“What happened?” is not just the title of a recent memoir by Hillary Clinton. It’s also a question I think many of us grapple with on a daily basis. How did “this” happen? “This” being a euphemism for many things: the election of Trump, sure, but also attacks on healthcare, efforts to dismantle or cut social services, a disturbing rise in political rage and intolerance, and so on. “This” is 2017, or whatever year you are reading this blog post in. “This” is modern America, and “This” looks different to all voters. But to own and change “This,” we have to be well informed. We can’t shy away from the darker corners in our country. We have to step into the shadows with the people trapped there and bring a candle so we can see each other. We will beat the dark down with light. Reading brings you to directly to confrontation, and change. Information is a weapon. And I have designed this list of books about social justice, current events, and political issues to arm you with knowledge and compassion to disarm hatred and inequality. There are many excellent writers conducting some truly groundbreaking research and combining that with a storyteller’s finesse at making even the bleakest topic into one that feels human, with unforgettable characters, with empathy and heart. Narrative nonfiction (or literary journalism, or creative nonfiction, or whatever else it’s called now) is one of our best defenses against complacency. Information gives you power, but story gives you a reason to keep going.
About the list
I want to clarify that there are so many different issues that America faces with great urgency, and it was hard to pick just a few topics to focus on in this list. This list of books about American society is primarily focused on divisions in class, race, and political parties. You could say the dominant “what if” question I’m trying to answer in this list is how Trump got elected. There are so many other topics to focus on that I am bluntly acknowledging that I’ve overlooked—feminism, LGBT rights, labor, immigration, and more—but these books mainly address the Trump question, which, after all, encompasses so many reasons and causes related to those issues. You will also find this list is not very partisan in the traditional sense. I did not choose books that went after Republicans or Democrats as a party, except to focus on the party dynamics at the top: mega donors and architects of destruction. This list is about the Average Joe since these issues cross party lines and bleed past what side of the ticket you punched in the voting booth. Let’s be honest: today’s parties have failed us all in some way or the another. I will revisit some of these missed themes later in another list that includes books that address some of the issues I skipped over or only touched on briefly in this list. I make no claims that this is a complete and definitive guide or answer. It’s only a start. I also plan on doing a companion list with novels, fiction, and creative writing about these issues. Also, this post took more than a month to put together, so if the selections seem disjointed, so, too, was compiling this list.
These books are arranged in no particular order, except into five groups of four to make it digestible (and the book cover image collages more consistent). The order of the books in the sections follow the book cover collages, so the first book in the cover image will correspond to the first book listed in that section, the second cover image photo will correspond to the second cover image photo, and so on. I initially tried to sort them into themed sections, but the truth is, all of these books crisscross among multiple subjects. This is one of my theses for this article; I don’t believe that there is a single cause for where we are today, and as you’ll see in this list or as you read these books, all of these issues layer over each other, woven into a tapestry without borders, threaded into the flag. Layers upon layers upon layers. That’s why I threw out my original plan to break this list into categories. The truth is, none of these books can be limited to one category, and I don’t think any of these writers would think so, either. For example, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed: How For-Profit Colleges Deepen Inequality in America is about higher education, but it’s also about changing labor markets and the economy. It’s about racism and sexism and ageism and systematic oppression. It’s about wealth, and it’s about poverty. It’s about America, past and present.
None of these books claims that “this” happened in a day, a week, a month, an election cycle, a decade, a century, a few hundred years back to Independence Hall and the birth of our country. These processes take time and clash together in the “perfect storm” to bring everything to conditions ready for drastically altering society. We are there now. “This” is today. It’s also November 9, 2017. It’s also July 4, 1776. It’s also every one of the countless days in between. But we have a chance to change it, turn it on its head, make a better “This” for tomorrow.
