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  • Writer's pictureEdie Montreux

Tuesday’s Top Ten: Books on Racial Inequality in the United States

If Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is your favorite book: Are you seriously telling me you stopped reading in eighth grade?

I appreciate the story of Scout Finch and Boo Radley, but come on. I’ve read about a thousand books since then (maybe more…I try to keep track now, but there were years when I didn’t), and while I remember what it’s about, I don’t have the feels everyone is gushing about Harper Lee’s new Go Set a Watchman. There are many tales of race relations, murder trials, and honorable men that are better than Mockingbird.

Here are my top ten books on racial inequality in the United States. I think they are as relevant, and more honest, as they are told by minority protagonists in dark times. I’m not saying these are the be-all, end-all books on race. If you’ve read better, please comment below.

**STOP HERE** if you hate spoilers. There will be spoilers, and I would rather you read the books than my little snippets about them. Each title has a label. It may be shorter than the original title: I received a message that the total label box had to be 200 characters or less.

10. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.

I could relate to the black kids in Mildred Taylor’s novels. I grew up poor, and I rode the bus, but I knew white privilege because I was never, not even on my worst day, treated as poorly as these children. My favorite character was Little Man. His confusion at the disparity between white and black made me question that disparity, and hate it as much as he did.

9. Sounder by William H. Armstrong.

This is the story about a black man, his family, and his dog, told from the point of view of his son. Only the dog has a name; Sounder. This book is as short as it is brutal. I read it when I was in fourth grade, and it still brings tears to my eyes. The boy’s all right. The father, and the dog, die. There’s hope for the boy, which is why this book is worth reading. Did I mention the dog dies? Dick move, author. Dick move.

8. Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker.

I remember this being a book more about women’s rights than a statement on race. However, it discusses HIV in Africa, and it deals with genital mutilation, two horrible atrocities some white people in the United States use as examples to say, “Look, your slave ancestors saved you from this…” In the words of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “A world of no.”

7. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.

This tells a part of American history I didn’t believe, until I watched George Takei tell Sunday Morning how his family was shipped off to an internment camp during World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Both of his parents were born in the United States, but were considered traitors and outsiders, and packed up with the whole family and sent from their home in California to a camp in Arkansas. This story is about a Chinese-American boy in San Francisco and his Japanese-American friend, separated when she and her family are taken to a camp further north in California. When I think of this book, I think of jazz, and flowering trees, and the passing of time, and it’s been at least five years since I read it. When I think of Mockingbird, I think of walking alone at night. Granted, I last read it sixteen years ago.

6. Roots by Alex Haley.

The tale of how an African boy named Kunta Kinte survived horrible treatment on a slave ship to arrive in a new world, where he was bought and sold by white masters to further “civilized society.” It is the tale of the following generations of slaves, freed slaves, and free men, ending with the author. Where would he have been if his ancestor had not been abducted on a walk in the woods? It’s hard to say, but I bet he wouldn’t be plagiarizing books. (Yes, I went there. I still loved this tale and I have not read The African, so I am probably going to hell.)

5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morison.

I HATED THIS BOOK. HATED IT. Why? Because it is TOO FUCKING TRUE. Ro once told me that no one has more reason to hate herself than a black woman. She is at the bottom of the self-esteem barrel, looking up and thinking the round hole in the sky is the moon. (Yes, bestie, I wrote that just for you.) I know the pain of coveting blue eyes. I would make a deal with a crossroads demon for straight blond hair.

4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

A black lesbian coming of age story in the south during racial turmoil? Why would anyone ever write that book? But Alice Walker did, and it is beautiful, and heartbreaking, and taught me that no woman needs a man, but everyone needs a little love.

3.I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.

Within the first sixty pages, Angelou depicts the rape of her nine-year-old self at the hands of a male relative, making this one of the top one hundred banned books in the United States. What does it say about me that I was better able to relate to Riti than I was to Scout? I am a rape survivor. Do I think this book is more relevant because there are more girls like me, like Riti, out there than there are girls like Scout? Maybe. If you think it’s horrible for me to say that, then you need to take a good hard look at society and think of a way to change the rampant rape culture.

2. Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol.

This was required reading for one of my roommate Janet‘s teaching classes. This book should be required reading for every person living in the Midwest who thinks he knows what it means to live in an agriculture-based society. MONSANTO. OWNS. EAST. SAINT. LOUIS. Don’t know what Monsanto is?

Consider yourself lucky, and then get educated and read this book. (When I read this book, I didn’t know East Saint Louis was in Illinois. GEOGRAPHY, MOTHERFUCKERS.)

1. Night by Elie Wiesel.

This is the best book I’ve ever read on the Holocaust. There may be longer, wordier tales, but Wiesel says so much more by hinting at the truth. The taste of the soup, my friends. Never forget the taste of the soup.

You think a Holocaust memoir has nothing to do with race relations in the United States? I would have agreed, until I saw this post on Facebook.

It’s kismet that Harper Lee’s book will be released within a month after a hate-mongering white man shot up a South Carolina church, causing an outcry to lower South Carolina’s Confederate flag once and for all.

Perfect timing does not a perfect book make. This is the first draft of Mockingbird, and it’s kinda like Titanic for me: I know how this ride ends. I’m not going to waste hours of my life I’ll never get back.

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