When reading isn’t enough
Reading and writing, in its creation and portrayal of lives other than our own, is an act inherently imbued with a moral character. As Parul Seghal, a critic for The New York Times recently wrote, building on the thought of the novelist Hari Kunzru, “imagining ourselves into other lives and other subjectivities is an act of ethical urgency.” Reading—in any time, and especially in a time dense with important discussions about systemic racism and public health inequality—cannot be separated from ethics.
And so, at a moment that has brought to many of us a palpable sense of ethical urgency, it’s unsurprising that many are turning to books. We’re turning to books to learn histories of white supremacy and violent anti-Black racism; to understand the entanglement of police brutality and colonialism; to reckon with ongoing violence in our present day and imagine more hopeful futures.
There has been an explosion of interest in books charting these histories in Canada: The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole, Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard, and Until We Are Free (edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson) have all been selling out in bookstores across the country. Poetry and fiction by Black writers, too, has seen a similar—if smaller—jump in sales: Canadian titles that I’ve seen in the hands of my friends and peers lately include Live from the Afrikan Resistance! by El Jones, Reproduction by Ian Williams and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. As someone who loves books and commits myself to equity and anti-racism in my life, it’s hard to not feel a glimmer of hope reading about the recent turn to these texts. I myself have recently started reading The Skin We’re In, and will be more conscious of supporting Black and Indigenous writers moving forward.
But is it enough? Or, put differently: “Who is this for?”
That is the question that Lauren Michele Jackson, a scholar of English and Black studies, asks in a recent piece for New York Magazine on the evergreen practice of recommending anti-racist reading.
Jackson’s writing illuminates both the failures of literary discourse around anti-racist reading, and the shortfalls of reading as an ethical pursuit. She highlights the pernicious ways in which anti-racist writing, or writing by Black people, is treated as merely instructional, “wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene.” She also suggests that reading and recommending books may not be enough on their own to engage readers in the material struggles of oppressed people: “For such a list to do good,” she writes, “something keener than ‘anti-racism’ must be sought.”
It is not enough for those of us with the privilege of time to read, and the access to reading materials, to simply read about the lives of others. It is not enough to engage with struggle as a pastime or intellectual engagement. It is not enough—and it is unhelpful, even—to share writing about struggle with only the goal of appearing engaged or performing a sense of care
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t read. But committing ourselves to anti-racist work means going further. I encourage anyone reading this to pick up any of the books I listed above—this only scratches the surface of what’s out there—and preferably to support a locally-owned bookstore if you can. But I also encourage you to channel your reading into meaningful action in the community. Commit yourself to paying Black writers and artists for their work; engage others in your life—especially those who might not take an interest in the subject otherwise—in conversations about racism; consider donating some of your income to organizations that support Black people in your community.
As Jackson writes, “do the reading.” Do the reading, yes—and then do something good in the world because of it.