So You Want to Listen About Race

Photo by Max Bender

*This was originally published as a Facebook post on June 1, 2020.

A Promise and Manifesto

In the face of the history we’re living now, I have no expertise to offer. Nobody needs my takes on epidemiology or systemic racism or unequal justice. Nothing that is happening right now is about me. I am not special. I’m just here, one among millions, overwhelmed by sadness. But also, hopeful — that we might begin to unspool our epic mistakes.

My instinct is to STFU and listen humbly to scientists and doctors, to journalists who cover criminal justice and Black human beings who experience a different America than I do. I love the Trevor Noah explainer about the social contract, the images of Camden police marching with protesters, and the “For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies” piece that’s circulating. These are helpful and illuminating.

But I don’t know if shuttingTFU is entirely the right approach. Everything feels wrong. Silence feels wrong. Throwing one more hot take into the mix feels wrong. Virtue signaling feels meaningless. Paralysis feels like capitulation and laziness.

Here’s what I vow to do for now, until I get smarter and figure out more things:

1. STFU and listen.

I will STFU and listen to/read about the experiences of Black fellow Americans, with humility, compassion, and openness, especially when these experiences are hard to hear and challenge my beliefs about the world. I will not minimize these stories with comforting platitudes or whatabouts.

2. Do the work.

I will not ask Black friends to explain their experiences to me. Educating me is not their job. I will do the work on my own time. (*IF I am fortunate enough to be part of a conversation with a Black friend about race, I will STFU and listen.)

3. Support BIPOC authors & artists.

I promise that at least half the books I buy & read this year will be by BIPOC authors. (*At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a list of books I’ve read and loved over the past year or two. I recommend them all.)

4. Support quality media.

I will continue to filter my article reading by the quality and intellectual honesty of the reporting/reporter and by the rigor of the outlet’s fact-checking process. I will support publications that adhere to these high standards by remaining or becoming a paid subscriber. I will NOT read or share outrage-clickbait that does not adhere to these standards. And I will seek out articles that inform me about racism and inequality in criminal justice and other societal systems (e.g. the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Michelle AlexanderPam Colloff, Radley BalkoLiliana Segura, Ibram X. Kendi, and Bryan Stevenson, among others)

5. Donate.

I have done and will continue to donate to orgs that address these issues, such as the Equal Justice Initiative, the Innocence ProjectGideon’s Army, and the Family Reconciliation Center.

6. Challenge beliefs.

By listening, watching, reading, and shuttingTFU, I will endeavor to make myself uncomfortable, challenge beliefs I’ve clung to and held sacred, acknowledge the invisible (to me) forces that have smoothed my path and thrown up barbed wire and moats before others on similar paths. I will approach what I don’t know or understand with humility and compassionate curiosity.

7. Imagine other lives.

I will remember every day that the highest form of compassion is not about shared experience; it’s about imagining an utterly different reality than our own. We shouldn’t have to experience something ourselves or see a loved one suffer before we’re able to care about a category of suffering. It’s a catastrophic failure of the imagination, an epidemic of selfishness, that makes us only care about the suffering we’ve experienced ourselves or can imagine, one day, experiencing. I vow to expand my definition of “We,” even when I am damn mad or frustrated or just plain exhausted.

8. Own mistakes.

If I do or say something stupid or callous, I will shove my ego aside and listen to those who call me out.

9. Do better.

If I fail at any of these, and I’m sure I will, I vow to work hard at doing better.

Reading & Artist List:

There are better lists out there, complied by more highly educated folks. This is just my list of artistic works I’ve recently loved and found inspiring/illuminating, all created & authored by BIPOC. It’s informed by my preferences: I gravitate toward literary page-turners, intelligent detective fiction, and nonfiction about criminal justice. Lately I’ve turned to explainer books that help me understand the imperfect societal systems we’ve created and rhetorical strategies for discussing institutional bias with people who are resistant to seeing it.

Here are a few recent favorites (by “recent,” I mean I have read them recently — not all are new releases):

HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST, by Ibram X. Kendi. I just finished this. I love his strategy of defining terms and deconstructing flawed arguments. This has changed my thinking by changing my language. SO grateful for this clear-minded work.

BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD, by Attica Locke, takes crime novels into vital new territory with her Black Texas Ranger who has to navigate not only East Texas crime and racism, but how to protect and serve a system that doesn’t quite deserve him.

