“I don’t remember the last time the pages of a book were not the final thing I saw before departing off for sleep,” says the author, professor and editor, with Keisha Blain, of “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019.”
What’s the last great book you read?
I can’t just name one. I want to highlight three great books I recently read on America’s political economy. The first, “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, is an expertly told history of the post-civil rights emergence of what Taylor terms “predatory inclusion.” The second, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” by William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, is the best booklong case for reparations. The third, “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” by Walter Johnson, adroitly examines a U.S. history of imperial racial capitalism with its crosswinds centered in St. Louis.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I recently read “Passing,” by Nella Larsen, published in 1929. I’m working my way through a stack of the classic novels from the Harlem Renaissance. Shout out to Penguin Classics! I also recently finished two books from the Harlem Renaissance that address colorism: “The Blacker the Berry,” by Wallace Thurman, and “Black No More,” by George S. Schuyler. These two books moved me to grab two current page-turners on the subject of colorism: “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett and “We Cast a Shadow,” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
At night, I like to wind down with a book in my hands. I don’t remember the last time the pages of a book were not the final thing I saw before departing off for sleep. Since moving to Boston, I’ve been reading in bed, with a night light, straining to see the sentences. Months ago, I purchased a comfortable chaise longue chair. Pandemic-slow, it finally arrived. I read for the first time on the chair the other night. The experience was ideal. And as expected, I stayed up later than normal with the book: learning, reflecting, thinking, calming my mind. I’m hoping this ideal experience helps me read 50 books this year.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
W. E. B. Du Bois is well known for writing “The Souls of Black Folk,” a book of essays published in 1903. But not many people have read Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880,” released in 1935. It has, though, become increasingly influential among political writers who recognize its parallels to our own Redemption-like historical moment.
Du Bois showed how — far from the tragic era as Jim Crow historians had framed it for decades — formerly enslaved people and antiracist whites came together to form new Southern governments that attempted to spread power to the people and enact policies for the people, only to be overthrown by a racist planter class dividing and conquering and dispossessing and killing and voter suppressing. In the final chapter, Du Bois argued we can never have a truthful history “until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race.” With too many historians still regarding the defense of white historical figures as more important than truth, Du Bois’s prophesy remains relevant today.
Do you count any books as comfort reads, or guilty pleasures?
I count biographies to be my comfort reads. There is something about following the life story of historical figures that brings me comfort. Perhaps because the great biography is an engaging way to learn history, and the complications of someone’s personal story allow me to learn about my own personal story. I read two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies in the last year: “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” by David Blight, and “The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke,” by Jeffrey C. Stewart. Last year, I also read Peniel Joseph’s “The Sword and the Shield,” a masterful joint biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And in 2018 I quickly consumed Imani Perry’s brilliant biography — “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.” This biography was especially comforting at a time when I was recovering from cancer treatment. In the last few chapters, Perry chronicled Hansberry’s cancer and death with astounding grace and care.
You’re at the forefront of a recent wave of authors combating racism through active, sustained antiracism. How do you advise readers to approach books like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” books with conflicted or hard-to-parse racial attitudes?
I’d advise readers of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to ensure they are also reading books like “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” “White Rage,” by Carol Anderson, Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All,” Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s “The Condemnation of Blackness,” Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness,” Brittney Cooper’s “Eloquent Rage,” “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Thick,” “Fatal Invention,” by Dorothy Roberts, “Begin Again,” by Eddie Glaude Jr. and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” — to name a few of the critically acclaimed nonfiction books that can nurture an antiracist critical eye. I’d advise readers to approach all books with an antiracist critical eye, even books on race. When we actively read with a critical eye, we protect ourselves from unknowingly consuming a book’s hard to parse racist ideas. But this isn’t just about books. How we read old and new books is no different from how we read society, past and present. We must read all characters — living and dead, fictional and real — with respect and not diminish them, or allow them to be diminished because of the color of their skin. At the same time, we cannot allow racism to be diminished and overlooked in literature, in policy, in power.
Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?
