In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer we saw sales of books about race, racism and the Black experience skyrocket. This was borne out on the New York Times bestseller list where for the month of June 2020 alone, books on those subjects held an average of 13 out of 15 slots on the trade non-fiction list.
Legions of people, white progressives specifically, were clamouring for new and backlist titles to understand or at least to signal that they were trying to understand the upheaval and history that got us to this point - the great racial reckoning - and what to do next. It was a nice boost for publishers and authors, but beyond that, it begged the questions: could all of this fervent book buying do anything? Fix anything? Change anything? Can reading cure racism?
We say emphatically….maybe.
As two people who have worked in journalism and publishing our whole careers and adult lives, we believe in the immense power of stories and storytelling as one of the most important tools to understand how the world works, as infinitely complex as it is. The best non-fiction marshals research, facts, anecdotes and examples to crystallize and clarify abstract or diffuse ideas so that the information and takeaways are digestible and relatable. The long insidious legacy of white supremacy and racism is a subject that’s especially ripe for this type of interrogation if we’re to make any progress in dismantling it.
That was the case for those books that appeared and reappeared on bestsellers lists and in shopping carts over the last year: broad and comprehensive approaches like The Sum of Us or Caste connected various dots to offer linear, logical accounts of how the past concretely reverberates today. Other books offered deeper dives into more specific subjects like The New Jim Crow (mass incarceration), The Color of Law (legal cases and human rights) or Just Medicine (medical inequalities). Prodigious thinkers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X Kendi shared critical theory and enlightening insights about these topics, through the lens of research and keen observations. And other titles gave readers practical tools to use when confronting bias or privilege or hard conversations. Recognizing patterns, learning from history, and thinking critically, as these titles and many others help us do, create more informed citizens. And we know an informed citizenry is the basis for democracy itself and any hope of affecting change.
But fiction does its part, too. Fiction imparts empathy that can help readers relate to people and experiences beyond their own world. When we laugh or cry with a character or even when we can’t stand a character, those emotions break something open inside of us and leave us vulnerable to appreciating different aspects of the human experience - the account of a young Black nanny who has a complicated relationship her white employers in Such a Fun Age or a biracial dancer in Swing Time. It also allows us to encounter a perspective - be it geographical, financial, cultural - that we may not be familiar with and experience social connection through the beautiful osmosis of fiction. In doing so, it makes it easier to relate to someone who we may not otherwise cross paths with other than the pages of a book and it allows us to reconsider and expand what we know or believe about certain people, cultures, ways of life, or even political issues.
That was our goal with our own novel, We Are Not Like Them (HQ, October). We wanted to take a polarizing, topical issue - police shootings of Black Americans - and put a human face to it, to bring to life the humanity behind the headlines. To do so, we framed our story around a loving but fraught interracial friendship, one that exposes the frictions and tensions inevitably caused by race. How the characters deal with these conflicts is, we hope, inspiration for others to do the same, and to learn something about their own biases and blind spots.
But to be clear, literature is not just about educating white people and helping them be less racist. It’s also about Black and POC writers being able to capture and share an experience. To have our stories validated and affirmed, and to celebrate our history and our art.
With all that said, literature has its limits. For one, readers often seek out books that affirm their opinions and world-views. Are you going to take a rabid neo- Nazi give him some Baldwin and magically change his heart or mind? Probably not. So we must accept that books are only as powerful as those who chose to read them, and that can be a captive audience in an echo chamber.
Also, many of us consider our reading choices noble (and sufficient) in and of themselves. We’re good people, because we read good books - and that’s enough. But anti-racism work (if that’s your goal) is not a personal, private self-improvement journey. It requires engagement and action.
As Toni Morrison put it: "Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are a reflection. Books change your mind." So, yes, it would follow that they could make us less racist. And the optimists and artists in us find both comfort and fuel in this. But it’s worth acknowledging that it’s not the reading itself that moves the needle, it’s what you actually do with what you’ve read on the page that matters.
Christine Pride worked in publishing for 15 years, with a variety of established and debut writers, publishing New York Times bestsellers and critically acclaimed books including From Scratch, Heaven is Here and A Reason to Believe. She now writes full-time.
Jo Piazza is a journalist and editor who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Glamour, Marie Claire and Elle. She is also author of The Knock Off, How to Be Married, Fitness Junkie and Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win.