THE NEW JIM CROW, by Michelle Alexander — I’ve just started this, but the new prologue alone feels like an advanced degree in what’s wrong with criminal justice in America.

Doughjoe — Joe Love III — Joe is an artist, mural painter, thinker, and local historian who has kindly & generously educated me about his North Nashville neighborhood and introduced me to fellow artists in the Norf Art Collective. I love his work, and also him.

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead — Incredible, heartbreaking, and beautiful novel about a repressive and evil Florida reform school during Jim Crow — a story ripped from the headlines. It’s by Colson Whitehead, who is a genius, so you know it will be on f***ing point. His Pulitzer-winner, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, is also astonishing.

YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY, by Steph Cha — Steph Cha is also carrying the crime novel to new heights, with her millennial detective Juniper Song, and with this incredible standalone, YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY, about two families riven by violence in the wake of the unrest in LA in the early 1990s. It’s about racism and terrible loss and the difficulty of moving forward.

OVERGROUND RAILROAD, by Candacy Taylor. I loved Taylor’s deep-dive into the history of the Green Book and of traveling while Black in Jim Crow America. She’s a cultural historian and photographer, and she has created a gorgeous book, full of pain and illumination. She also offers ideas for positive action. (I reviewed this book for Chapter 16.)

LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE, by Valeria Luiselli, is astonishing, perplexing, and deeply moving. There are moments of true greatness in this strange and magical story of a family breaking apart while a journalist covering the border crisis tries to manage her rage and grief.

TJ JARRETT — Please read my friend TJ’s brilliant poetry, which will undoubtedly afflict the comfortable, but may also comfort you with its profound humanity. Might I suggest “Of Late, I Have Been Thinking About Despair“?

AMERICAN SPY, by Lauren Wilkinson — Compelling page-turner about a young Black female spy during the Cold War whose mission is to infiltrate a grassroots movement in Africa. Politics, espionage, and love — a cool take on the genre.

HEART BERRIES, by Terese Marie Mailhot — A punch-to-the-face memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia. A short, powerhouse read, packed with ghosts.

Tiana Clark — A fellow Nashvillian with several gorgeous poetry collections out and a ton of awards to her name. Her sonic-boom of a poem, “Nashville,” appeared in the New Yorker, but you can read it here without the paywall.

THE DRAGONS, THE GIANT, THE WOMEN, by Wayétu Moore — This stunning new memoir is about fleeing a civil war in Liberia and then, learning what it means to be Black in a new “refuge” home country obsessed with skin color. (I reviewed this book for Chapter 16.)

ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong — This novel is gorgeous throughout, a profound meditation on multiple identities.

SING UNBURIED, SING, by Jessmyn Ward — This 2017 novel blew my face off. Masterful and magical, it cuts deep.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta-Nehisi Coates — Really, anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates is required reading. His archive in The Atlantic is a great place to begin an education, especially “The Case for Reparations.”

AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE, by Tayari Jones — You probably know all about Tayari Jones’s splendid 2018 novel about the crossroads of family, race, wrongful conviction, and the American dream denied. If not, there’s plenty of time to catch up.

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, by Elizabeth Alexander — I loved this gorgeous memoir by the extraordinary poet Elizabeth Alexander about the sudden death of her husband Ficre, an artist and chef from Eritrea. Her writing evokes him so vividly and lovingly, you’re there with her in all her loss, bewilderment, and gratitude.

THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas — I listened to this last year and definitely saw what the hype was all about. This is a great read for anyone, but especially for teens. Thomas gives her teen girl protagonist a strong, authentic voice, and it makes you listen hard.

Jericho Brown — I’m just now discovering his poetry … and wishing he could somehow be projected back in time so I could have studied under him at Emory. Read everything, but start with this: “Hustle.”

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE, by Ijeoma Oluo — I’m listening to this book now. It’s like a kind, firm, and fiercely intelligent friend has taken a deep breath and sat you down to explain How Things Are. I am learning new language and rhetorical strategies to use in future discussions.

On my list to read ASAP: Anything by Alice Randall, poetry by Caroline Randall Williams, more novels by Attica Locke, DEACON KING KONG by James McBride, JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson

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