You read these books and patterns emerge. You see some of the same pivotal legislation, decisions, people, and struggles come up again and again. Back when I took a history seminar in college about the French Revolution, I tried to stuff my thesis into a credible argument that France was used to a paternal style of royal leadership, making way for Napoleon to seize on that appetite and exploit it. I couldn’t quite get it to work out, and it felt dubious to claim there was such a collective national consciousness that could lead to upheaval, death, revolution. Our country is relatively young. What is our identity? Can you go through your history book and say, “Aha, there’s the turning point!”? No. It’s not that simple, as these books will show. It’s tragedies that dissolve into each other, like when you stand over the stove melting down bittersweet chocolate, butter, and sugar to make brownies. You do it slowly, carefully, aiming for a perfectly consistent, homogenous mix of all those ingredients into a single thick substance.
It can turn out delicious, lick-every-drop-on-your-spatula good. If you get the proportions right. If you are patient. Or it can more easily burn at the bottom, a nasty and dark coating on the bottom of the saucepan, leaving your mixture tasting rusty, with flecks of sour chocolate spoiling the delicacy. You throw it out. It’s unusable. It can’t be saved. If the former is what America can be—a decadent and harmonious elixir—the latter is what America is now: a melting pot that spoiled and scorched when we weren’t watching, poisoned and ruined, infecting society from the bottom up up to the top, maybe beyond repair.
But maybe not.
This post is dedicated to two people. First, my mother, who often reads books about sociological problems in America. It’s almost a running joke—albeit a bleak and wry one—that my mom is reading the third book about the Opioid Epidemic that’s come out this year, or whatever trending topic about America is being published. The second person this is dedicated to is my friend Kathryn, an adventurous reader who requests book recommendations to feed her intellectually curious mind. It is so easy to block out the icky parts of America and the world at large, to stick your ostrich head in the sand, as the meme goes. This post is for the readers who confront harsh realities directly. These books are for the people who face the vortex head on. This is for the readers who don’t blink.
20 books to help you understand America
(Note: this post uses affiliate links, which means a purchase on Amazon through a link on this site in a certain timeframe will earn this blog a small profit. Whatever income this blog earns goes towards web hosting and other expenses. I’ve also provided links to WorldCat—a catalogue that helps you find books in libraries nearby—and to Goodreads, where you can learn more about the books.)
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (2017)
Why is segregation still here? Richard Rothstein’s exhaustive study attempts to answer this very question by arguing that the government systematically oppressed minorities and the poor through segregated housing, urban development, and city planning. By creating and then exploiting housing laws going as far back as at least 1920, the American state, local, and federal government actively sought to segregate minorities and the poor and disadvantaged in both urban and suburban settings. Rothstein’s comprehensive analysis of this ugly history traces white flight, suburbanization, and the migration of African Americans to the north in the 1950s. The only book to truly earn the title of heir apparent to Jane Jacobs’ landmark The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Rothstein’s study is a pivotal history we cannot look away from if we ever hope to overcome racism, inequality, and segregation in our country. As The Color of Law argues: it starts at home. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016)
Evicted is an explosive and unforgettable analysis of the tension between tenants and landlords and eviction laws in America. Evicted is an outstanding book peppered with characters whose struggles root into your life while you consume MacArthur Genius Grant Recipient Matthew Desmond’s profiles of life on the edge. Very few books make the Top 100 Notable Books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, and Evicted not only did so but reached the Top 10. The book also earned the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (2015)
America’s opiate epidemic is a public health crisis. If you’ve ever wondered how it happened, Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones is an excellent place to start finding some answers. With the opiate crisis, there are several strands: how did opioids get used so widely though they were known to be addictive? What happened after people got addicted? Why did addicts shift over to heroin? Quinones joins these several storylines together by weaving two trajectories—first, the development and aggressive marketing and prescribing of opioids like Oxytocin; and second, the Mexican drug gangs that seized the opportunity to create and sell cheap black tar heroin to addicts once the medical community hit the gas on prescribing Oxy. Now with the added horrors of even more lethal drugs like fentanyl added, this epidemic is wiping out families and towns all