Like many people, I have spent the summer reading books about racism. Is that the best response to the killing of George Floyd and the demands for justice?
I do understand the frustration of people who take to the streets while the rest of us read a book. Maybe we intellectual types should be running for office if we don't want to demonstrate in the streets. But I am also aware of how much our consciousnesses might need to be raised, and so, when the opportunity came to be part of a book group, I joined.
My pastor started a book group in July to read Lenny Duncan's Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US. I was excited to read it--I had heard lots of good things about it. I liked it well enough, but it didn't tell me much I didn't already know.
Some members of my book group were much more inspired by the book than I was, and some of the material was new to them. Will it change our local church? Our church is one of the least white Lutheran churches I've ever been to, and we all live in one of the most multicultural parts of the U.S., so the book seemed pitched to people in a different place, both regionally and in our collective head space.
My critique of this book is the same as I had for the Ibram X. Kennedy's How to Be an Antiracist, the book I've spent 3 weeks with in my online journaling group. Both books are a mix of memoir, analysis, and call to action. Both books read like a memoir thin on ideas mixed with ideas that started out as magazine articles that the author has tried to expand to book length. Both books have nuggets of inspiration, but it takes a lot of reading through other stuff to find them.
I feel this strange guilt for saying this. I've spent time this summer analyzing myself. Why don't I like these two books as much as others in my book groups have liked them? Is it an inner resistance to discovering my own racist tendencies? Does each book make me feel threatened in some way?
I honestly don't think it's that. Both authors feel like guys I might have gone to school with, and both books have a tone, at times, of the kind of late night discussions one might have during college days. Both books also have a tone of the kinds of discussions one might have in a really good Sociology class. And perhaps that's why I wasn't as moved by these books--I've now spent decades having these kinds of discussions.
As part of the Sealey Challenge, yesterday I returned to Claudia Rankine's Citizen. I read it years ago, when it was all the rage. Back then, I liked it well enough, but then, too, I felt like I was missing something. I didn't fall in love with it, the way it seemed that others had.
Yesterday I was struck by the artistry of it, the way it combines all sorts of genres, along with some visual art. I'm still not sure I'd call it poetry, although it was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry. It feels more like a hybrid form that doesn't have a name.
I circle back to the question of whether or not reading about racism can help dismantle racism. As an English and Sociology major, I'm a firm believer that reading helps us see the other person's point of view, helps us see the problems that other experience.
And in a perfect world, reading helps us develop solutions and the resolve to see those solutions through.