Seeking to Learn More About Racial Justice? Start Here.

Collage of Anti-racist books

Maybe reading books and articles about racial justice issues is something you’ve been doing for years, or maybe the nation’s current crisis has spurred you to learn more. Whatever the reason, if you’re looking to read more, some University of Virginia faculty and administrators with expertise in this area have some recommendations. 

As many in the U.S. continue to protest police brutality in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and many other African Americans, some are also responding by writing and reading about systemic racism, discussing who tells our history and what we might do to resolve these problems.

In terms of expanding knowledge of American history, this Friday, June 19, is commemorated as “Juneteenth,” the oldest nationally celebrated recognition of the ending of slavery in the U.S. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday declared it a paid holiday for executive branch employees – UVA followed suit Wednesday – and said he would propose legislation to make it an annual holiday in the commonwealth. Juneteenth highights the events of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were now free, 2 1/2 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The University’s Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; other offices promoting diversity around Grounds; and several faculty members with expertise in areas related to race and African American history recommended a range of titles. For an academic institution such as UVA, reading and discussion are the bedrock of education and opening minds, possibly leading to change. Nevertheless, English professor Deborah McDowell stressed that reading is not enough and should not be considered a replacement for “taking necessary and overdue action.”

Roy Cadoff, general books manager and assistant director of the UVA Bookstore, said that “Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity,” edited by professors Louis Nelson and Claudrena Harold and published after the “Unite the Right” white supremacy marches on Aug. 11 and 12 that year, gives a local account of history involving UVA. In addition, bookstore employee Patsy Goolsby, who specializes in books on racial awareness and justice, can provide a much longer reading list and last year gave several recommendations to the Office of Engagement's Lifetime Learning blog.

Some UVA centers, offices and schools have organized reading and discussion groups, including the following that interested individuals can register to join.

Join This Reading and Discussion Group

The Contemplative Sciences Center and Center for Teaching Excellence are co-hosting a discussion group of the 2019 book, “The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness,” written by triple-Hoo Rhonda Magee, professor of law at the University of San Francisco. The discussion is free and open to the public, but note: the author will not be present. Register for a Zoom teleconference or an in-person event to be held on Aug. 12 from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

Magee earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociol­ogy from UVA and then her UVA Law degree in 1993. She first began practicing mindfulness while studying for the bar exam the summer after she graduated from Law School, she has said. Magee works to bring mindfulness and contemplative practices into the educational system, the workplace and anywhere else they are needed.

Top Five Books

Most of the book titles below made almost everyone’s lists. Several have sold out in stores around the country. Although hard to find in local stores, they are likely on back-order or can be ordered through UVA Bookstore (which is open), New Dominion Bookshop and other places online these days. These titles feature the African American history everyone should know, give personal perspectives of being black in America, promote allyship, confront today’s systemic racism, and/or provide steps that people can take to heal or repair our communities.

Through the School of Nursing’s Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Excellence Achievement, associate dean for diversity and inclusion Susan Kools and her team are holding weekly book meetings online with students, faculty and staff with the aim of promoting action and dialogue, both at the school and in the hospital. They will soon discuss several of the following titles:

• Historian Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be Antiracist,” published just last year.

• Kendi’s 2016 book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Brian N. Williams, associate professor of public policy in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, said of “Stamped from the Beginning”: “It provides a great way to understand how past historic harms impact the present.”

Christie Julien, assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Darden School of Business, devoted a recent diversity blog entry to create an allyship starter kit book list, which includes “How to Be Antiracist.”

“If you’re ready to move from dialogue to action,” she wrote, “and ready to envision a world that is built from a stance of anti-racism and opposition to prejudice and all its forms, Kendi’s book helps to invigorate and inspire readers to take personal responsibility for dismantling systems that uphold injustice.

“I conceptualized the list as a developmental journey for non-people of color,” Julien wrote in email of the eight books she chose. “I think white allies should seriously consider reading ‘White Fragility.’”

• “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin D’Angelo.

This 2018 book also makes a list from Phylissa Mitchell, the UVA Library’s director of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility, who wrote, “My favorite of her near-endless astute observations [about white supremacy] is that the U.S. is so seeped in racism, it believes that fighting racism means you are fighting America.”

• “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo.

“Oluo provides an instruction manual for anyone who wants to talk about race,” Julien wrote. “If you find yourself wanting to have the conversation, but not knowing where to start, what to say, how to say it, or who to say it to, or how to make your point clear, Oluo clarifies. By framing each chapter as a topic or question, providing arguments and counterarguments, she creates essential scripts that people of all races can benefit from.”

• “Between the World and Me,” by journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

About this 2015 book by Coates, written in the form of a letter to his teen-aged son about being black in America, Williams wrote, “Another great book that captures the lived experience of one trying to make sense of the past, present and future world that surrounds him. A literary work that expresses the deep love and concern that a Black father has for his Black son. Uncovers what is hidden and contradictory.” 

More Books on Education and Action, and Great Storytelling

Mitchell said her list contains “stupendous teaching tools. Most offer white Americans remedial education. One of the points Jacqueline Battalora made was that white people know very little about their own history.”

