As scholarly communicators, we know that we learn from each other and about each other through reading. There is no shortage of books about racism and anti-racism. Today and tomorrow we will feature reviews of books for your consideration in this time of listening and reflection. Please also read last week’s statement from the SSP Board of Directors and Co-Chairs of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee, “Reaffirming our Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”
Jocelyn Dawson: How to Be Less Stupid about Race by Crystal Fleming, has a title that speaks to what seems to be, from a look at the New York Times bestseller list, the collective goal of much of book-buying society today. Fleming’s book addresses, in an accessible, witty, and unsparing way, the unconscionable gaps in the teaching of race and history in the United States.
Fleming offers the reader crash courses in critical race theory, dismantling White supremacy, intersectionality, neoliberalism in the age of President Barack Obama, and the importance of listening to Black women. She writes, “as long as the endemic, systemic nature of white supremacy is successfully minimized or denied, as long as ‘conversations about race’ are mainly about individual attitudes, prejudice, or the actions of a few extremists, then attention is drawn away from the structures and pattern of racial inequality hiding in plain sight.”
Fleming wants us to stop thinking of White supremacy as neo-Nazis and White nationalists and instead turn our attention to the structures at the root of systemic racism: the laws, economics, and power dynamics within our institutions. The book is, as Fleming writes, a call to “become more knowledgeable about systems of oppression but also to leverage our knowledge to bring about some of the positive change we’d like to see.”
Steph Pollock: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions is a short but poignant blueprint for feminism in the twenty-first century. Written as a letter to the author’s childhood friend with advice on how to raise a feminist daughter, the book feels intimate and deeply personal – as if she is speaking directly to her reader.
Adichie weaves her experience as an Igbo woman, born and raised in Nigeria, with her perspectives on feminism, encouraging her friend (and her readers) to challenge both Igbo and Western cultural norms about gender roles. In doing so, she offers a truly intersectional perspective on feminism.
I read Dear Ijeawele in one afternoon several years ago – it is just 63 pages long – but Adichie’s combination of wit, prose, and urgency have stayed with me. “I matter. I matter equally,” Adichie writes – a simple but powerful statement in this time of reckoning for racial justice, and an important reminder of Black women’s intersecting experiences.
You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have to Explain) by Phoebe Robinson is a wry, funny, and bold collection of essays on the experience of being a Black woman in America.
Robinson is a comedian perhaps best known as the creator and co-host of the 2 Dope Queens podcast and HBO series. In her book, Robinson not only speaks to her personal experiences as a Black woman but also uses humor and pop culture references to address topics like systemic racism, implicit bias, and the intersections of race and feminism.
Each essay is pointed and smart – “Welcome to Being Black” walks the reader through her experiences of being reminded by society that she is a Black person; “Dear Future Female President” outlines her screwball list of demands for the first female Commander-In-Chief. Throughout the book, Robinson uses humor to disarm her readers and call attention to Black women’s lived experiences in the United States. Her book is a good reminder of the value in leveraging comedy to speak truth to power, and she does it brilliantly.
Jessica Meylikhov: I was going to start this book review by recommending that every reader should forget what they knew about American history before they begin this book. I realized that was a mistake. Instead, readers should hold what they were taught in school and history books up to what Ibram X. Kendi explains in Stamped from the Beginning as clear evidence of how our society manipulates history for its own benefit.
This carefully crafted timeline of racism in America is an awakening experience for those, like me, who were taught in a systemically racist society. It focuses on the misguided history and teachings that fuel today’s unconscious and conscious biases of many non-Black Americans. From the beginning of the slave trade to the present, the novel is succinct and careful in its narrative. Kendi eloquently teaches uninformed readers through examples of how America has meticulously integrated racist ideas into every decision, policy, and action throughout its history as a nation.
Kendi navigates the reader through history via five major figures or “tour guides” from the beginning of European colonization to present day. These five individuals are key players in the shaping of how we know and are taught about race today.
Kendi starts his chronological timeline with Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in colonial New England, who expanded racist notions from England on the inferiority of Black people. Next, Thomas Jefferson’s complicated history of racism and slavery is paralleled with the story of Phyllis Wheatley, an enslaved poet who debunked Mathers’s then-embedded assumptions of black inferiority.
Kendi’s third guide is William Lord Garrison, an abolitionist who pushed for emancipation. Garrison’s chapters focus on the Civil War and other key characters like Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a doctorate, is the fourth guide, who’s life and career demonstrate emerging cultural shifts.
Finally, Angela Davis, the civil-rights activist, is Kendi’s final guide. Davis’s history is used by Kendi as platform for the tumultuous present history and the fight for racial equality and justice that is still happening today.
Stamped from the Beginning is a reflection of true history that allows its reader to learn and understand why our present society is so clearly unjust and unbalanced. Kendi highlights the fact that key players in history have forcefully controlled America’s narrative about race and how we as individuals and as a collective have the same amount of power to undo the inequality that our nation stands on.
Damita Snow: As one of the DEI Committee co-chairs, I like the idea of Scholarly Kitchen book reviews on racism. What I do not like is feeling that, as a Black cis female, it would be expected that I would write a book review on racism. Don’t get me wrong, I volunteered to do it and then I wrestled with it. I changed my titles twice, I volunteered to write two reviews but, in the end, chose only one title.
The title I chose was Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People by Ben Crump. The title was intriguing. The author describes colored people as anyone that is not a white male and are “those colored by their otherness.” Otherness being sexuality, ethnicity, gender, ableism, etc. Personally, that is not quite the definition that I expected.
Crump, an attorney, has seen his share of institutional racism, individual racism, and systemic racism. He has seen whom the justice system protects, and he feels that the “rest of us are on our own.” He gives many examples of how the justice system fails Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). When I chose the book, I did not know that Crump was the family attorney for Trayvon Martin (FL), Michael Brown (MO), Terence Crutcher (OK), George Floyd (MN), Breonna Taylor (KY), Ahmaud Arbery (GA) and others whose names did not make it into mainstream media. This was a difficult read for me and none of it is the fault of the author. Crump bases his opinions on the Constitution, American history, and his first-hand experiences as an attorney.
Open Season ends on a hopeful note. Crump believes that the U.S. is a great nation but that the systems in place are inherently racist. (I am no legal scholar so I would recommend you read the book for details.) He provides 12 steps that he believes will move the country forward. He also puts the responsibility on individuals, law makers, and communities. He writes “we must come together to destroy racism or racism will destroy America.” And, that “we are at a crossroads, a turning point in the country’s civil rights movement.” At this time, this statement could not be truer.
Open Season leaves me with many questions and one that I ask you….do you think Crump is correct that we are at a turning point in civil rights? I agree with that statement. If you agree, I want to hear what you are doing in your community during this pivotal time in U.S. history.
Angela Cochran: I would like to thank our contributors to the book reviews today as well as the chairs of the SSP DEI Committee, particularly Damita Snow for helping to recruit reviewers. Writing is a deeply personal experience and we are fortunate as readers to be able to use the narrative form as a way to challenge our beliefs and briefly step into the shoes of others. None of us can put aside who we are and fully experience the world through the eyes of others, but books allow us to imagine the world from another perspective. Non-fiction writing presents us with facts and narratives missing from the mainstream history books of our education. All that said, in this moment of looking for unity around racial justice, reading is the start, not the finish.
Tre Johnson’s Washington Post Op-Ed, “When Black People Are in Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs,” reminds us that learning and listening is only effective when followed by action. Johnson writes:
The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks or organizational statements. It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way — be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family or your home. It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art.
Note: The style manual used for choices such as capitalization of terms is the Diversity Style Guide.