Opinion: How to effectively use an anti-racist reading list

Molly Hatesohl | @mollyhatesohl

One of the most ubiquitous responses to the ongoing call for racial justice has manifested itself in the form of the Anti-Racist Reading List: a compilation of resources, usually textual, that deal with the topic of race in some manner. Although the list is a well-intentioned effort to combat racist ideologies, its efficacy may be weakened if used improperly. 

Aware of these lists’ flaws, the Raven Bookstore located at 6 E Seventh St. wants to help the Lawrence community take full advantage of antiracist literature.

Some warn that lists like these tend to serve a performative, rather than productive function.  In her article “What is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” Lauren Michele Jackson contends, “The books are there, they’ve always been there, yet the lists keep coming, bathing us in the pleasure of a recommendation. But that’s the thing about the reading. It has to be done.” 

Jackson confirms that adding popular texts to your bookshelf does not make you an enlightened antiracist. However, she also makes the point that doing the reading is a necessary first step on the path to antiracism. In order for the list to function as an effective tool of activism, its contents must not only be acquired and actually read, but read critically. Consequently, the Anti-Racist Reading List is burdened with gaps in accountability which occur between obtaining, reading, and synthesizing the list’s contents. 

Sellers at the Raven Bookstore are conscious of the lists’ pitfalls and are working to help their patrons get the most out of their materials. In addition to providing curbside pickup, local delivery, and national shipping of available titles, the store has also released its own Black Power Reading List, curated by bookseller Nikita Imafidon.

Raven bookseller Nakita Imafidon curated a “Black Power” reading list with ranging genres to satisfy every type of reader and promote the works of Black authors.

Like most bookstores, the Raven received overwhelming requests for antiracist literature in the last month. The demand surrounds two titles in particular: “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi, both of which are perhaps the most frequently mentioned works among lists. While the influx of orders does inspire a certain optimism in the community’s intentions, the uniformity of these requests suggests that readers may be limiting themselves to a prescriptive, and thus disparate education.

“We’ve been trying to push people to look at different books besides those,” said Imafidon in a phone call with KJHK. If the goal of your reading is to gain a more nuanced understanding of race, it is not helpful to consume your materials strictly within the context of the Anti-Racist Reading List. These works must be considered in their unique socio-historical circumstances.

This is not to say that reading these or other trending titles is a bad decision. Rather, the ideas iterated by DiAngelo, Kendi, and the like should expand past the context of the Anti-Racist Reading List and into readers’ everyday lives. 

“It’s important to have the groundwork for why you’re doing something,” Imafidon said. “I think that books are one of the most effective ways to do that. There’s just something about that [textual] format that’s going to be very helpful in getting you to a point of action.”

In other words, it is up to the individual to synthesize the ideas they glean from engaging with anti-racist resources and apply this knowledge when interacting with others. The discursive materials categorized as “anti-racist” were born out of a necessity to combat an injustice that permeates all aspects of American society in very real and very prevalent ways. To consume these materials without using them to challenge the unjust realities they critique, is not helpful and does not accomplish the work of activism.

The Anti-Racist Reading List should be used as a tool to inform how you combat racial injustice, whether it be in conversation with others, in the consumption of materials and services, or in the act of protest. When each level of your activism is grounded in multifaceted, critical thought, your ability to enact change is greatly enhanced.

When asked about other strategies aimed toward critical, meaningful readership, Imafidon recommends taking notes while reading. For those who are auditory learners, she suggests listening to podcasts connected to authors’ work. Imafidon is also cognizant of the Raven’s role as a local bookstore within the larger discourse on race. Where corporate booksellers fail to meet the unique needs of each reader, the Raven is not only able to personalize their recommendations, but tries to connect readers with other organizations.

“You can’t just call up Amazon and be like ‘What are you reading? What have you been into? What are your values?’,” she said. “We can help [readers] get to a second step, which is a really cool thing to be able to do, and I don’t think that works unless you have a community basis.”

Additionally, the Raven encourages its patrons to expand their search beyond examples of theory or nonfiction. Imafidon’s Black Power Reading List spans a variety of texts, providing a holistic approach to antiracist self-education.

“There’s a lot of beautiful work there that’s like poetry, or just fiction, or memoir that people haven’t been paying attention to as much,” Imafidon said. The inclusion of multiple genres mitigates the temptation to use the Anti-Racist Reading List as an instruction manual for allyship.

In a newsletter, the Raven owner Danny Caine further emphasized the importance of engaged readership.

“Readers must not think of Black authors simply as racism explainers.” In experiencing the syntax chosen by Black poets, or the vernacular used by Black fictional characters, readers may gain insight that is more organic than the kind of practical knowledge offered by sociological theory.

Just like a protest does not automatically transform its participants into anti-racist people, the Anti-Racist Reading List is not a to-do list that, once fulfilled, miraculously transforms its owner into an anti-racist person. The list is a collection of resources that help articulate the myriad ideas, sentiments, and goals that comprise the motivations behind instances of activism. 

When it comes to racial justice, the interactive, operative effort of activism should not take place without the reflexive, introspective act of self-education, nor vice versa. It is nearly impossible to affect meaningful change without first taking the time to expose oneself to the discourse surrounding racial justice, and it is unconscionable to consume anti-racist discourse in a theoretical vaccuum without the intention of applying those ideas to your everyday life. Self-education and direct action are equally vital elements in the fight for racial justice, and one should not exist without the other. 

“We all need to keep on doing the work and focus on embracing Black, trans, queer lives during this month and for all the months to come,” Imafidon said. 

Molly Hatesohl is a graduate student at the University of Kansas studying art history.