Editorial: America’s summer reading list
By Richard Gaw
“I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…"
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
In the June 21 edition of its Book Review, the New York Times’ best-seller list for non-fiction included seven titles at the top of that list that are variations of the same story.
In order of sales, they were “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo; “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeama Oluo; “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi; “Me and White Supremacy,” by Layla F. Saad; “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander; “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein; and “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which was named the 2015 winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Listed ninth of that list was Kendi’s “Stamped form the Beginning,” which was the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction. It is very likely that these titles will maintain their place on the list for the foreseeable future, while more books whose premise focuses on the issue of being Black in America will soon follow.
The majority of the books listed have skyrocketed up the bestseller list over the past month or so, and while several factors have been speculated to account for their popularity, only two are nearly certain.
The first has been the reaction of White Americans to the May 25 killing of George Floyd by four white police officers, evidence by the number of whites who have galvanized with the Black community at Black Lives Matter marches across the country, including recent protests in Kennett Square and West Grove.
The second has been the sound of White Americans finally admitting their ignorance to a turbulent truth that has been happening in this country since the first African slaves arrived in the colony of Jamestown, Va. in 1619 to help in the cultivation of tobacco and other crops.
It has taken the unspeakable death of a Minneapolis man and its immediate aftermath to finally amplify the rage of the African American community loud enough to pull White Americans from their long slumber, and create their newfound interest in grappling with the indecency of systemic racism and police brutality.
It is a truth that has avoided them, because the story of being Black in America has been reduced to the back pages of our nation’s history, tucked as an afterthought behind the Declaration of Independence and the Age of Industrialization and the invention of the longer-lasting light bulb and the advances made to aviation and technology. To many White Americans, the story of this country was force-fed to them as youngsters in the form of a 250-year-old success tale, a made-to-feel-good page turner of progress, pride and perseverance.
The story of being Black in America, however, has been a narrative applied to a world that White Americans have known little about, with little necessity to learn, so they are buying up a lot of books now – lots of them, apparently, in an effort to quickly bone up on the facts and quench a newfound curiosity.
It won’t be enough, because when the last page is turned on the last book on the New York Times bestseller list, White Americans will still not yet know why the Caged Bird Sings.
They will still not know the words to any other national anthem of this country other than the only one they know, because they have not yet memorized the verses to “Life Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
They will still not have reflected on The Souls of Black Folk, and they have not yet tasted the bitterness of the Raisin in the Sun.
They will still not have sat down to the same table as the Native Son, nor hear the Song of Solomon.
They will not yet fully and finally understand why the Invisible Man has remained just that.
They will have not yet set themselves to comprehend the people James Baldwin refers to when he wrote, “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
There is far more reading to do and more need for comprehension, and when that desire to turn more pages becomes unquenchable, libraries all over the nation will point these readers to the shelves named “Black Literature.” There, the words of the authors will read like Gospel: Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes, Olivia Butler and W.B. DuBois, Alice Walker and Richard Wright, August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison.
To those who wish to absorb the sound of Black America – truly get it into their lungs and mind and bloodstream -- they will be introduced to a literary diaspora of voice and sound, heartache and dignity, hope and tragedy.
This, we promise: That the words that White Americans will read own the lilting weightlessness of birds, and the pugilism of a prizefighter bloodied against the ropes. It had to be written this way. There was no other choice.