The Limitations Of An Anti-Racist Reading List : Pop Culture Happy Hour Sales are surging for books like Ibram X. Kendi's 'How To Be Anti-Racist,' Robin DiAngelo's 'White Fragility,' and Michelle Alexander's 'The New Jim Crow.' That's in part because these titles often appear on so-called "anti-racist reading lists." But what is an anti-racist reading list for? We talk with Lauren Michele Jackson, an Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University, and the author of 'White Negroes,' about the limitations of such lists — which she wrote about in an essay called "What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?" for Vulture.

The Limitations Of An Anti-Racist Reading List

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LINDA HOLMES (HOST): Sales are surging for books like Ibram X. Kendi's "How To Be Antiracist," Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility" and Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow." That's in part because these titles often appear on so-called anti-racist reading lists. But what is an anti-racist reading list for? I'm Linda Holmes. On this episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, we're talking about the limitations of the anti-racist reading list, so don't go away.

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HOLMES: Welcome back. Joining us from Chicago is Lauren Michele Jackson. She is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University, and she's the author of "White Negroes." She wrote about anti-racist reading lists in an essay for Vulture. Welcome to the show. Thanks for being here.

LAUREN MICHELE JACKSON (CULTURE CRITIC/ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY): Thanks for having me.

HOLMES: So one of the things that we have been talking about is that there's sort of a set of books that have kind of shot back up to the top of all the best-seller lists or way up from where they were which seems to be because they tend to appear on a lot of these lists. What kinds of books do you find are the most likely to pop up immediately after people start publishing a lot of anti-racist reading lists?

JACKSON: The books that tend to show up on these type of lists tend to be pretty stable. So I think of them in kind of two categories. So we have the sort of definitive race books of, like, the 20th century, which can mean anything from a novel by Toni Morrison to an essay collection by James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Angela Davis, Audre Lord. Like, these are the names that tend to pop up over and over again on these lists. And then you also have the more contemporary titles that are - seem to be sort of more fitting for lists like this, which is to say they are books that are inviting readers who admittedly don't know anything about race or think they don't know anything about race and are really just looking for something to guide them in a conversation that they have never felt the need to be invested in before.

HOLMES: It seems like the elementary answer to the question in the title of your piece, which is sort of, what our anti-racist reading lists for? - the answer is largely they're for white people. Yes?

JACKSON: I think for white people but really more generally just for people who are kind of desperate. And I don't mean that entirely in a disparaging way, just in sort of like a truthful way. I think these are lists for people who are kind of late to the party, realizing they're late for maybe the first time or the umpteenth time in their lives and are really scrambling to catch up to a moment that's passing them by.

HOLMES: One of the things that you talk about in the piece, too, is that in addition to the kind of what you call the race readers, which are books that are kind of very specifically intended to be an introduction to thinking and talking about race differently, as you mentioned, there are also novels and books of poetry and things like that. And one of the things that you talked about is the difficulty of trying to think of a book like "The Bluest Eye," for example, through the lens of this is a book that belongs on an anti-racist reading list as opposed to - or at least in addition to - this is a novel to read as a novel.

JACKSON: Yeah.

HOLMES: How do you think it changes a conversation about a novel when you place it in the context of an anti-racist reading list?

JACKSON: So when I think about a novel like "The Bluest Eye" that appears on these lists quite frequently, I think about the fact that - so Toni Morrison loved literature deeply, really deeply. You can see that and know that across all the many different ways that she touched literature across her lifetime - as an editor, as a novelist, as a scholar, as a literary critic. And "The Bluest Eye" is novel that's really special to me. I wrote about it in my dissertation, which gave me the opportunity to really observe how people talk about this book. And I think a lot of people do this book a disservice and do Morrison's fiction in general - and even just fiction in general - such a profound disservice with the idea that you can read these novels as, like, a road map to some sort of racial awakening or something like that.

I just think that's such an irresponsible way to approach fiction, to approach literature. It really enforces this sense that instead of writers who choose their words carefully, choose their forms carefully - genre, pay attention to things like syntax and lyric and metaphor and all these things that we talk about when we talk about white writers writing literature - right? - it reinforces the idea that, you know, black writers aren't paying attention to these things. Right? Black writers are just a means for white people to be better at being white people. And you know, it kind of turns us all into magical Negroes in that way.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, you also talk a bit in the piece about the fact that this is a suspicion that you have about reading recommendations - about book recommendations in general because I think most people have already a whole lot of books that they either have and haven't read or mean to read and haven't read or have seen on many lists but haven't bought and haven't read. So it's sort of a collision of the specificity of an anti-racist reading list with the difficulty of actually getting people to read books that they recommend. I guess my point is that it's not the actual reading of the lists and even the obtaining books from the lists cannot be your ritual of action.

JACKSON: Right. Look - I mean, I have so many books that I haven't read. And you know, there is - there's something about, like, both recommending a book and asking for a recommendation that just, like - it feels like you've done something. Like, it feels like you've made an effort even before you've even actually done anything. Like, it's kind of like - aah - like, my work is done or something like that.

