Books have, for so many of us, been a lifeline. The clichés and platitudes about them being a portal to other worlds, that books can change and save lives, that they help connect us to something bigger than ourselves, are all true. I know that from my own experience and because in moments like the one we are in now, where thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in response to the continued police violence against black people, thousands more people are online sharing resources to help people understand the importance of this movement and how we got here. They are sharing books.
Because of the nature of the issue, people are largely sharing books by and about black people, though there are plenty of others that have become key to forming an antiracist worldview. There are the old standbys, of course, like The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois, new classics such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and new books that probe old questions of the American racial divide, such as Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, Heavy by Kiese Laymon, and Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper. These are only examples. There are hundreds more.
Books afford us the opportunity to read about our past and present while engaging with ideas that will help us to imagine our future. We are reminded that it is our duty to create a new antiracist paradigm. And while we’re thankful for the existence of these books, the path that many of them took to get here reflects the very racist structure that these books are meant to challenge. It is not only that the world of books is as white as every other major institution in America; it is that it makes nonwhite writers perform their deservingness in a way that is discouraging at best and prohibitive at worst.
The book business is a business, and the constraints that come from needing to sell a product are certainly understood. The book-buying public is also fickle, and it’s not clear where the winds will move from moment to moment. But that is all the more reason for the book industry to not tether itself to the shifting tastes and desires of the public, which has a way of hemming in authors, so concerned with our future publishing potential, that we are asked to produce books solely because they have the potential to sell quickly. For writers of color, this more often than not means that we are called upon to produce work that responds to a particular moment of social unrest related to our racial group and that mines our personal stories for sympathetic or tragic narratives that are easily consumed by white audiences. Or we are called upon to write inspirational stories, ones in which we’ve directly confronted the racism that overdetermines our lives and won. We are asked to perform either our sadness, our triumph, or both, because these kinds of stories soothe the guilt of the imagined white audience, who believe themselves to be engaged in some kind of righteous act by way of learning about someone who does not look like them or share their life experience.
The problem here feels as though it should be obvious, but in case it is not: these stories, as consumed by white readers, do little to nothing to change institutional racism. At best, they expose white people to stories about nonwhite people, but exposure has its limitations, especially when what these narratives can reinforce is the distance white people can put between themselves and the systems that are responsible for creating these stories. For writers of color, it limits the imagination, artistically and politically, to constantly be responding to white readers’ voyeurism, and it is exhausting to know that they will do precisely nothing even after they have read the last page.
What white readers do or do not do as a result of reading is not the responsibility of the book industry, but what the book world must recognize is that it has potential to do so much more. Each arm of the industry must do more to be more inclusive, of course, but it cannot stop at bringing in nonwhite faces to fill existing roles. Everyone in the book industry must grant themselves permission to be a bit more daring, to create space for every writer to produce the most challenging work possible, even when that does not fit the established narratives of minority trauma and/or success. It can stop demanding that nonwhite writers perform their stories for white audiences, wrapping them in neat packages that are digestible and ultimately meaningless. The industry cannot be so precious about its own standing; it must be willing to take its lumps and face the prospect of its own reckoning.
An antiracist future requires a self-reflective present. Books taught me that.
Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of the forthcoming book 'Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream' and the bestselling 'Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching'. His work has appeared in Artforum, Harper’s, the Nation, the New Republic, the New York Times, Oxford American, the Washington Post, and more.