Learning and Growing with NNV’s Racial Equity Book Club

By:
Morgan Gopnik, Ann Ingram, Gretchen Jennings, and Pat Kasdan (NNV Members and Volunteers)

In the summer of 2020, with much of the world in lockdown due to the Covid pandemic, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer and the issue of racial justice exploded into our collective consciousness. Like many organizations, NNV looked for ways to express solidarity, become better informed, and take action. Starting in October 2020, a small group of NNV members and volunteers agreed to begin reading and discussing books related to racism and its impact on our country’s past and present. We have been meeting bi-monthly since then—adding some new members along the way—and have grown close in the process.

Now we thought it might be of interest to the broader NNV community to hear about what we’ve read and learned so far. Our reading list can be broken into four major categories: historical examinations of the roots and realities of racism in the United States, analyses of the impacts of that history, memoirs by those who have experienced those impacts firsthand, and fiction that artfully illuminates all these issues.

History

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi

This is a thoroughly documented, almost academic, review of the history of anti–Black ideology in America. To structure the narrative, Kendi focuses on five major American intellectuals (Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis) whose writings illustrate the differences between assimilationists and segregationists, and between racists and anti-racists, over time. Kendi shows how racist ideas did not arise organically – instead, they were deliberately created and disseminated to defend slavery, discriminatory policies, and the nation’s ongoing racial inequities. But Kendi also believes these ideas can be discredited if enough people understand the history and repudiate it.

Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction by Eric Foner

Another deeply-researched work, this book gave us a much better understanding of the sad events that took place during and following the period known as Reconstruction, from roughly 1863-1877, directly after the Civil War. Foner refutes the racist narrative created at the time by white Southerners, and subsequently propagated in American history textbooks, by demonstrating how African Americans were active agents in overthrowing slavery and attempting to create a more positive future. Foner then shows how the failures of that time led inevitably to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Did you know that, in the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma? After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage amassed enormous wealth—until they began to die under mysterious circumstances. Soon, anyone who tried to investigate the killings was murdered. Finally, the recently created F.B.I. took up the case and, working with the Osage, eventually exposed a shocking conspiracy among white leaders in the surrounding community to defraud the Osage of their oil wealth.

Theory and Analysis

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

This powerful book examines the unspoken caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings, that arose at this country’s founding and continues to operate. Wilkerson compares racism in the U.S. with the more widely recognized caste system in India and the racial divisions that defined Nazi ideology. The book uses a combination of documentary research and personal stories (from Martin Luther King, Jr., Satchel Paige, Wilkerson herself, and many others) to show the impacts of our insidious caste structure. Perhaps one of the most chilling sections of the book documents how the Nazis carefully studied the Jim Crow laws and practices in America to plan their attack on the Jews. Wilkerson discusses the health impacts of our caste system and its profound effects on our culture and politics.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

A naïve observer might imagine that only people who have committed serious crimes are labelled as felons. However, Alexander uses data and legal analysis to show that, far from being “color-blind,” the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a system of racial control by targeting black men at all stages of the process, thereby decimating communities of color. Shockingly, at this time the majority of young black men in major American cities are either locked behind bars or labeled as felons for life. That label then deprives them of a wide range of rights, from housing, to education, to voting. Alexander challenges the civil rights community--and all of us--to fight against mass incarceration as a central part of the movement for racial justice.

Memoirs

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar

Amber Ruffin is a well-known comedian who lives in New York City and writes for the Late Night with Seth Meyers show. But Amber's sister, Lacey, still lives and works in their home state of Nebraska. In this book they share hilarious—and heartbreaking—stories about Lacey’s everyday experiences of racism, including everything from strangers putting their hands in her hair, to discrimination in the workplace, to being mistaken for Harriet Tubman! This book shows the personal realities of modern-day racism using a combination of humor and outrage.

The Yellow House by Sarah Broom

In 1961, Sarah Broom's mother bought a small house in New Orleans East, where a blended family of twelve children lived on and off over the decades. The house is finally destroyed when the neglected levees break during Hurricane Katrina. By telling the story of this house and its inhabitants, Broom also tells the story of the decline of a forgotten neighborhood and the lifelong— often irrational— pull of “home.” The Yellow House is a personal memoir that also tells a story about class, race, and inequality.

Fiction

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Published in 1952, Invisible Man is considered one of the most important novels of this century. It.tells the story of one Black man’s journey from the Deep South to the streets of Harlem, from a strict school that insists on conformity to a Communist rally where he is both thrust into the limelight and denigrated. The story is told by a nameless, “invisible” narrator who shows us the deep contradictions he faces as he moves through American society. Beautifully written and uncompromising, this book marked a milestone in African-American literature.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

This book is loosely based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather, who worked as a night watchman while fighting against Native dispossession in North Dakota. It follows a memorable set of characters, including Thomas Wazhashk, the night watchman; Pixie Paranteau, factory worker and class valedictorian; Pixie’s alcoholic father and long-suffering mother: Pixie’s sister Vera, who moved away from the reservation and has gone missing; and many others. At the time, a bill has been introduced in Congress that would “terminate” the rights of Native Americans to their land and force them to assimilate. Thomas organizes the community and travels to Washington D.C. to speak truth to power. The people in this fictional world experience love and grief, and grapple with the best and worst of human nature.

As an extra treat, we held our discussion of the Erdrich book during an outside lunch on a lovely afternoon at the Hillwood Museum! After dessert and a discussion of the book, we toured an exhibition of sculptures by African American artist Kristine Mays titled “Rich Soil.” Scattered throughout the Hillwood gardens were dynamic human forms crafted from metal wire, representing Native Americans who had lived on that land, enslaved people who had worked on a nearby plantation, and servants who had worked at Hillwood. It was a memorable outing for us all.

For our next gathering, on April 20, we look forward to discussing “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together” by Heather McGhee. All NNV members and volunteers are welcome to join us! As one of our participants said, “Meeting with a group of people who share my interest in social justice has been a powerful source of community and support, especially during the pandemic!”

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