Over the last few months, I’ve faced a campaign of misinformation and a series of personal attacks that seem aimed at convincing readers to change their constructive opinions about my books. I’ve witnessed Nikole Hannah Jones face a similar campaign to undermine opinions about the 1619 Project. People seeking to discredit books are aggressively striving to discredit authors, knowing for many people there’s no separating the author from the book (or project). It is unfortunate, but that’s the reality for authors, especially authors writing against bigotry and writing for equity and justice. And so, I’m sympathetic to those who argue we should not dislike a book merely because we dislike (or were led to dislike) the author. But disliking a book is one thing, liking a book is another. I often become excited to read books when I meet their authors, and those authors are clearly thoughtful or unassuming or funny or complicated or qualified or experienced or interesting in some critical way. I expect to see all that and more in their books, and often do.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
Without question, “All About Love: New Visions,” by bell hooks, brought me closer to my partner, Sadiqa, years before we met. “All About Love” taught me how to love; that love is a verb.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I finished “A People’s History of the Civil War,” by David Williams recently. It was so interesting to learn in yet another book that the majority of white Southerners opposed secession and opposed the Civil War (not to mention the opposition from enslaved and free Black Southerners). But we’d never know that history today, with so many Americans making ahistoric claims that Confederate monuments and memorials are commemorating Southern pride or showcasing Southern history. When the Confederacy lived, ordinary Southerners distinguished between themselves and the wealthy and well-connected Confederates waging war to maintain slavery.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I feel like this is a trick question! All the subjects I think more authors should write about I’m planning to write about (or I privately urge a more qualified author to do so). But that means writers should write the books we want to read. Write the books readers want written. Write the books you were nurtured to write.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Originality. Originality in ideas. Originality in form. Originality in genre. Originality in the writing. I’m moved by books that are original and surprising, while offering readers enough familiarity to find themselves in the work. I’m also moved by books that inspire human beings to come together to fight the existential battles of our time. I’m also drawn to books that were obviously hard to write and easy to read.
How do you organize your books?
I probably need an entire essay to explain. But in short, I spend the bulk of my time organizing the research and outlining the book from an accumulated library of research. After researching, organizing the researching and outlining the book, I probably spend the least amount of time writing. I don’t believe in writers’ block. But I do believe there are times when I’m not prepared to write. I attempt to limit those unprepared times as much as possible. Because writing is a form that needs our total attention. It is hard to write well when we are also researching and organizing our thoughts and deciding what we are going to write, and how we are going to write.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have an exhaustive collection of books expressing ideas of racial hierarchy and books substantiating policies that lead to racial inequity and injustice. I accumulated quite a bit of racist literature while researching for “Stamped From the Beginning” and “How to Be an Antiracist.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was not much of a reader as a child. In high school, I almost never read books. When teachers assigned books, I read their CliffsNotes. My little bookcase was full of little yellow CliffsNotes. It is embarrassing to talk about now. Then again, the books assigned to me were boring and irrelevant. No one was assigning me books by Walter Dean Myers. And unfortunately for me, there weren’t books available by Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Laurie Halse Anderson, Elizabeth Acevedo, Frederick Joseph, Ibi Zoboi, Tomi Adeyemi, Tiffany Jewell, Renee Watson, Kim Johnson, Nicola Yoon and Kwame Alexander. I did not become a reader until my English 101 class at Florida A&M University. That’s when a professor introduced me to James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and Charles W. Chesnutt.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Oh, this one is easy! I’d invite James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and W. E. B. Du Bois. I can imagine Du Bois and Hurston having a spirited debate, leaving my guests riveted, with Baldwin functioning as interlocutor as he puffed his cigarettes, and mostly sided with Hurston. Of course, they’d be debating the role of the Negro artist at my urging. At some point, I suspect Hurston would get tired of Du Bois and grab Baldwin and hit the music.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I am embarrassed I have yet to read the 2020 National Book Award winner, “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. I was overloaded in the fall building Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research and got way behind on my reading. But I’m reading this book next!
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