Annotated List of NEW books (published in 2017-2019) recommended and annotated by Barbara Beckwith
1) Books Published in 2019
The Body Papers – A Memoir, by Grace Talusan (Restless Books, 2019). The author, born in the Philippines, writes of trying to assimilate to American (Boston) life: “I did everything I could to be like everyone else. I practiced the Boston accent until it felt like my own. I wore green on Sat. Patrick’s Day to be as Irish as my classmates. I prayed before sleep for God to transform me into a white girl.” She’d internalized jokes about Filipinos as dog eaters: “I felt the shame of this practice tied to my body.” Yet when she revisits Manilla as an adult, ““I am a small child again. In my native tongue, I have the vocabulary of a three–year-old.” She includes photographs of herself at all ages, always smiling, but reveals that throughout her childhood, she was sexually molested by her grandfather, and makes clear the impact of both keeping quiet about it and of finally speaking out.
2) Books Published in 2018
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, by Francisco Cantú (Riverhead, 2018). Memoir. The author, whose Mexican immigrant mother was a park ranger, takes a border patrol job, tracking down undocumented border crossers. He must act tough, but also uses his Spanish to translate between immigrants and his mostly English-only co-workers. He describes depredations faced by immigrants: coyotes who may extract ransom money, or maim and kill, as well as U.S. ranchers’ frustrations: homes broken into for water, food, or tools to sell. When he leaves the job, he helps an undocumented friend facing deportation, wondering “if I was seeking to dole out some paltry reparation.” This memoir, he says, was “a way of charting my own involvement with an institution largely indifferent to human life, an opportunity to finally grapple with all the years I had normalized the layered violence [“the adrenalin of war”] that is inseparable from border enforcement. Freed from the everyday need to disassociate my duties from my sense of compassion and humanity, I was able to trace my own doubts and uneasy about the work I had done, the same way one might identify in retrospect the initially unnoticed symptoms of a psychological disorder.”
No Ashes in the Fire; Coming of Age Black & Free in America, by Darnell L. Moore (Nation Books 2018). The Black Lives Matter activist describes growing up in Camden NJ, where being gay was something he had to hide at home and at school, but also, at first, from himself. He writes this memoir to practice “critical self-reflection” which he writes that anyone who claims to be part of the Black Lives Matter needs to do.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race, by Robin DiAngelo, foreword by Michael Eric Dyson (Beacon Press, 2018). The white author uses his own experience to show how white people’s defensiveness and avoidance of any discomfort (“racial stress”) blocks authentic relationships with people of color, who won’t bother to give honest feedback if they think an individual is unwilling to accept it. We need to be less fragile.
Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, by Eli Saslow (Doubleday, 2018). As the son of former KKK leader Derek Black, founder of the Web’s first major hate site, stormfront.org, Don Black was raised on “white pride,” racism and anti-Semitism. In his teens, he created a radio show combining country music (“white pride” songs) and ideology (he coined “white genocide”), as well as co-hosting his father’s internet radio show. He attended New College of Florida, where his father assumed he could spread their “racial realism” conviction that separation of races was good for all. Don studied seriously but also continued his racist radio show. His KKK connection was eventually exposed and he was ostracized by most on the progressive campus. But not all: the college’s only Orthodox Jew, who enjoyed Don as a person, invited him to a weekly Shabat group, and a Peruvian friend became his girlfriend but regularly feed him scientific research and challenged him to see racism’s effect on people he cared about. Gradually, Don’s views shifted, culminating in a public letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center, renouncing his white nationalist past. Saslow’s dramatic account shows how staying in genuine relationship with someone whose ideas you find offensive, does have the potential to change that person’s views.
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, by Morgan Jerkins (Harpers paperback 2018). A memoir that’s frank about the teen behaviors she grew up with: how “fighting brought you respect that institutions refused to give you.” How “I was told that I had ‘good hair’ even though my hair was just as thick, if not thicker, and that of other girls, maybe because I am light-skinned and my complexion somehow mitigated the thickness of my afro.” And how in adulthood Black women are doubly subjugated: “You are both invisible and hyper-visible.” So that “while actual black women are stigmatized for the bodies that we live in, Rachel Dolezal attempts to wear our bodies as a kind of costume.” She declares to white readers: “I will force you to keep your eyes on me, and, in turn, us, and see the seams of everyday life that you have been privileged to ignore but that have wrecked us.”
Not Quite Not White – Losing and Finding Race in America, by Sharmila Sen (Penguin, 2018). An émigré (at age 12) from India, Sen describes growing up in Cambridge, MA in the 1980s, and trying to assimilate (training her palate, her accent, and “donning white face, and a wide smile”). She eventually embraces a NOT white identity. In the process, she becomes aware of the color and caste racism she grew up with in Calcutta. In one chapter, she shares 16 witty and instructive examples of behavior considered polite in the U.S. but rude in Calcutta.
