Last spring, books about anti-racism and race in America dominated the New York Times and Amazon bestseller lists: “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi, “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, and others.
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and widespread Black Lives Matter protests, non-Black readers seemed genuinely committed to learning about systemic racism and why people of color were fed up. Given how whitewashed history curriculums tend to be in the U.S., the books were a much-needed remedial lesson for many who’d picked them up.
But the rush to buy or check out anti-racism nonfiction was ultimately short-lived. In November, Portland, Oregon, writer and bookseller Katherine Morgan wrote about how disheartening it was to see people cancel their orders of some of these titles after finding out that, because of the unprecedented demand, many had been back-ordered.
Ash Mone, a librarian and blogger, was equally disappointed to see interest in Black American history wane again. She also couldn’t help but wonder: Why weren’t people reading fiction as well? Where was the heightened demand for novels that were centered on Black experiences and were written by Black authors?
“I just kept thinking about how it says a lot that some people can only relate to nonfiction portrayals of Black pain and struggles and can’t try to get into a fiction book or TV show with a majority of Black characters or positive experiences,” Mone told HuffPost.
“If the only media you are viewing with Black people portrays us as oppressed, underprivileged, and reminds you of how different we are, that’s a problem,” she said. “It says to me that a lot of people can only relate to us from above us.”
Why Black fiction matters
Why should you make a point to read fiction? Studies say fiction bolsters our empathy for other people in a way that nonfiction doesn’t.
In a 2013 paper published in Science, people were asked to read either literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction or nothing. Then the researchers measured participants’ empathy improvement on “theory of mind” tests. In layman’s terms, “theory of mind” simply refers to your ability to imagine what might be going on in someone else’s head and to understand why people may have different values and desires than your own.
People who were assigned literary fiction showed the most improvement on the empathy tests. People who read works of nonfiction, popular genre fiction or nothing at all didn’t have a boost in scores. (Why literary fiction instead of genre fiction, like a bestselling thriller? The researchers say that works of literary fiction tend to demand a little more from the reader; the books feature intricate plots and characters whose “inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”)
“Diversifying what we read, what we watch, where we eat and where we shop can save us from ignorance.”
– Abbigail Glen, a bookseller in North Carolina
“Fiction allows you to connect to the human condition in ways that nonfiction might not,” said Amanda M. Leftwich, a co-host of LibVoices, a podcast for and about librarians of color. “It conveys the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes for a short period of time, which, in turn, can engender empathy in the reader.”
Take “The Vanishing Half,” Brit Bennett’s recent novel about two light-skinned Black identical twins, one of whom tries to pass as white through mid-20th century America. Through that lens, Bennett delves into the social, political and economic privileges that are granted to someone who’s white (or white adjacent).
But Bennett’s book portrays universal experiences, too, of course: for instance, how fraught sisterhood can be and how one sibling’s life choices and missteps can ripple through an entire family for decades.
“When you look at books and films showcasing stories other than the struggle, you see they help to humanize us,” said Shannon Bland, the founder of the popular online community Black Librarians.
“For Black people, seeing media that always shows us struggling can be traumatizing and triggering,” she said. “Black authors today still keep it real, but they also uplift, celebrate and inspire.”
Don’t stop at reading fiction about Black lives. Read coming-of-age novels by queer Vietnamese American poets, books that weave in Indigenous American history written by members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, read love stories by one of Iran’s most important living fiction writers. There’s a whole world of literature outside of the “white people doing shit” category that gets all the attention. (Sorry, Johns Updike and Cheever, we still love you. We just need to see other people.)
“Fiction by people of color teaches what nonfiction doesn’t: that we are not here just to teach white people how to be better people nor to be a coffee-table book people leave out to show how well-educated they are,” Mone said.
As North Carolina bookseller Abbigail Glen told HuffPost recently, “Diversifying what we read, what we watch, where we eat and where we shop can save us from ignorance.”
Make sure you read about Black joy, not just Black trauma
Much has been written about how films focusing on Black trauma rise to the top commercially and critically while movies that highlight the triumphs of Black people rarely win awards or gain a widespread audience.
To a lesser extent, that’s true of literature as well. Given our history, slavery, racism and the influence of colonialism are unavoidable, very necessary common denominators in fiction by Black American authors. When teachers assign required reading by Black authors, it’s usually works like “The Color Purple” and “Beloved” that make the list.
But as you endeavor to read more Black fiction independently, make sure you’re not just reading about Black trauma. Read books that celebrate and bask in Black joy, too.
Don’t stop at reading the greats ― the Zora Neale Hurstons and James Baldwins ― or stick to the intellectually heavy stuff. The librarians we spoke to all recommended reading fun books, too. For starters, read Stacey Abrams’s romance novel series. (Yep, that Stacey Abrams. The woman truly does it all.)
“I know this next bit is controversial, but don’t just read fiction by Toni Morrison and other ‘Black intellectuals’ that are socially acceptable in academia and everyone else is reading,” Mone said. “Read ‘trashy’ romance and fantasy by Black authors, too.”
Mone’s top two recommendations of the moment? Two young adult novels: Tracy Deonn’s ”Legendborn,” a young adult fantasy that weaves the legend of King Arthur with Southern Black culture, and Renée Watson’s “Piecing Me Together,” which tells the story of Jade, a Portland high school student who won a scholarship to St. Francis, a private school that’s mostly white.
“Publishing is hard enough for Black people to get into,” Mone said. “If you want to support us, you can’t just read the few buzzword books about our pain that they allow us to write ― and you definitely shouldn’t support the books about our pain and struggles not written by us.”
Alexandria Brown, a librarian and reviewer of adult and young adult speculative fiction, also recommended Tracy Deonn, as well as fellow YA authors Tiffany D. Jackson, Dhonielle Clayton and Bethany C. Morrow.
“They’re all creating some incredible young adult fiction that highlights the varied experiences of Black youth,” she said. “Tochi Onyebuchi has written some powerful young adult books as well, and his adult novella ‘Riot Baby’ needs to be taught in high school, it’s that good.”
Meanwhile, author Akwaeke Emezi “explores queerness, gender expression and Blackness in unique and mesmerizing ways,” Brown said.
Once you start diversifying your reading lists, keep at it. Stories that center on the experiences of POC, pulled from all genres, are important ― and just plain fun to read ― every day, not just during Black History Month.
“I do think it’s a good step already for white people to read nonfiction books with the goal of educating themselves,” Mone said. “But there’s so much great fiction out there, too.”
And it should go without saying: Make sure you’re not just reading. If you’re genuinely committed to being anti-racist and an ally, it requires in-the-moment action, not just an impressive Goodreads profile.
“Beyond reading these books, I care what white people are going to do the next time a racist runs for office, or what they’re going to say the next time their relatives or in-laws make a racist joke,” Mone said. “At the end of the day, you can read all the books in the world, but it doesn’t mean you will stand up for us in ways that matter most.”