is somebody who is obsessed with markets.

If that’s the definition, West must demonstrate how Coates meets it. He founders.

West writes that Coates remains silent on drone strikes, the assassinations of U.S. citizens with no trials, bombings in Muslim countries, further adding that in Coates’ writing, he sees “no serious attention to the plight of the most vulnerable in our community, the LGBT people who are disproportionately affected by violence, poverty, neglect and disrespect.”

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that West captures each characterization correctly, although he doesn’t. West still hasn’t proven Coates is a neoliberal. How does Coates support privatization, financialization and militarization? By West’s own admission, Coates is guilty of silence — that is, Coates does not write sufficiently about these topics. Coates can only be a neoliberal by articulating the neoliberal viewpoint, not by insufficiently critiquing it. West’s argument fails on basic logic grounds.

Second, West contends that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy.” He does, and this comes from someone who once, arguably, committed the same sin.

Merriam-Webster defines a fetish as “an object (such as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner.” This line of thought hurtles through many of Coates’ pieces. He actually described white supremacy and whiteness as “eldritch energies,” a cartoonish way of describing anything that exists in the real world. By depicting white supremacy as some unearthly power, he glosses over the day-to-day processes by which white supremacy was created and is sustained. It is not of a celestial origin but distinctly human in inception and continuation. And that which humans create, humans can destroy.

Coates harbors pessimism regarding white supremacy, believing its life will continue unimpeded. Time may prove him right. But he commits a logical error of his own in believing that black life cannot improve if white supremacy holds steady. White supremacy does not determine the status of the race. To contend otherwise is to deny that black people are moral agents. Perhaps if Coates understood that white supremacy lacks the power he infuses it with, he would perceive this, and other things, too.

I hope, for the future, Coates and West can dedicate themselves to giving us their best, because we aren’t getting it right now from either.