10 Books to Light a Fire for Racial Justice

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

When They See Us by Ava DuVernay

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.

Bryan Stevenson on how America can heal (The Ezra Klein Show)

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.

U.S. History Episode of Last Week Tonight

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.

The 1619 Podcast from The New York Times

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.

2 thoughts on “10 Books to Light a Fire for Racial Justice

  1. For many years, government, universities, and corporations of all sizes have been under non-discrimination rules and even racial preference requirements for persons of color. This effort resulted in integrated schools, workplaces, and government agencies. Recent lawsuits against Harvard and Yale have proven racial discrimination against Asian students and a bias towards students of color.

    I believe more information is better but looking at the book list above it is important to distinguish between, facts, fantasy, debunked history, and suicide inducing despair. We have mobs of people who have no hope and believe that burning / looting is the only possible response to this information. A Marxist cultural revelation is sweeping our country and burning our cities. It is founded by those believe there is no God but themselves.

    The American experiment is based on upon the “self-evident” truth that “all men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” The church and Christians everywhere must insist that God is, He is good and that He is working for our good through fallible people and governments.

    I would like to recommend three outstanding writers / professors who happen to be men of color. They offer a look at racism from inside the black community and positive solutions to address it. All of them have lived through the last 50 years of government efforts to solve the race issue.

    Dr. Thomas Sowell, http://www.tsowell.com/ Books on Economics, Discrimination & Disparities, The Vision of the Anointed

    Robert Woodson, The Woodson Center, https://woodsoncenter.org/ – The Triumphs of Joseph, Real Solutions that bring people together: https://1776unites.com/events-press-conferences/

    Dr. Shelby Steele, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2405428/ Film: What Black Men Think. Book: Shame

    A very recent movie offers a collection of intimate interviews with some of America’s most provocative black conservative thinkers, Uncle Tom takes a unique look at being black in America.
    Uncle Tom (the Movie) (2020) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9708358/

    1. Hi Tom,
      Thank you for your book recommendations. Before I began this journey of reading and listening a few years ago, I would have seen things in some of the same ways you propose in your comment. My mind and heart have been transformed by this journey, and I believe I have come to a deeper relationship with God through Christ because of it. I would encourage you to read something on the list – I would especially invite you to look at numbers 4-6. Stevenson is a man of deep faith, who sees hope in a United States that actually lives into the promise you quote from the declaration and offers a vision of how to get there. Thurman is a pastor and theologian from the first half of the 20th century, and his thinking is one of the main elements that inspired Martin Luther King Jr. And Michelle Alexander offers hard data about the modern criminal justice system that has devastated more than one generation of Black men. I have spent the last three years trying to break free of a bubble I didn’t even realize I was in. God called to me from beyond the bubble, and these books helped me break free.

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