In a footnote of a sermon from June, I quoted eminent theologian James Cone and mentioned that his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, would not be the first or even the tenth book I would read if you are a white person just coming to a new awareness of racial injustice in the United States. A person commented on the post and asked me what would be the ten books I would read before it, so I figured I would offer that list today.
I’ll begin with a caveat. I have been engaged for about three and a half years in personal reading and reflection concerning my own place in the great sin of white supremacy. I am by no means an expert, and I can only recommend books I have read – there are plenty more out there, as well as plenty of great lists to get engaged in the work for racial justice. What I offer below is a list of ten books leading up to Cone’s Theology, which would be book eleven. After that, I’ve added a few other resources that aren’t books but are incredibly worthwhile, especially if your own learning style leans towards the visual or auditory.
Book 1: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is the book I started with. It’s a slim volume, but packed with personal revelation, as Coates writes a letter to his son about being Black in America. I read the whole thing in one afternoon, and you probably will too.
Book 2: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Next up is this memoir by South African comedian Trevor Noah. I include it here because it allows a white American to read about racism in another country, so we are less likely to recoil and throw the book across the room. And yet, Noah’s observations transcend geographical boundaries. The book is insightful, heartbreaking, and laugh-out-loud funny – sometimes all at the same time.
Book 3: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The first of two novels on this list, Gyasi’s story traces generations of a family, half of which is stolen from West Africa and enslaved in the U.S. and the other half who remains. What this novel does so well is trace the effects of racial injustice through the generations.
Book 4: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson writes about his decades taking on the unjust criminal justice system, especially concerning death penalty cases in Alabama (though the book contains a lot more than that). Stevenson is a quiet American hero, whose voice should be amplified until everyone hears him speak about our country’s path forward.
Book 5: Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
The first of two specifically Christian-focused books on this list, Thurman’s classic is a brilliant examination of how the good news of Jesus is, in fact, good news for those “with their backs to the wall.” This book is short, but it will take a while to read because every page is jammed with thoughts to dwell on and pray about.
Book 6: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
While Stevenson focuses on people and cases to illuminate injustice, Alexander focuses more on laws, policies, and institutional evolution to show the same. This book demonstrates one of the modern apparatuses of white supremacy and anti-black racism in all its unjust procedural detail.
Book 7: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Because The New Jim Crow describes more of a high-level view of unjust policies and practices, I include this recent novel by two-time Pulitzer prize winner Colson Whitehead. Whitehead writes sentences better than any novelist I’ve read in a very long time. Taking place at a reform “school” in the 1960s, The Nickel Boys will bring you into the devastating heart of what Alexander speaks about in her work.
Book 8: How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
This book might be hard to get because it’s sold out everywhere, but try as best you can, because it is a seminal work. Kendi lays out how important it is to strive actively to be antiracist (not just claim to be “not racist”). If any of the books you read earlier in the list fired up your sense for justice, then this book will help give you the language to use as you try to live an antiracist life.
Book 9: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
The only book on this list written by a white person, I include it here because it helps white people understand why it is so hard for folks who look like me to engage in conversations about race. I put it right before the books by Cone because he doesn’t pull any punches when talking about white people.
Book 10: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
The last book on the list is by James Cone to get you ready for his style. This book opened my eyes in many ways. It is a commentary on the different responses by the Black and White church to the racial terrorism of lynching. This book made me confront the fact that Jesus was lynched, a reality that the Black church has proclaimed ever since the first singing of “Where You There When They Crucified My Lord.”
Those are ten books I’d recommend reading before Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation. Cone’s Theology is an academic treatise on liberation theology from the Black perspective. This book took me a long time to read because I kept having to put it down every three pages and really, really think about what it said. A powerful, necessary perspective that gave me so much new language, especially for understanding who Jesus was in history and who Jesus is in my own life. (That’s what the sermon was about, which spurred this post.)
A Few Other Resources
Based on the true story of the Central Park Jogger case (1989), this heartrending 4-part series on Netflix shows in excruciating detail the horrible injustice done to five teenage boys who happened to be in Central Park at the time a white woman was raped. Exceptionally well told and well acted, I can’t recommend this enough.
Take an hour and 20 minutes to listen to Bryan Stevenson lay out a vision for how to make the United States the country it always claims to be but has never been. What would it feel like if there actually were equal justice for all Americans? We’ve never lived in the country, but it would be an amazing place for everyone.
John Oliver spends 30 minutes talking about a truer version of American history that most of us didn’t get in school. He says that a history that doesn’t mention white supremacy is a white supremacist version of history. Helpful for context-setting. Explicit language warning.
This five-part series is a companion piece to last year’s special feature marking four hundred years since the first enslaved persons were brought to American shores. The stories they share dig deep into particular lives and issues and are well worth the listen.
The Michael B. Jordan Collection
I love actor Michael B. Jordan. Like, a lot. You should watch all of the things he’s in, especially these three.
Black Panther – The only Marvel superhero movie with almost an entirely Black cast. Watch it because it’s awesome, but also watch it and see how you feel as the movie de-centers Whiteness. And be amazed at how nuanced is Jordan’s portrayal of the film’s “bad guy.”
Just Mercy – The biopic of Bryan Stevenson, it takes a portion of the book I talked about above and tells the story of an innocent man on death row in Alabama. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson as a young lawyer just starting out in the state.
Friday Night Lights (Seasons 4 and 5) – Seasons 1-3 are mostly about a rich white school on one side of town winning lots of football games. But the show completely switches focus in seasons 4-5 to the school on the “bad side of town,” and the stories get more interesting. Jordan plays the quarterback, and he’s amazing as always.
I could go on and on, but that’s enough for today. What books, articles, movies, shows, and podcasts have you found helpful as you have entered the work of antiracism? Let me know in the comments.