People Before Highways: Boston Activists, Urban Planners, and a New Movement for City Making, by Karilyn Crockett (U. Mass Press, 2018). An inspiring book about how Black and white Boston and Cambridge residents stopped the planned destruction of their neighborhoods by powerful officials who intended to build city-to-suburbs 8-lane highways through Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Cambridgeport. If you doubt the power of protest, read this book.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Deborah G. Plant, Foreword by Alice Walker (Amistad, 2018). Hurston, a well-known African American novelist AND cultural anthropologist collected 86-year old Cudjo Lewis’s memories of being kidnapped at age19, illegally transported to the U.S. (slave ships had been outlawed for 50 years) and enslaved for 5 years, although upon Emancipation, he founded Africatown. This 1931 account (Hurston died in 1960), written in the vernacular as she heard Lewis speak it, has finally been published.
There There – a Novel, by Tommy Orange (Knopf, 2018). Debut novel by the young Cheyenne Arapaho writer who was touted to become as noteworthy as Sherman Alexie. His many characters make clear the personal shame and alienation that urban (Oakland CA) indigenous people can feel (the book’s title and theme harks back to Gertrude Stein’s “there is no there there”). The author’s 10-page prologue on urban Indians is as powerful as the novel itself.
Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over, by Nell Irvin Painter (Counterpoint, 2018). The African American professor emeritus of American Studies, author of seven books (including The History of White People), decided to go to art school after she retired from Princeton. Her experience at Rutgers and Rhode Island School of Design alongside students in their 20s, describes the challenges she faced relating to ageism (she describes being treated as a 20th century relic) and racism (“the art world is racist as hell and unashamed of it”).
The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in America, by Helen Thorpe (Scribner, 2018). Thorpe immerses herself in the lives of Denver high school students in Mr. Williams’ English Language Learners (ELL) class, where despite speaking different languages (they are from Iraq, Burma, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, many coming directly from refugee camps), they manage to make friends and face the challenges of learning English. Thorpe comes to understand their intergenerational trauma, and visits their home villages in Congo and Uganda that they themselves can’t return to. Thorpe is also author Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America.
How to Be Less Stupid About Race, by Crystal M. Fleming (Beacon Press, 2018). The author is a sociologist but she writes in down-to-earth (even earthy – she doesn’t mind swearing) about the pervasiveness of white supremacy in the U.S. and the obliviousness of Americans, including, surprisingly, herself. She shares her own racism awareness journey: she was raised by parents who wanted to protect her, by teachers who didn’t, and was finally enlightened about pervasive racism by a Jewish professor at Wellesley College. She critiques her graduate school studies (“I spent 7 whole years of my life thinking I knew a lot about race when in fact I lacked any understanding of the racial politics shaping my own education”) and writes that “I published an award-winning dissertation on racism and collective memory in France and articles on U.S. racism but I still didn’t have a clear understanding of systemic racism in the US until I began to break away from the influence of my own mentors and teaching undergraduate and graduate students myself.”
All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung (Catapult, 2018). This adoptee’s memoir makes clear that white adoptive children who look different and come from cultures not represented in the family/school/neighborhood/city they’re raised in, cannot be “color blind” – they must create spaces where their adopted child (in this case from a Korean-American family) can be not “the only one” but surrounded by/connected to others of her heritage, knowing/sharing/celebrating that culture/history. They must also realize and accept that most adoptees will at some time want/need to contact/know about their birth parents/siblings, even though doing so may uncover painful truths.
White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, by Margaret A. Hagerman (NYU Press, 2018). The author/sociologist has studied well-off white kids and their parents. She found sharp differences between those in all-white vs. more integrated neighborhoods/schools, relating to their understanding/empathy/willingness to talk about/speak up about racism. The parents often judged schools based on racially-coded “gossip” rather than on investigation. Entitled white kids who hear the word “black” (black & white film, etc.) will call out “that’s racist!” as a joke, pretending (but in the process, mocking) sensitivity to racism. The author, nevertheless, believes that children may be surrounded by adult/family/media “‘messages” but can arrive at their own conclusions. And their parents can play an important role in challenging the perpetuation of racism and racial inequality in the U.S. but only IF they are willing to forgo some of their own white racial privilege, and care how young people as a whole are treated or mistreated, educated or mis-educated, supported or marginalized, treated with dignity of criminalized, heard or silenced.
3) Books Published in 2017
When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-all Promise, by Linda F. Nathan (Beacon Press, 2017) counters the “grit” educational movement. Nathan critiques “no excuses” schools like KIPP, a charter school chain focusing on strict behavior based on middle class white norms that don’t allow young people to use voices and bodies in culturally comfortable way. In contrast, the Boston Arts Academy, the public school she founded and led for many years, embraces antiracist education: its core curriculum focuses on the history of oppressed people in the U.S., asking – Who has power in American and why? It asks student to research varied Americans’ experiences via multiple lenses, including race, gender, social class and citizen ship status. The students become adept at discussing issues that are often polarizing to others and develop sophisticated skills and resilience to confront racism in all its forms.