over the country. I especially found Quinones’ reporting on how the medical community, in particular pharmaceutical companies like Purdue, articulated an issue—pain—that they offered the sole solution—prescription painkillers—and created near fraudulent marketing to push doctors to dole out medicine they were led to believe had no addictive qualities. Just imagine: thousands of doctors and nurses were told that prescription-strength painkillers were not addictive, even in large quantities. It sounds absurd to say that today—everyone knows that since we all know different now—but this was hidden thanks to deceptive marketing and selective manipulation of medical studies combined with lax regulation on Big Pharma and the health insurance industry. Dreamland is a reckoning and a crucial book to help understand how we got here and what we can do next to reverse the deaths of thousands more. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers (2017)
What do we do with the mad? As a person with bipolar disorder, I ask this question a lot. I have been fortunate to carve out a life where I can own a freelance business and stay relatively stable despite frequent disabling episodes. I often wonder where I fit in, not quite high functioning but not quite totally low functioning. I’m nearly thirty right now. Filing for disability seems both inevitable and overwhelming, something I resist, a finality and totality to my future. Ron Powers is also thinking about these issues and makes the case that America is not. The title alone is unforgettable, and it was a real quote from one of Scott Walker’s aides. Following his schizophrenic son’s suicide, Powers poured his energy into researching and writing about our society’s appalling negligence towards people with mental illness. It’s not easy to read Powers’ book because the subject matter is so distressing, but it is a necessary book for mental health advocacy. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein (2017)
Trump’s winning slogan, “Make America Great Again” or #MAGA, was so effective because it channeled the American worker’s frustration with the government and economic trends that pulled the rug out from under them, especially through NAFTA. One of the many places affected in the “rust belt” was Janesville, Wisconsin, a manufacturing hub for General Motors in Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s district. After GM closed its plant in Janesville, the town was crippled by its loss of jobs and income. Entire families had found good-paying, solid jobs through GM, with multiple generations, men and women, working at GM. Written by Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein, Janesville is a brutal and raw look at the casualties in this quite “American” story. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse (2017)
It’s often been said (especially in The People Will Rise Like the Waters upon Your Shore, featured later in this article) that this country is one spark away from igniting in flames. As Monica Hesse shows in American Fire, we are already there. Hesse’s engrossing book reports on a sudden, alarming increase of arson incidents by the dozens in Accomack County, Virginia. Law enforcement struggled to get control of the chaos while local vigilante groups sought to find the culprits as desperation grew, and so did suspicion among this formally water-tight knit community. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire… and Hesse unearths a disturbing crime of passion in a part of the country—the “Vanishing Land” in the subtitle—already crippled by broader economic, political, and sociological changes gutting the country. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016)
I know many felt like the 2016 election was the reckoning of disenchanted white people. It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s base as people entitled by default due to their race, but to do so would avoid grappling with the real challenges a changing economy has thrown in their paths. Prolific author and Salon.com writer Nancy Isenberg lays to bare the history of class in America from the country’s birth to present day. Isenberg explores an economic and social system that is designed to oppress the white working class while demanding their votes, and how these voters have been coveted—and strategically manipulated—by both Republicans and Democrats alike. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016)
Do I really need to add another book about angry white people onto this list? I think so, and that’s because Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book is so stunning. A finalist for the National Book Award, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right tests the limits of your sympathy and your frustration. My mother read the book just a few weeks after the election. It was painful to hear her talk about how powerful the book was when I was so angry and dispirited that the accumulated years of white people voting against their own interests. This peaked in the surprise election of a deranged billionaire with no political experience and a passion for stoking hatred and violence, someone who could only have his own interests in mind and not those of the people he would (and did) quickly sell out on issues that mattered to them. But Hochschild’s narrative of her journey from liberal Berkeley, California, to the deep of Louisiana’s bayou country will melt down the icy wall around your heart just enough of a crack to show you the maddening contradictions and tangle of hypocrisy we only have a chance of overcoming if we try compassion or, at least, an effort at understanding. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer (2016)
