You may have seen the phrase “decolonize your bookshelf” floating around. In essence, it is about actively resisting and casting aside the colonialist ideas of narrative, storytelling, and literature that have pervaded the American psyche for so long.
If you are white, take a moment to examine your bookshelf. What do you see? What books and authors have you allowed to influence your worldview, and how you process the issues of racism and prejudice toward the disenfranchised? Have you considered that, if you identify as white and read only the work of white authors, you are in some ways listening to an extension of your own voice on repeat? While the details and depth of experience may differ, white voices have dominated what has been considered canon for eons. That means non-white readers have had to process stories and historical events through a white author's lens. The problem goes deeper than that, anyway, considering that even now 76% of publishing professionals — the people you might call the gatekeepers — are white.
“Reading broadly and with intention is how we counter dehumanization and demand visibility, effectively bridging the gap between what we read and how we might live in a more just and equitable society.”
Books, when people come to them early enough or at the right time, have the power to be transformative. And for a lot of readers, this is the right time — witness the many anti-racist book lists circulating on social media. We must recognize the inherent value that good literature has, and the ability of language to strike an emotional chord. But someone, at some point, has to get down to the business of reading — as Lauren Michele Jackson writes at Vulture. Simply handing someone a book cannot automatically make them care. This is something I remind myself whenever anti-racist lists start to make the rounds online.
Grown white men in their 40s — for example — cracking open James Baldwin or Toni Morrison for the first time, after cities are already ablaze, are not going to eradicate racism. It will not put an end to the systemic injustice that has plagued this country for more than 400 years. Still, I can't help but wonder whether some people have considered that, at a basic level, the homogeneous nature of their personal library — and what that represents — is a part of the problem.
This can apply to any form of media we take in, naturally, but especially the literature that non-black and brown people choose to consume. Anti-racist books will only do a person good if they silence themselves first and enter into the reading — provided they care enough to do so.
Juan Vidal is the author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. He tweets at @itsjuanlove. This article was originally posted on npr.org on June 6, 2020.
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