And I think the thing about reading is that it takes time. And so there is this real contradiction where the anti-racist reading list appears in a moment that feels really urgent, which is in sort of direct contrast to the idea of actually needing to sit down and think with a work of difficult literature for a long time. And so I think people need to sort of be honest about - what are they reading for? What are they looking for? If you really just need to get certain tidbits of information very quickly, there are more expedient ways than, like, a book of, like, elegant fiction - right? - to get that, you know?

If you need to just know where to put your money to do the most help, you can find that out on Twitter. You can find that out on Instagram. You can find that out by interfacing with, like, local grassroots organizations around you, right? You know, the work of really thinking deeply about race, like, takes time. The anti-racist reading list is kind of, like - you know, you had a lot of time (laughter) to be thinking about this, and actually, like, the time for action is now, right?

HOLMES: I get what you're saying. The other thing I always think about is that, if you're actually trying to challenge your own thinking, if you're actually trying to improve the knowledge that you carry with you in terms of how the world works, that requires learning actual information about a whole variety of different things. You have to learn about policing. You have to learn about housing. You have to learn about, you know, landlord-tenant law. You have to learn about redlining. And those things all have their own books. And so it's not as if there's a single book that's like, this is my guide to anti-racist thinking; it's like, you have to learn about all these interconnected systems.

Is there a better way to write these lists, do you think, that would - if people are actually trying to write themselves kind of a self-education course - that would hit those things more specifically, that will actually, if you want the social science angle, make your thinking stronger and your understanding of the world better?

JACKSON: Absolutely. And I see lists that seem to be more focused than just the sort of banner of, like, anti-racism. I think that word is just, like, so fascinating 'cause I'm, like - I feel like it's doing so much work, and it can't bear it. But, you know, I see lists about housing and race or policing and race or historical studies or biographies or - I think what, you know, is troubling about the idea of, like, an anti-racist reading list is that genre sort of just, like, falls out entirely, when it's like, there are many different ways to think about race, and there's different ways to do it for different reasons.

And so if you want to read Black poetry and you want to read Black poets, you know, read poetry, but you have to read it as poetry. If you want to read a sociological perspective on housing or city planning or something like that, you have to go in sort of knowing the thematic and methodological stakes of what you're investing in.

And so I think just the idea of doing that initial - you know, I hate to call it homework 'cause, like, not everything is school, right? But, like, you do have to do some groundwork, I think, for yourself. And I think part of the problem of the sort of general list is that it actually allows people to be lazy in a way that's not very helpful to a project where you're supposed to be investing time into learning something new.

HOLMES: Right. Do you think that the sales impacts that we're talking about and that have been reported on in the last few days, where books that are perceived to be, like, helpful to people who, as you say, are desperate to try to get a handle on their own thinking about race - do you think that the sales impact of showing up on that kind of list affects what writers feel like they can write and get published or what publishers publish from - especially from Black writers?

JACKSON: Absolutely. I think it has to. You know, there's a conversation going on Twitter right now about publishing and race and what people have been paid as far as advances and what people have been told is and is not marketable because of who they are, not, you know, what they write and what they do.

And so I think there's a reason why a lot of first books by people of color, by queer writers and authors, like, tend to be more in the vein of sort of, like, a personal essay collection or a collection that can be marketed as revelatory of race or gender or sexuality in some sort of big, banner way. Very rarely do, you know, writers like us get to, you know, debut with the very quiet work of interrogating the human experience or something like that. Like, it's this idea that, like, our work has to do, you know, double duty always; it always has to be pedagogical in some sort of way. And so I think the idea that that's also what sells, you know, encourages publishers to invest in books that they can also market in this way.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I do want to say, before we go, that your book "White Negroes" is one that, you know, while we are laying bare all of our confessions, I've had that book for a long time - read it this weekend.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And that's exactly what you're talking about. It is a great book. Give me a short capsule of what it's about in case people aren't familiar with that book.

JACKSON: Sure. My book "White Negroes," I like to think of it as - it's about Black culture in decay, which is to say Black culture on non-Black people and communities and Instagram feeds and music videos and things like that. And, really, it's about appropriation and thinking about appropriation in a sort of patient way and in a pop culture way in the - you know, all the various ways that it touches a person's life, from pop music to food to politics to Internet culture and the ways that, you know, we continue to profit off of Black aesthetics without giving back.

HOLMES: And I will say, among other things, it is one - it immediately became one of my favorite books about kind of how the - how social media and the Internet work across the board, in addition to the specific themes that you're talking about. It's a really, really good book, and I hope everyone will - not just buy it - actually read it.

JACKSON: (Laughter) Thank you.

HOLMES: Belongs on any and many reading lists. Lauren Michele Jackson, thank you so much for talking to us about this. It's a really interesting piece. And, again, the piece is in Vulture. It's called "What Is An Anti-Racist Reading List For?" Thanks for joining us to talk.

JACKSON: Thank you so much.

HOLMES: Lauren Michele Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University. She's the author of "White Negroes." You can follow her on Twitter at @proseb4bros. That's @proseb4bros. Of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, subscribe to our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all right back here on Friday, when we will be talking about the Apple TV+ series "Central Park."

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