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Arts & Culture

5 Books To Read On Social Justice That Go Beyond The Instructive

Kiese Laymon recommends social justice themed books.

Saturday is Juneteenth — the day when enslaved people in Texas learned they were freed two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It's now a Federal holiday.

Some have turned to books to deepen their understanding of Juneteenth and past social injustices — and their long term consequences. Author Kiese Laymon says that while he understands the demand in the last year for instructive books, he's "more interested in incisive and innovative books."

Author Kiese Laymon signs copies of his book <em>Long Division</em> at Books and Books on July 11, 2013 in Coral Gables, Fla.
Vallery Jean / FilmMagic
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Author Kiese Laymon signs copies of his book <em>Long Division</em> at Books and Books on July 11, 2013 in Coral Gables, Fla.

He's recommending Bird Uncaged, Thick, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, The Prophets, and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Laymon has just revised and reissued his own debut novel Long Division. "In the last year, I thought about what accountability means for narrators and for creators of narrators. And I just didn't want that book to cause any harm," he tells NPR. "If I can go back into a text and not just make it better, make it more breathable, but also make it more ethical, I would be a fool not to do that."

Laymon says his reading recommendations "if you give yourself an opportunity, will make you feel feel good about the work we have to do, which can sound oxymoronic. But I think that's what these books do. We want to feel like we're being taken care of artistically. And I think these books do that."

Bird Uncaged, by Marlon Peterson

Bird Uncaged is a special book to me. I was an editor at Gawker maybe 7 years ago, and I published this essay by a young writer named Marlon Peterson about his time inside a prison and his relationships with the young people from his community who he met through letters. Some years later, Marlon has turned this essay, called Bird Uncaged, into a book that explores, among other things, his experience coming here as a as a kid of a Trinidadian immigrants. And, you know, he really throws the traditional incarceration narrative on its head. And the thing that I really love about this book — and all the other books that I am talking about today — are that the sentences are so beautiful. You know, you get talking a lot about what people deserve, what folks of color deserve, what Black folks deserve. And I think sometimes we don't necessarily like to state that Black people deserve, among other things, beautiful sentences and innovative art. And Marlon Peterson uses beautiful sentences to explore something that on the surface is not so beautiful. But I think what he shows us is that the interior — and if we use our interior to really kind of etch around what we see and explore [and] have been told is inevitable — we can find something ... socially revelatory. It's just an amazing book to me.

Thick, by Tressie McMillian Cottam

Tressie Cottam is one of the smartest people I will ever know – and I think [this] is that rare essay collection where each essay is strong and surprising and it's like portals of entry. But I think a lot like Damon Young's book, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker — all of the essays in Thick can exist by themselves, but they become sort of like superheroes — like this collective essayistic superhero — when they're connected to essays preceeding and proceeding them. One of the things I think Thick does is it takes us seriously as readers. Tressie says: I know you want to talk about politics and traditional red or Dem ways; I know you want to talk about race and traditional white or Black ways; I know you want to talk about beauty and traditional ways. And she's saying over and over again: I'm not doing that — you're going to have to work with me with this book. And I just think that's what makes it one of the most incredible essay collections that I will ever read. There's sound sociological work being done there, but it's also just amazing prose being wrapped around these incredible sociological topics. I'm most taken by the way Tressie expects us to come into these essays with traditional notions of race and power — and she doesn't spoon-feed, she sort of does that really essayistic move where she's just like: You're going to catch up. And by the end of the book, you feel like you've read a novel because all of the essays rely on one another in these really innovative ways.

The Prophets, by Robert Jones, Jr.

The Prophets is easily the most superb tutorial on loving, and actually writing, that I've read in the 21st century. I think that the only book that I've read [that] comes close to a higher degree of difficulty than this is a book that's really unlike this in a lot of ways, which is Imani Perry's Breathe — she's addressing her two sons in ways that just feel phenomenal. What Robert Jones is doing here is he is setting us in Mississippi, and we are in the loving relationship between Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved queer Black men. The book does not slowly walk you into the relationship. Robert Jones places us in the throes of their love, of their desire, of their fear — from Chapter One. But he also does this thing where he challenges us to understand origin narratives differently — like Robert Jones and The Prophets is saying emphatically on every page: Our origin narratives in this world are Black and queer; I'm not going to try to convince you, I'm going to accept that and I want you to accept that. And then accepting that our origin narratives are in our Gods, are and our understandings of catastrophe, are not just Black but also queer. He's saying that like our revolutions, our consequences are going to be different if we understand that. It is very historical, but it's so lushly written.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw

I read this book maybe over a year ago on my computer, as a draft, and I was maybe a third of the way through, and I literally said out loud that whatever we call the new American short story, I think Deesha Philyaw should name it. It is amazing ... You don't want to do homework. You want to feel like you are immersed in other people's lives. Deesha writes through these Black women's lives and their relationships to food and desire and church and secrets and secrets and secrets in this way — over nine stories. It's a short story collection that reads like an evocative novel, but every character is taken seriously and what she's really doing is she's recasting this notion of universality. There are no white characters in this book. These are Black women dealing with Black women. And one feels when they leave this book as if they have been immersed in the lives, the secrets, the church and, most importantly, that very thin line between intimacy and terror that Deesha Philyaw writes so beautifully. It's an incredible short story collection. And I also just think based on what happened last year with lots of the books that people were saying we should we should read — and those are incredible books — I just think sometimes the short story got lost. A short story often gets lost. And I think Deesha Philyaw is here to bring it back.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

I think most conversations about social justice are going to have something to do with Mississippi, which is where I'm from. Sing, Unburied, Sing is literally the greatest novel ever written by a Mississippi writer. And I think the greatest writer to come out of Mississippi is Jesmyn Ward. I think that's saying a lot. And I don't know that I can give the book more props that saying that. But at the core, Jesmyn is rewriting the American travel narrative and the American prison narrative. She's talking about what some people are calling the afterlife of slavery. We see and hear a 12-year-old who was incarcerated with grown men narrating parts of this story. The book doesn't attempt to convince us that carcerality was bad. What it actually does is ask us to hear the spirits of carcerality. And that might sound too overwhelming or too deep in trauma. But what it actually is, is she allows us to breathe almost as much as any book that I've read in the last five or 10 years, because she uses multiple narration, she uses multiple voices, and she uses the travel narrative to bring us into something that is wholly, familiarly unfamiliar — which is the life of the 12-year-old boy... Meanwhile, she's doing what only Jesmyn Ward can do with the way the actual environment, Mississippi smells the sound, bring the story alive. So on the surface, it appears to be steeped in like lots of heaviness — and it is that — but I think her prose brings out the life of all of these different characters and also just makes us rethink what it means to travel with spirits, as Jesmyn would say we all do.

This story was edited for radio by Courtney Dorning and Elena Burnett and was adapted for the web by Meghan Sullivan.

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