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Reading black women

In a brilliant take-down of the so-called “public intellectuals” in the US, specifically those writers who are paid to write personal essays or “op ed” columns, Tressie McMillan Cottom points out that for the most part, Black women are ignored. Completely. She writes, “A Professional Smart Person can be one without ever reading black women, ever interviewing a black woman, ever following a black woman, or ever thinking about a black woman’s existence.” 

Cottom’s book, Thick and Other Essays (2019) is a great read and re-read. Cottom is a sociology professor and co-host of a podcast called Hear to Slay. Her writing is funny and fierce. As she puts it, because she’s not a “professional smart person”—a paid pundit or columnist—she has to appeal to “every form of authority simultaneously in every single thing I have ever written.” Read her to get her perspective and to witness wonderful writing.

Beverly Tatum’s classic book, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations About Race is in its 20th anniversary edition. Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, is a psychologist by training and wrote this book in response to parents’ questions. First published in 1997, the book provides an accessible introduction to racial identity development, highly recommended now for people wanting a framework for talking about what it means to be white in the US.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is an essential read if you haven’t already. In the forward to the 2012 edition, Cornel West describes the book as “the secular bible for a new social movement” because it exposes the shifts in our attention from the achievement of electing a Black president to the “systemic breakdown of black and poor communities devasted by mass unemployment, social neglect, economic abandonment, and police surveillance.” Read it to put this moment of outrage into its historical context, and to understand how to orient ongoing demands for systemic reform.

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward (2016) is dedicated to Trayvon Martin and “the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these last four hundred years.” In her introduction, Ward, a creative writing professor, acknowledges the critical influence of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on this generation of writers. The purpose of this collection, she writes, is to help the effort to create a new consciousness wherein “black lives carry worth, wherein black boys can walk to the store and buy candy without thinking they will die, wherein black girls can have a bad day and be mouthy without being physically assaulted by a police officer, wherein cops see twelve-year old black boys playing with fake guns as silly kids and not homicidal maniacs, wherein black women can stop to ask for directions without being shot in the face by paranoid white homeowners.”

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