You probably have a lot of traveling to do for the holidays, and you probably have a lot weighing heavy on your mind after Monday’s decision in Ferguson, and so I’ve made a reading list. I read a lot of longform for my Things I Read That I Love column, and some of these you may recognize from there, and others you will not.
This list consists entirely of longform interviews, essays and articles by black people about the experience of being black in the white supremacy of America, police violence, and the U.S. government’s undeclared war on its black citizens. Very few of these pieces are about Ferguson directly, because Ferguson is actually a much larger story that began hundreds of years ago.
I wanted this post to center on black voices, so all the authors are black. However, if you’re gonna read two things by white people, I’d suggest reading The Making of Ferguson, a report by Richard Rothstein for The Economic Policy Institute, which is incredibly thorough as it sets up the historical and cultural forces that made Ferguson such a ripe epicenter for this current conflict. I also found Why It’s Impossible To Indict A Cop very educational.
Please feel free to share your own reading suggestions in the comments with links to where you can find things! Obviously this list isn’t comprehensive and I’m hardly an expert curator, but hopefully there’s something in here that speaks to you.
1964: Martin Luther King Junior – A Candid Conversation With The Nobel Prize-Winning Civil Rights Leader, by Alex Haley for Playboy
“I have been dismayed at the degree to which abysmal ignorance seems to prevail among many state, city and even Federal officials on the whole question of racial justice and injustice. Particularly, I have found that these men seriously—and dangerously—underestimate the explosive mood of the Negro and the gravity of the crisis. Even among those whom I would consider to be both sympathetic and sincerely intellectually committed, there is a lamentable lack of understanding. But this white failure to comprehend the depth and dimension of the Negro problem is far from being peculiar to Government officials. Apart from bigots and backlashers, it seems to be a malady even among those whites who like to regard themselves as “enlightened.””
1966: The Watts, by Bayard Rustin for Commentary Magazine
At a street-corner meeting in Watts when the riots were over, an unemployed youth of about twenty said to me, “We won.” I asked him: “How have you won? Homes have been destroyed, Negroes are lying dead in the streets, the stores from which you buy food and clothes are destroyed, and people are bringing you relief.” His reply was significant: “We won because we made the whole world pay attention to us. The police chief never came here before; the mayor always stayed uptown. We made them come.” Clearly it was no accident that the riots proceeded along an almost direct path to City Hall.
1966: A Report From Occupied Territory, by James Baldwin for The Nation
Now, what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.
1968: James Baldwin Tells Us All How To Cool It This Summer, in Esquire Magazine
This interview is incredible. And it could’ve happened yesterday, too, is the thing: police brutality, “looting,” declaring a war on a nation within a nation. Everything he says he could have said yesterday and that is really f*cking sad.
If you can shoot Martin [Luther King Jr.], you can shoot all of us. And there’s nothing in your record to indicate you won’t, or anything that would prevent you from doing it. That will be the beginning of the end, if you do, and that knowledge will be all that will hold your hand. Because one no longer believes, you see—I don’t any longer believe, and not many black people in this country can afford to believe— any longer a word you say. I don’t believe in the morality of this people at all. I don’t believe you do the right thing because you think it’s the right thing. I think you may be forced to do it because it will be the expedient thing. Which is good enough.
1973: To My People, by Assata Shakur
They call us murderers, but we did not murder over two hundred fifty unarmed Black men, women, and children, or wound thousands of others in the riots they provoked during the sixties. The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives. They call us murderers, but we were not responsible for the twenty-eight brother inmates and nine hostages murdered at attica. They call us murderers, but we did not murder and wound over thirty unarmed Black students at Jackson State—or Southern State, either.
It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being.
1984: Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, by Audre Lorde
“Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You [white women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.”
1995: Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Black Man, by Henry Louis Gates
…the Simpson trial spurs us to question everything except the way that the discourse of crime and punishment has enveloped, and suffocated, the analysis of race and poverty in this country. For the debate over the rights and wrongs of the Simpson verdict has meshed all too well with the manner in which we have long talked about race and social justice. The defendant may be free, but we remain captive to a binary discourse of accusation and counter-accusation, of grievance and counter-grievance, of victims and victimizers.
1996: Killing Rage, by bell hooks
“It was these sequences of racialized incidents involving black women that intensified my rage against the white man sitting next to me. I felt a “killing rage.” I wanted to stab him softly, to shoot him with the gun I wished I had in my purse. And as I watched his pain, I would say to him tenderly “racism hurts.” With no outlet, my rage turned to overwhelming grief and I began to weep, covering my face with my hands. All around me everyone acted as though they could not see me, as though I were invisible, with one exception. The white man seated next to me watched suspiciously whenever I reached for my purse. As though I were the black nightmare that haunted his dreams, he seemed to be waiting for me to strike, to be the fulfillment of his racist imagination.”