An army of poor supporters ended up voting the rich billionaire with the poor-fitting suit and cheap red tie into office. How? Why? Especially when Hillary got slammed for Wall Street ties at the same time? I hope by now you’ve seen that a few of my recommendations here help answer that question on the emotional level. But I want to zero in on the wealth factor here and the way that big money and the uber-rich donors were responsible for raising enough money to fund the campaigns of crooked candidates who win because they are flush with cash. One of my life-long heroes has been Rahm Emanuel, before the Chicago mayor days. The summer after I graduated from college, I read a book called The Thumpin’: How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution. Okay, I think I was maybe the only person who read that book. But it was awesome nonetheless! The Thumpin’ was about Rahm’s successful leadership to flip Congress to a Democratic majority in the 2006 midterms. I remember reading how Rahm told someone the strategy for getting someone elected was (paraphrasing here): “Money, money, money; then money, money, press; then money, press, votes.” Even then Rahm knew the difference between winners and losers was money, not handshakes and selfies with babies. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is a wakeup call and an essential read for anyone who wants to understand how people with extreme wealth can fuel a fringe candidate like Trump into office—and then shape a radical political agenda. If you were alive and watching The Colbert Report during its airing, you’ll definitely recognize the Supreme Court’s Citizen United case (2010) in Dark Money and how it has turned our government into a patronage system, with the more money you flood into a campaign’s coffers, the more influence you buy, in some cases even a spot in the cabinet (Betsy DeVos, anyone?). Read Dark Money to learn more about how dirty money is behind every big political victory and you’ll quickly see how Mayer’s book received a harvest of acclaim, including the coveted and prestigious spot in the New York Times Book Reviews’ 10 Best Books of the Year.
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy McClean (2017)
If you thought the radical right wing of the Republican party materialized overnight, Duke University Professor Nancy McClean’s Democracy in Chains will set you straight. McClean traces the rise of the Tea Party and ultra conservatives’ rise to power and finds its genesis in the Nobel Prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan. As the architect behind the movement, Buchanan sketched his vision for a conservative rise that would divide the country into “Makers” and “Takers” and oppress the latter. Add multibillionaire Charles Koch’s deep pockets and wealthy associates to Buchanan’s dream, and you have a well-oiled machine to set about backing and electing candidates hungry to take the money and vote for dismantling constitutional rights and economic equality. McClean’s narrative argues that Trump’s victory and Republican control of Congress wasn’t an accident or a random cluster of circumstances perfectly aligning but a strategic trajectory, a slow burn to set America on fire and end democracy as we know it. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes (2017)
I love me some Chris Hayes. I’m an MSNBC addict and tune into the evening prime time lineup just about every week day. I usually make and eat dinner somewhere between 6:30 and 7:30 so I can catch All In with Chris Hayes at 8:00 p.m. I love All In because Hayes has such interesting guests, not just full time talking heads, like documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and Five Thirty Eight’s Harry Enten (insert heart eyes emoji!!). This year saw the publication of A Colony in a Nation, Hayes’ book examining the two Americas that exist in this country: a Colony and a Nation. The Colony is comprised of people who are oppressed and persecuted in a police state while residents of the Nation live in a privileged and lawful place. Hayes argues for this theory by describing and analyzing the rise of a police state. His book searches for answers at how criminal justice turned into rampant injustice and offers some solutions. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi (Pub. date: October 24, 2017)
The country erupted in rage and mourning after a video showed police on Staten Island disarm and murder a Black man, Eric Garner, in an illegal chokehold on July 17, 2014. In I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, Matt Taibbi’s investigates how law enforcement betrayed Garner’s rights in yet another form of brutal police brutality towards people of color. Garner’s death became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and ground outrage into our country, demanding everyone to take sides in the fight to make these atrocious incidents visible. This book is a nice companion read to Chris Hayes’ A Colony in A Nation. Purchase a copy on Amazon or find in your local library through WorldCat.
