Reading fiction is said to produce empathy in people, to help us imagine what life is like for others. Proponents of this research will tell you that reading can make you a better person!
I believe that nonfiction can also have the same effect of transporting us to other realms and realities, helping us understand the perspectives of others, and hone our active listening skills. While the systemic issues we face today cannot be fixed by more people reading or being “better people,” a learning mindset, empathy, and patience are all tools that can help address the inequity, oppression, and injustice of our systems of business and governance.
The list represents a smattering of what I read last year. Many of the texts were published in 2020, while others are earlier writings that really resonated. The majority of the authors are Black, Indigenous, Working Class, and femme. These are the voices I am choosing to listen to and amplify right now. There are some long books and some shorter articles- hopefully, something here interests you.
21. All About Love, bel hooks. Reflections on how love shows up in our lives today, how to recognize what it is, and what it is not. “There can be no love without justice,” she writes. Such a good reminder.
20. Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi. A gripping, haunting and beautiful novel about the relationship between a woman and the gods that live inside her. The tension and foreshadowing kept me on the edge of my pillow the whole time!
19. Privilege Theory is Popular Because it is Conservative, White Hot Harlots. The author asks, “how did a concept as regressive and unhelpful as privilege become the foundational worldview among people who style themselves as progressives, people whose basic self-understanding is grounded in a belief that they are working to address injustice?” Reading this article was a needed reminder to be ok with challenging my assumptions and opinions.
18. Progressive Style Guide, Sum of Us. Not so much a thing to read but more of something to support your writing, I found this guide extremely thoughtful and useful. Read through it, consider it, and adopt the language when and where you can. Language is a powerful tool of oppression or liberation, depending on how it is used!
17. The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennet. A novel that will draw you into the diverging lives of twin sisters, one living as a Black woman and one who is white-passing. I particularly appreciated the intergenerational relationship development and the reminder that we can never know everything about other people.
16. The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale. A crucial text on police abolition written by a Brooklyn College professor. It is likely that anyone researching abolition (aka me for most of last year) will come across something written by Vitale. This book is important because it takes on the issue of police reform vs. abolition head-on. “The basic nature of the law and the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it.” No matter your thoughts on the topic, this is an important read to be informed about the argument for police abolition.
15. The Kosmic Kitchen Cookbook: Everyday Herbalism and Recipes for Radical Wellness, Sarah Kate Benjamin & Summer Ashley Singletary. This book was written by two incredible herbalists, teachers, and witches who also happen to be my friends! I’m not exaggerating when I say I read this cookbook cover to cover, sitting in my bed, and fantasizing about the delicious recipes. This is a book you will return back to whenever you want to feel more grounded in your body through the food you eat.
14. Horror Stories: The sensationalist turn in liberal immigration discourse, Felipe De La Hoz. A dear friend shared this article from The Baffler with me. The piece reflects on the disturbing accounts of detainees receiving forced hysterectomies in ICE’s Irwin County Detention Center last year. The bottom line: gratuitous and disturbing stories like these receive significant media attention and outrage while the daily horrors that take place in ICE detention facilities have become normalized to the point that they go unseen and undiscussed. This article challenged me and reminded me that the protracted, unsexy issues are often the ones that cause the most harm while the shocking and grotesque ones generate the most attention. Read this and decide for yourself.
13. Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor, Layla F. Saad. Ok, you’ve probably heard of this one and perhaps seen it recommended many times and for a good reason! Designed for people who benefit from white supremacy, the book offers concise chapters and prompts for reflection on a myriad of ways that white supremacy shows up in our lives. The past year has made it more clear than ever that those of us with white privilege have a lot of work to do when it comes to dismantling the systems that perpetuate that privilege. If you haven’t started yet, begin here. If you are well on your way, include this book on your path. Take the time to go through each chapter and each exercise.
12. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong. This novel is two years old now and has been on my radar ever since I heard Krista Tippet’s On Being interview with Vuong. The book is a letter from a son to his mother, touching on the joys, tensions, and love they share. It is beautifully written and feels like reading poetry.
11. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Like many of the books I read, I checked this one out from the library and especially loved thinking about all the other people in Oakland who have read the same book and benefitted from the wisdom of Black feminist thinkers Barbara and Beverly Smith, Demita Frazer, Alicia Garza, and Barbara Ramsay who are interviewed in the text. Many of these were new names for me, which I took as an important warning not to lose track of the important history of organizing and activism that has brought us to where we are today. Read this book to learn about the history of the CRC and the origins of identity politics as a means for Black women to seek liberation through political and social movements.