2012: A Place Where We Are Everything, by Roxane Gay for The Rumpus
When white people got on my nerves, or started to force their racial intolerance on me, I thought, “I come from a place where we are everything.” I realize now what a privilege it has been to have that. What I want for my children and your children is to have a place where they can feel like they are everything and still be surrounded by people who are different. That should be an inalienable right, too. That is not too much to want.
2012: How To Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance, by Kiese Laymon for Gawker
Mama’s antidote to being born a black boy on parole in Central Mississippi is not for us to seek freedom; it’s to insist on excellence at all times. Mama takes it personal when she realizes that I realize she is wrong. There ain’t no antidote to life, I tell her. How free can you be if you really accept that white folks are the traffic cops of your life? Mama tells me that she is not talking about freedom. She says that she is talking about survival.
2013: A Clear Presence, by Aisha Sabati Sloan for Guernica
Rodney King was swimming on the first day he ever heard the word n*gger. His small self popped out of the water only to be pelted by a fast-passing stone. It was the first time he realized that he wasn’t just a kid; he was a black kid. Despite the life he would live thereafter, King writes that it was “the saddest day in creation for me.” He wishes he could “find a way of forever removing that day from every black child’s life.”
2013: De Origine Actibusque Aequationis, by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah for The Los Angeles Review of Books
Words like Jeantel’s — often expressed in far-out forms like graffiti and slang — trace the sense of feeling X-filed; they are the ways to acknowledge life in the bush of ghosts, and give names and sounds to the consciousness of radical world-building that the descendants of the African Diaspora have engaged in all around the world. This is the tradition Rachel Jeantel was practicing up on the stand: the art of being young, black, and incomprehensible.
2013: Some Thoughts On Mercy, by Ross Gay for The Sun Magazine
Isn’t it, for them, for us, a gargantuan task not to imagine that everyone is imagining us as criminal? A nearly impossible task? What a waste, a corruption, of the imagination. Time and again we think the worst of anyone perceiving us: walking through the antique shop; standing in front of the lecture hall; entering the bank; considering whether or not to go camping someplace or another; driving to the hardware store; being pulled over by the police. Or, for the black and brown kids in New York City, simply walking down the street every day of their lives. The imagination, rather than being cultivated for connection or friendship or love, is employed simply for some crude version of survival. This corruption of the imagination afflicts all of us: we’re all violated by it. I certainly know white people who worry, Does he think I think what he thinks I think? And in this way, moments of potential connection are fraught with suspicion and all that comes with it: fear, anger, paralysis, disappointment, despair. We all think the worst of each other and ourselves, and become our worst selves.
2013: The Year in Racial Amnesia, by Cord Jefferson for Gawker
All those who would look back to the “charms” of Olde America seem unaware that those days are not so far gone. The United States has improved such that we no longer have mobs that gather to watch a lynched body the way they might watch a fish struggle on a line. But we’re lying to ourselves if we think Florida police arresting a black man dozens of times simply for going to work isn’t an act underpinned by the old notion that some people’s rights are worth less than the rights of others.
2014: The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic
This article should be required reading for all American citizens.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
2014: Fear and Aggression in Florida, by Elias Rodriques for n+1
Fear isn’t only a reaction, and Stand Your Ground, like its predecessor the Castle Doctrine, made it rational to err on the side of aggression. This was especially true for my black friends, who encountered hostility the way other people encounter the sun. Worried about being hurt or killed, we endlessly prepared for defense. As teenagers, we bragged about our strength, about how nobody could hurt us, how we would win any fight. Even when we didn’t believe ourselves, we sometimes fooled each other.
2014: Blackness As The Second Person, Meara Sharma Interviews Claudia Rankine for Guernica
I felt like, holy shit, I am walking around, and all of these people, white people, are okay with my black body being beaten and kicked, even when they’re seeing the violence actually happen and don’t have to rely on hearsay. That the black body is perceived as dangerous, even when it’s on the ground, in a fetal position, with men surrounding it, kicking it. I don’t think I understood or felt as vulnerable ever before.
2014: Black Girl Walking, by Hope Wabuke for Gawker
Really, though, I wonder what I as a black woman can do, in America in 2013, to be seen not as the target of raced and gendered violence, but as a black woman worthy of respect, decency, and protection because of my race and gender, not in spite of my race and gender. What will it take for black women like me, like Marissa Alexander, and like Renisha McBride, to ever be treated and defended by the citizens of our country as innocent?
2014: Let’s Be Real, by Wesley Morris for Grantland
There are far more attempts to understand police on television and in the movies than there are attempts to empathize with black men, whether or not those men happen to be cops.
2014: On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (And Isn’t), by Mia McKenzie for Black Girl Dangerous
On why it is that killing black people doesn’t get talked about as violence but destroying white people’s things does.
2014: I Am Utterly Undone, by Dr. Brittany Cooper for Salon
Humans can only be sucker punched for so long. Humans can only have the life choked out of us for so long. Humans can only be kicked in the stomach while your foot is on our neck for so long. Humans can only be bullied for so long. One day we stagger to our feet, and you see reflected back to you the results of your own unresolved monstrousness.