The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon on Your Shore: A Story of American Rage by Jared Yates Sexton (2017)
There have been and will be so many books about the 2016 presidential election that it almost seems unnecessary to have one more. But Jared Yates Sexton’s narrative, born out of his experience covering the primaries of both parties and the general election, is the most insightful book yet. What I particularly like about Sexton’s reflection is he situates his background (working poor in Indiana) and family (mostly Trump supporters) without exploiting it. Though his book is only 279 pages, Yates succinctly breaks down patterns in government, in the major parties, in the media, and in economic hardship and changing labor in America. So many moratoriums on 2016 only stretch back ten years or so. This book reaches back further than that, weaving in major turning points in political, sociological, and economic trends. On the one hand, Sexton is arguing that these forces are complex. On the other, Sexton acknowledges that they really aren’t that difficult to understand at all, and if stop thinking about how unbelievable it really was that Trump got elected, we will never seriously make an effort to understand other Americans. I won’t spoil the scene where you discover where the book gets its absurdly long and bone chilling title. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman (2015)
I am not really writing my first draft of this article in any order, but this is the final description I will be writing since this is the last one I decided to add to the list. And I will make it the last book I list in this article. If there was ever an election where the actual process of voting was in dispute, it was the 2016 presidential election. I’m not saying that because Trump is so insecure that he didn’t win the popular vote that he has created a voter fraud commission trying to strong-arm states into handing over confidential voter data. I’m saying it because it is possible that foreign hackers fiddled with our quirky, inconsistent, and at times archaic system of voting in our country. Why is it you can drive five minutes away to a voting booth the next town over and it looks completely different? How secure are our votes, really? Voting rights is a dark horse of an issue, something that we often overlook as claims of voter fraud are usually overblown and unfounded but a very real issue of voter suppression is almost completely ignored. Ari Berman’s analysis of the right to vote in modern America after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an eye-opening look at just how bad things are. Berman looks at the fallout of the VRA, a crucial victory of the Civil Right Movement, and how little has changed as voter suppression is still going strong. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
Lower Ed: How For-Profit Colleges Deepen Inequality in America by Tressie McMillan Cottom (2015)
I think the best headline for an article about for-profit higher education I’ve ever seen comes from the New Yorker‘s article about Trump University, Donald Trump’s fraudulent school: “Trump University: It’s Worse than You Think.” In Lower Ed: How For-Profit Colleges Deepen Inequality in America, you find out the same thing: for-profit higher education is just as bad and worse than you can imagine. An assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, Tressie McMillan Cottom focuses her first book on for-profit colleges and universities, which she says are “lower ed,” as compared to traditional institutions of higher education. Having worked in recruiting and admissions for two such schools, McMillan Cottom pursued studying this sector of education in her doctorate in sociology at Emory University. Lower Ed is a watershed look at these schools, which are often unregulated and operate in great secrecy. What I really appreciated about Lower Ed is McMillan Cottom looks at how changing trends in the labor market help create this pressure to credentialize. I thought it was really interesting to read her analysis on how the economy is partly to blame by creating a vacuum that sucks in people who are often disadvantaged and further entrenches them in a cycle of poverty and debt and low-paying jobs, never really allowing someone to transcend their circumstances but instead leaning into it. If there is one question McMillan Cottom addresses above all it is who decides to enroll in these institutions and why. This is something I think a lot of people wonder about, and I do, too: how could anyone be conned into going to these schools, in many case studying subjects that will not lead to jobs and ending up in substantial debt? The answers you’ll find in Lower Ed might not be the ones you expect. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads. (Note that this book seems to have been published in 2015 and then later republished under a different title. I’m using the one in the Goodreads record.)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2015)