10. The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, From Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. There is some overlap with the themes discussed here and in the Me and White Supremacy workbook (#13 on this list), though this list is dedicated to organizations instead of individuals and is shorter and a bit more digestible. ALSO each of the traits is accompanied by an antidote, something tangible you can do to address it in your place of work. The point here is not to get defeated when you realize white supremacy culture is embedded in your organization, but to recognize and name it in order to get rid of it. Are you feeling defensive reading this? Or like your organization has more important and urgent work to do? Those are both symptoms of white supremacy culture, so if that’s the case then this is definitely worth a read.
9. Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis. Written in 2003, this book is depressingly timely. Davis lays out the history of the prison industrial complex and our over-reliance on the criminal justice system as a way of repairing damage in our communities. The vicious cycle sadly continues to this day, fueled by racism and sexism. Davis asks an important question in the title, which she answers in the book. Read it and come up with your own answer.
8. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler. This is science fiction for lovers and skeptics of the genre alike. The first in a trilogy (the third is still unreleased), this book is prescient and captivating and Octavia is a genius who dared to imagine a future that is coming into fruition, in all its horror and beauty. The core message is that change is the only constant and that adapting to and embracing that reality has powerful potential.
7. Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler. The second book in the trilogy, this one literally predicted many of 2020’s events. Your jaw will drop (mine did), then you might wonder how more people didn’t see this coming (this being the election of a misogynist ultra-conservative cult-like leader who incites his followers to violence). This book reminds us that “fiction” is often truer than facts.
6. Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino. Is anyone else a little late to the game with this one? The collection of essays was written in the aftermath of the 2016 election and touches on a string v relatable topics to millennials: being on reality TV, why weddings suck, and how to be an optimized version of yourself, all through the lens of self-delusion. If any of these topics seem at all relevant to you, this book will likely “call you in” and make you question why we do the things we do.
5. We Will Not Cancel Us, adrienne maree brown. AMB’s newest book, released towards the end of 2020, is actually more of a booklet and doesn’t take long to read. That being said, the concept, how to pursue transformative justice and navigate cancel culture within social movements, is one that requires ongoing thought, integration, and practice. One of the most compelling parts of this book is when AMB writes about getting called out for problematic elements in her own writing. How she addressed and repaired the damage done is a shining example of what the book encourages others to do and is a potent example of practicing what you preach.
4. For America to Live Europe Must Die, Russel Means. A speech delivered in 1980 to thousands of people at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering. Means speaks about the power of the oral tradition and how colonization has made the written word supreme, saying, “It is one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.” These words offer a critically important perspective on the European tendency to categorize, intellectualize, and mechanize every aspect of life, controlling and destroying other cultures and histories and erasing the spirituality, magic, and complexity of life in the process. This may be a challenging thing to read, and that is exactly what makes it so important.
3. Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-Led Theory, Art, Words & Tears Across Mama Earth, Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, Dee Garcia, and the Poor Magazine Family. Poor Magazine and Poor Press engage in media resistance through programming and publishing works by young people, adults, and elders in poverty, amplifying voices that are systematically silenced and recognizing that people, not academics or politicians or business leaders, are the true experts of their situations. Instead of writing my own review, I am including the book’s description from the Poor Press website: “We created this powerFULL book production as an act of revolution, resistance and decolonization to the ongoing land theft, resource theft and criminalization of poor peoples, indigenous peoples and disabled peoples across mama earth.”
2. Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown. This book was inspired by Octavia Butler’s work (see books #7 and #8 on this list) that examines the nature of change as a constant as well as by mycelium networks, flocks of birds, fractal ferns, and other wonders of nature. AMB offers up tools, anecdotes, and prayers for readers to engage in their own process of change, growth, and movement building. The book serves as the equivalent of a holy text in that it is something you might refer back to whenever you feel stuck, confused, in need of inspiration, or want to feel comforted.
1. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer weaves her identities of mother, scientist, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation into chapter after chapter of beautiful and inspiring reflections on the relationships between plants and animals, humans and our habitats. The text is part education, part entertainment, and fully an invitation to learn how to see ourselves as a part of the world around us.