As the nation reels from the most recent deaths brought on by white supremacist ideology in practice, many people are finding ways to use their time and resources to advocate for justice. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black Americans should be alive today.
Throughout my life and on this blog in recent years, I have shared the books that have made an impact on me. If you have been on social media this week, you have probably received countless book recommendations to begin or continue your reading on racism and its various manifestations. In the spirit of sharing my resources, I want to provide a recommendation list for deciding which book might be best for you to start with or read next. This week, my recommendations focus on understanding racism in the context of religious settings and particular theological approaches.
Please note: I have not read every book out there, and have many sitting on my shelf to be read, so this list includes recommendations based on what I have knowledge of thus far.
They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
– James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was probably my first read on racism, or at least the one that set me on a path to learn more. In this slim book, Baldwin condemns American racism—especially within the Christian church—and insists on seeing Black and white Americans as bound by a radical love that requires white Americans to free ourselves of the racist ideologies we have learned and perpetuated if we truly want to move the country forward. This book has not aged a day, and if you read nothing else, I think there is enough in 100 pages to make us consider racism a problem for white people to understand that, in Baldwin’s words, “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”
Baldwin begins The Fire Next Time with a letter to his nephew, telling him that Black Americans will not be free until white Americans are free from our own ideologies. In 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates followed Baldwin’s public familial letter with his own, Between the World and Me. In this book-length letter to his son, you can listen to the Black experience in the U.S. without burdening someone in real life to educate you. Coates details race as “the child of racism,” a mythical construction with real consequences that benefits whiteness while denying it in the same breath. Though not explicitly about religion, I credit Coates with opening the door to some of the other texts on this list.
The Fire Next Time sparked a lifelong reflection in me about the role of institutional religion in perpetuating racism. If it does the same for you, I recommend Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, especially to Christians. Martin Luther King, Jr. reportedly carried this short book with him everywhere, in which Thurman implores Christians to stop treating their religion as the answer and ask, truly, “What does religion offer to those whose backs are against the wall? Not what it does for others, but what it does for these.” In this way, Thurman suggests, we might stop offering empty theologies devoid of justice-making.
On this note, James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is essential reading. The late theologian links the murder of Jesus with the murder of Black Americans throughout history, arguing that if Christianity is to be understood in our contemporary context, we must understand it as the religion of the oppressed. You will not walk away from this book unchanged.
I was fortunate to learn from several professors at Brite Divinity School whose theologies were steeped in womanism, a feminism rooted in the lived experiences of Black women and coined by Alice Walker in The Color Purple. If you’re looking to dig deeper after Cone’s book, the most formative text of my seminary years was Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglass. In it, Brown Douglas takes the law that allowed Trayvon Martin’s murderer to go free to argue that white Americans have long benefitted from an exceptionalism that projects us as akin to God and everyone else—but Black Americans in particular here—as not only less-than, but evil. This is the book to read if you want to understand not only what we mean by “whiteness,” but how that whiteness functions in perpetuating American racism.
If you are watching the protests play out in the nation and wondering about their purpose or effectiveness, especially for religious-minded people, I recommend Pamela R. Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology. In this intersectional approach, Lightsey use theology rooted in Black and queer experiences to argue that, as Baldwin understood, “Black rage is not an irrational outburst but a passionate response to the evil of racism imposed upon us across our lifetimes.” In defense of anger, Lightsey argues that anger unexpressed turns to a bitterness of the soul that accepts hopelessness as a way of life, which is absolutely untenable and calls for resistance. This is an essential resource for learning and being inspired to take up the cause of being a “co-caretaker” in a world shaping God’s creation, rather than continuing to accept and promote hopelessness as the status quo.
For further reading on womanism and its critiques of whiteness, Emilie Townes’s Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil was one of the more challenging, influential books for my thinking. Townes deconstructs evil as a production of a society bent on destroying the image of Black lives, and reminds readers that we are meant to engage in the continual process of dismantling racism, that “to eradicate evil is a process, not an event.” Challenging dominant narratives about memory and history, Townes encourages a “countermemory” that calls for rejecting the “fantastic hegemonic imagination” which infects society at all levels. I also learned quite a bit about rooting our responses in communities, which I think is incredibly important as we consider where, when, and how to employ our resources.
Other texts you may be interested in:
Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, which I especially recommend to pastors for Dyson’s prophetic voice.
Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, which I recommend to all Christian book groups, especially those invested in learning why reconciliation is not possible before reparation.
Next week, I’ll return with more book recommendations related to other topics on race. As with my own reading, I hope that your learning connects to action within your own community, however you define it or stretch that understanding. While I believe that reading is a key agent of change in shaping our minds and hearts, we can also get stuck in educating ourselves in theory while never connecting it to practice. Invest your resources, including time, money, and energy, into shaping a just world where Black lives matter.