I’ve been repping this book all year after I read it in February. This entertaining and highly readable book examines the Internet and all the complicated things it brings with it. If you’ve ever seen a public shaming on Twitter, taken part in one, or were, God forbid, a victim of one, you might find Ronson’s dissection of how the Internet magnifies one of civilization’s oldest and ugliest traditions, humiliating people in public. The reason why I recommend this book so often is because Ronson’s writing style is so readable, and I mean that in a good way: accessible and engaging. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he often writes about people who partake in subcultures or extremes, but he has a real talent for getting people to talk to him who spend most of their time as social pariahs, misfits, or pushed into the fringe. The treat is in reading how Ronson crafts a story out of his experience getting pulled into these stories and how they challenge his preconceptions since he often functions as the straight man or the reader’s stand-in for the token “normal.” I loved how So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was a fascinating trip looking at the community and culture the Internet has inspired and how we are all really one move away from being shamed.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2017)
Public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest book collects new and previously published essays about Black America before, during, and after Obama’s presidency. Coates is the author of the National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me and one of the country’s renowned public intellectuals. His explosive cover story for The Atlantic‘s October 2017 issue, “Donald Trump Is the First White President,” has sparked a fierce—but necessary—debate over what drove Trump to power. If you’ll remember from the intro to this list of books about sociology in America, I’m not sure there really is one right answer to explain something as powerful as Trump’s rise. Coates can make you think twice, that it is racism pure and simple. Read the essay online and get a sense of Coates’ sweeping style, then check out We Were Eight Years in Power for more biting criticism of how the legacy of Black oppression in America is not a history book with a clear ending—it’s an ongoing struggle today, something that we could have a shot at ending once and for all.
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Thomas M. Nichols (2017)
This book came out in winter 2017, not long after Trump was elected and we were all reeling from the new reality. It was almost a comfort to read academic and writer Thomas M. Nichols as he defended with unapologetic gusto the integrity of education, expertise, and knowledge. At just under 250 pages in tiny dimensions, The Death of Expertise is a digestible jump into the “what happened” waters. Nichols is a conservative but belongs to the “Never Trumps,” a group of right wing thinkers and writers who shunned Trump, arguing that Trump was an assault on the party and America in general and advocating for voting for anyone else—even Hillary. Here Nichols slams notions that the knowledge maintained and taught in institutions of higher education is an elitist Ivy Tower that simply cannot compete with the Internet and a Google search. Nichols deconstructs the idea that “everyone is an expert” and illustrates the problems we are having with fake news and twisted truth. At times, his arguments border on rants, but you have to admire that someone is willing to go there and risk—or even welcome—being labeled as a snob and an elitist. Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward (2017)
For a kaleidoscopic look at race in America today, you’ll want to pick up The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones; Sing, Unburied, Sing). A myriad of voices from an all-star list of contributors (Daniel José Older, Edwidge Danticat, Kevin Young, Emily Raboteau, and more) provides different perspectives on experience racism and prejudice in contemporary America through poetry and prose. The title is a nod to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), an influential collection of two essays about racism. The New York Times praised Ward’s bestselling collection as: “[A] stirring anthology that takes more cues from Baldwin than just its title … every poem and essay in Ward’s volume remains grounded in a harsh reality that our nation, at large, refuses fully to confront.” Purchase a copy on Amazon, find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017) *Fiction
I am including one work of fiction on this list because first, I cannot wait until I get to the fiction list to recommend this and second, because the line between truth and fiction blurs. Unquestionably the most anticipated YA book of 2017, Angie Thomas debut novel, The Hate U Give, is a sobering and immersive look at the experience of Black youth coming of age during a time of racism and police brutality. After getting pulled over for a traffic violation, Starr watches as tensions between the white cop and the driver, her unarmed Black guy friend, escalate until the officer shoots him dead. Starr is the sole witness of this event, arguably one she has had to prepare for her whole life as her parents taught her how to react in such a situation the same way white parents would teach their children how to dispute a credit card charge. Since Starr attends private school at a predominately white school on the other side of her city, she immediately gets pulled between the two worlds she navigates every day. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give gives readers an unflinching look at how young people of color come of age in a country where their lives are at stake in every interaction with law enforcement. Purchase a copy on Amazon or find in your local library through WorldCat, and add to Goodreads.