Unaccompanied, by Javier Zamora (Copper Canyon Press, 2017). Zamora’s poems are informed by his reality: his parents fled the U.S.-funded Salvadoran Civil War; years later, in 199 when he was 9, he crossed Guatemala, Mexico and the Sonoran Desert to join them. His poetry describes immigrant struggles: first about whether and by what means to leave their home country, then about surviving border crossing attempts that often must be repeated, again and again.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein (Norton, 2017). For those of us who think we know all about our country’s systemic racism, this book makes clear that residential segregation in the U.S. was established by our federal government established by law, and that this segregation has caused and continues to determine every other racial inequity, including the achievement gap, the health gap, the wealth gap.
The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century, edited by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Sean Frederick Forbes, Tara Betts (2Leaf Press, 2017). Contributors recall schoolyard taunts (“you look like burnt toast!”), nosy questions (“What ARE you?”), and compliments (“exotic”) thatdon’t feel complimentary. Diane Tsuchida’s advice: “No one will write a handbook telling you the correct questions to ask when you’re curious about someone’s racial background. So perhaps the key to your curiosity is to silence it.” 3rd in the series that includes Black Lives Have Always Mattered, edited by Abiodun Oyewole and What Does It Mean to Be White in America – Breaking the Code of Silence, edited by Gabrielle David and Sean Frederick Forbes.
Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions, by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2017). A translator for Central American children seeking asylum describes what they went through to reach the U.S. and then be asked 40 questions that determine if they will be allowed to stay. This simple format is deeply empathetic.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Gramm (Doubleday, 2017). An important (and suspenseful) non-fiction account of this 1920s spate of murders of oil-rich Native people. Because white racist attitudes made justice unlikely, the reader doesn’t know whether or not the murderers would be found, and who they would be.
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Atria, 2017). The author, an historian, follows one woman living in slavery, showing how our first president circumvented Philadelphia’s laws to keep her so. She flees to Portsmouth NH but our nation’s first pursues her relentlessly. Shows how escaped slaves lived under constant threat of re-capture.
Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations About Race, revised and updated, 20th anniversary edition, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD (Basic Books 2017). 50% adds to Every word Tatum writes is perspective-changing.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele, foreword by Angela Davis (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). When Trayvon Martin’s killer went free in 2013, Khan-Cullors and two other queer black women (Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi) founded #Black Lives Matter. This is her back story, and that of her brother Monte, whose entire family’s fierce support for her brother Monte, who, while in the middle of a schizophrenic episode, was charged with and imprisoned for “attempted breaking and entering,” then for a weapon found in his cell, then yelling & charged with terrorism (strike 3).
Becoming Ms. Burton – From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, by Susan Burton & Cari Lynn (The New Press, 2017). Burton’s stunning account of being pimped out by her mother when she was in 5th grade, experiencing gang-rape, drugs and crime, and repeated stints in jail during the 1970s-80s mass incarceration era – and how she emerged from that and built an extensive program of group homes for women leaving prison, to give them the support they need to get back on their feet/not return to prison.
Real American: a Memoir, by Julie Lythcott-Haims (Henry Holt, 2017). The daughter of an African father and a white British mother grew up in the 70s, feeling “never black enough to be Black, or white enough to be white.” When mixed-race Stanford students in 1989-90 created a new student group called Spectrum, and the terms multiracial and bi-racial stated to appear, she was finally able to give shape to what she calls “the otherwise out-of-bounds nature of my existence.”
Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City, by Tanya Talaga (Anasazi Press, 2017). The Toronto Star journalist looks into the deaths of seven Indigenous teenagers who traveled far to board with families and go to school in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Each went missing (five later found in the same river). Talaga describes the challenges each far-from-home student faced, the circumstances of each “gone missing” incident, the frantic searches by the families themselves, and the laxity of the non-Indigenous police force, who generally ascribed each death as an alcohol-related accident. Canada’s history of forcing Indigenous children into abusive residential schools may have ended but not its underfunding of local indigenous school, or the continuing, unsolved disappearances and deaths of Indigenous women and girls. The book recounts Canada’s notorious 1940s-1950s “starvation experiments” when top nutrition experts kept Indigenous children at six residential schools deliberately malnourished, then gave them food with experimental additives and untested mineral supplements to see how they’d react, especially when fighting off other infections. Neither the children nor their parents knew about or gave consent to the experiments. No wonder Indigenous people continue to distrust Canadian institutions.
Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press, 2017). The Oglala Sioux poet’s long poem in this collection is based on the 2009-2010 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, with short, painful personal memories like: “a woman I know says she watched a news reporter detail a fire in which five children burned .. She remembers the mother’s blubbering her hiccupping and wail.. She leans to me…She says nobody talked about them she means Indians but that moment in front of the TV she says was like opening a box to see the thing inside she learned through that mother’s face she never knew until then they could feel.”