Juan Vidal: Decolonize Your Bookshelf Anti-racist reading lists are making the rounds right now — and they can be useful if people do the work of reading. But critic Juan Vidal suggests you look closer to home, to your own bookshelf.
NPR logo Your Bookshelf May Be Part Of The Problem

Your Bookshelf May Be Part Of The Problem

Marcus Ramberg
Image of a bookshelf with multi-colored books.
Marcus Ramberg

One of my favorite passages from Black Boy, Richard Wright's poetic and searing memoir, which turns 75 this year, goes like this:

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.

Black Boy traces Wright's development from a troubled youth who encountered bigotry daily in the Jim Crow-era American South to a self-educated man whose reading shaped his understanding of society. I think about Wright's words often, these and others. Especially now, as cries from black men and women demanding agency reverberate across the nation and the world. It feels like the summer of our discontent is only just beginning.

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.

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.

As a Latino, I've had non-Latino friends ask me to recommend Latin American authors and novels. This is fine, and welcomed. But if all I have to offer the curious-minded is literature that comes from people who look like me, speak my language, or come from where I come from, that's a problem.

Wright, in regards to his own self-education, later writes: "It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different." In that moment, he was referencing how he felt upon devouring H. L. Mencken's A Book of Prefaces, a book that helped Wright find new ways of looking and seeing.

You might say the same of those who only read the books they have written. Their knowledge of the world and of the systems at play will always be incomplete. 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