After the police killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests against police brutality, many people are looking for ways to better educate themselves on racism and privilege.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, MacArthur fellow, National Book Award-winning author (for “Middle Passage”) and University of Washington English department professor emeritus Charles Johnson said literature provides context and in-depth discussions of race.
“Literature can have a subtlety and nuance that you can’t get just from a news story,” he said.
Here’s a list of recommendations from Johnson.
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
When Johnson taught Black American literature at the University of Washington starting in 1976, he made his students read the 1952 novel “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison.
The book tells the story of a nameless Black man from his high school years onward as he reckons with race, identity and the social invisibility he feels during the Jim Crow era.
It’s considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Ellison became the first Black person to win the National Book Award, in 1953. Johnson said Ellison’s tale of marginalization is still resonant today.
“You can embrace the principles of democracy while at the same time critiquing the people who came up with those principles that failed to live up to them,” he said.
“The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” by James Weldon Johnson
Johnson recommended another novel centered on a nameless Black narrator, 1912’s “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” by James Weldon Johnson. The book takes the form of a confessional account of the life of a young biracial man who passes for white around the turn of the century but is conflicted by his emotional ties to Black identity.
In one notable chapter, the narrator witnesses the lynching of a Black man.
“A great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me,” the narration reads. “Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my country, that it, the great example of democracy to the world, should be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human being would be burned alive.”
“The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult” by Jerald Walker
In 1970, 6-year-old Jerald Walker knew that only members of the Worldwide Church of God, his family’s church, would be spared from a brutal death in a river of flames. In 2017, he released a memoir about his childhood growing up with blind Black parents in a white supremacist cult, and his questioning of faith after the world doesn’t actually end.
Johnson first came across Walker’s work as an essayist, and praised him and fellow writer Clifford Thompson — Johnson also commended Thompson’s book, “What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues” — for their nuanced understanding of racism and identity.
“It isn’t ideological and they don’t represent clichéd thinking, which can be a problem when we’re talking about something as complex as the subject of race in America,” he said.
“King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Bob Adelman and Charles Johnson
While the other books in this list are only text, this collaboration between Johnson and photographer Bob Adelman was published in 2000. It takes the reader on a visual tour of the civil rights movement, from King in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, to documenting King’s funeral.
Adelman worked as a photographer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); the book also includes works from other photographers. Johnson wrote the accompanying text for the book two years after releasing his novel “Dreamer,” which tells of a man who works as a stand-in for King and is set two years before King’s 1968 assassination.
Johnson said it’s important to read about the civil rights movement now, which he called the second chapter of the Civil War, to understand the historical context of race in America and the fight for social change.
“Apparently, we didn’t solve all the problems from the civil rights movement in the second chapter,” he said.
Readers! Do you have any more suggestions for insightful books — fiction and nonfiction — about race relations in the U.S.? Our books critic Moira Macdonald is taking suggestions for a future story. Email your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.