• “The Invention of White People,” by Jacqueline Battalora.

• “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander.

“What I love about this pair,” Mitchell wrote in email, “is the accuracy of the legal research. Battalora traces the invention of a whole class of humanity to colonial Virginia and Maryland. Alexander situates the origins of the current police state at the often-suppressed Bacon’s Rebellion.” 

• “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.

Kevin McDonald, vice president of UVA’s Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, wrote that “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” which came out in March, is on his list to read. Kendi and author Jason Reynolds, who writes children’s and young adult fiction, worked together to publish a book that “remixes” Kendi’s history book to make it more appealing to younger readers.

“Me and White Supremacy: A 28-Day Challenge to Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor,” by Layla F. Saad.

McDonald polled his staff, he said, and they also suggested Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy: A 28-Day Challenge to Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor.” Created as an anti-racism education workbook, it was initially offered for free in an Instagram challenge and as a self-published digital workbook in 2018 (downloaded by 100,000 people in the space of six months) and then became a bestseller.

Julian, who also recommended it, wrote that Saad’s “perspective as a Black person growing up in the U.K. and living in Qatar help extend the conversation beyond the United States, while also equipping readers with essential tools to begin combating bias and racism on a personal and systemic level.”

• “Why Black People Tend to Shout,” by Ralph Wiley.

Mitchell also recommends what she calls “an oldie but goodie” – published in 1991: “Why Black People Tend to Shout” by sports journalist and writer on race Ralph Wiley. It’s “a collection of essays from the late author [that] offers hilarious, wry and true observations of race in the U.S. from a black man’s perspective. It’s like reading a time capsule. The book was published in the early 1990s, just after Congress and the states were cementing the laws and practices being protested today.”

• “Why We Can’t Wait,” by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Law professor Kim Forde-Mazrui, who directs the Center for the Study of Race and Law, also added Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Why We Can’t Wait” to the list. In this 1964 book, King analyzes what had happened in the civil rights movement, especially the year before.

• “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” by Isabel Wilkerson.

Forde-Mazrui also recommends this book, which tells the story of Southern African Americans who, decades after Emancipation and as Jim Crow laws restricted their freedom, moved to the North and Midwest in search of better lives.

• “The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth,” by Karen Branan.

Williams recommends this title for another look at a specific example on a local level. He said it “provides a glimpse of systemic racism. It offers a critical examination of the generational effects of racial violence perpetrated by the intentional actions or inactions of those within the criminal justice system. [It] also shows that with awareness, acknowledgement and understanding of racism and the systems that reinforce it, individuals have the power to learn, grow and change.”

McDonald’s team, which includes the Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights, recommended additional nonfiction titles, including:

• “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower,” by Brittney Cooper.

• “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” by Richard Rothstein.

• “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation,” by Jeff Chang.

McDonald’s staff also suggested these novels:

• “The Hate U Give,” the 2017 bestselling young adult novel by Angie Thomas.

• “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

• “The Nickel Boys,” by Colson Whitehead.

Another choice in fiction Williams offered: Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” published in 1952, “a timeless read that allows for an appreciation of the irony of being an African American. The invisibility of our humanity leads to public policies and professional practices that were designed without having us in mind.”

• “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison.

Two books of poetry that were recommended:

• “The Tradition,” by Jericho Brown, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

• “My Mother was a Freedom Fighter,” by Aja Monet.

A Dissenting View

Deborah McDowell, Alice Griffin Professor of English and director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, asked this question about the function of booklists at moments of crisis: “Can we imagine any approaches to tackling anti-black violence that don’t begin with a booklist or a syllabus? I ask this question (not an idle one), mainly because I worry that any time an approach to crisis becomes ritualized, it is perhaps time to consider other approaches.”

Instead of recommending books, she recommends “readings that reinforce and inform my emerging thoughts about the limits of booklists at such a time as this.” These two articles reflect some of that thinking: Laura Michelle Jackson’s “What is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” and Gwen Aviles’ article, “Reading as Resistance.”

Jackson, a culture critic and assistant professor at Northwestern University, wrote in Vulture, “An anti-racist reading list means well. How could it not with some of the finest authors, scholars, poets, and critics of the 20th century among its bullet points? Still, I am left to wonder: Who is this for? The syllabus, as these lists are sometimes called, seldom instructs or guides. It is no pedagogue.”

In “Reading as Resistance,” an NBC news article, Aviles interviews Khalil Muhammad, a Harvard University professor of history, race and public policy, who pointed out that “reading has traditionally been an important aspect of movement work.”

“However, reading as an organizing tool should not be conflated with reading for ‘consciousness-raising,’” he said. “While reading anti-racist texts can be part of an anti-racist movement, doing so does not always lead to measurable change or a reader’s renewed commitment to fight injustice.”

“Let me be clear: everyone should read,” McDowell wrote, adding, “Let there be as much reading as possible. At this moment, however, I am far less invested in providing my own reading list, lest I appear to be participating in a form of ritualized institutional theater that diverts attention away from the more urgent task of taking necessary and overdue action in the interest of institutional change.”

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Anne E. Bromley

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