Book Report

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I’d like to use the library I curated for this site as a jumping-off point for me to go into detail on various subjects that apply to activism in the modern age. The books are primers on very labyrinthine, complex issues, and I will use them to give the most condensed overview of a topic that I can using the literature and resources that I have. I am not an expert, and can only share what I have learned, which means I can’t and won’t always be able to know everything or be as completely representative as I’d like.

No. 1 // March 2017 // Queer Studies

No. 2 // September 2017 // The American South

No. 3 // January 2018 // Russian Politics and History

No. 4 // March 2018 // Women and Race in America

I don’t have a particular reason for choosing this topic. It’s an important one, so I don’t really think I need to justify it. In the past I’ve usually presented something that is more specifically connected to modern politics, but this is a more universal subject that needs to be addressed.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This is by no means a perfect collection of essays – and Roxane Gay admits that up front in her introduction. I found myself disagreeing with Gay and questioning her methods and the way she extracts information, and then I also found some of her observations and insights to be quite thoughtful. This is worth reading because it gives a point of view about pop culture and intersectionality that is helping to shape the modern feminist movement. Gay’s contradictions and, sometimes, bafflement, is relatable and utterly human, and it is impossible to shy away from the human truths that she exposes. We do not often hear from women like Roxane Gay, and that is why it is more than necessary to spread her writings around. Of all of the books mentioned in this post, this is the most accessible.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

You can’t go wrong with any Toni Morrison novel (as well as her non-fiction and literary criticism). She is an absolute gift and a goddess. I am choosing The Bluest Eye out of her entire canon – most if not all of her books in some way deal with women and race – because it details perhaps the most directly with girlhood/womanhood and the concept of race and the female body. Like many of Morrison’s writings, it’s a painful read that exudes ache on every page, but it gets directly to the heart and soul of racism in America. The novel also examines the roles that black women are forced into (and the ways they subvert these assigned roles). There are no happy endings, but there are glimpses of small justices in the face of unbearable injustices. Morrison’s stunning visual prose will take your breath away, and the horrors you read about in the history books come alive to brutal but necessary effect. (Also highly recommended: Sula, Playing in the Dark, Birth of a Nation’hood, and Beloved.)

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance by Danielle L. McGuire

This is a brilliant book on a subject that is outrageously important. It’s dense and so meaty, each page packed with significance and revelation. It is rather dizzying, and is not something that should be skimmed or quickly read. Take your time with it. With 89 pages of citations and bibliographic entries, McGuire is authoritative and thorough. She checks all the boxes, which makes the terrifying stories that much more disturbing. This is not an easy book to swallow and might make you feel a little jaded. That’s okay and that’s normal, even though it isn’t fun. It’s the price we pay for awareness.

Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis

The classic. The title pretty much says it all. A must read. The original. Ready set go.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Walker’s seminal novel that has its own place in the cultural lexicon is taught extensively for a reason. With an experimental combination of the epistolary format, colloquial language, stream-of-consciousness, and short, vignette-style chapters, The Color Purple weaves a narrative that defies easy categorization or analysis. The fractured and uneven structure of the book speaks to the fractured nature of the black women in the story. The lives of two sisters – one in Africa, the other in the American South – are juxtaposed to great effect, showing the different ways femininity and race function in different locales.

Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race by Maxine Leeds Craig

Primarily dealing with the hypocritical and complex standards of beauty between white and black women in U.S. society, the book uses the pageant circuit to take a wider look at how beauty is often defined by race. Intertwining narratives of the black power movement with interviews and memories from the black women that participated in beauty contests, Craig helps us understand big picture issues while also grounding us in the reality of people’s lives. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? also weaves small gems of wisdom throughout the book that will be familiar to experts but helpful to those that are new to the movement, such as the following: “Beginning as a practice that had no name, the natural hairstyle developed into a defining symbol of racial pride on college campuses and in Civil Rights Movement organizations.”

Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia by Kathleen M. Brown

This takes us way back before slavery was systemized in U.S. culture and gives us a glimpse into the origins of the intersections between women and race and the way they did (or could not) wield autonomy – while also foreshadowing what was to come. Even though it focuses on Virginia, we can see the state as a microcosm for a large portion of the proto-American South. From English and African women to Native Americans, the book explores a wide spectrum of racial categorization and how the men in power made these distinctions. The ways in which women rebelled against these assigned racial roles is the implicit heart of the book and drives its content.

Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris-Perry

I’ve always felt that Harris-Perry is an underrated voice in the black feminist community. Her short-lived show on MSNBC was cancelled for reasons that I cannot fathom. Sister Citizen introduces (but also expands upon) many of the themes that are common in feminist/racial analyses and that are addressed in many of the other books listed here. Her chapters are very neatly bound by genre; Harris-Perry, to the book’s benefit, looks at black women through many different lenses (with sections titled God, Shame, Myth, and so on). There are great appendices with statistics to back up her arguments, and it covers an astonishing range of history and topics in such a small amount of space. Sister Citizen does have an overarching message addressing stereotypes – which weaves together pop culture and serious criticism – and it’s not only a fascinating read, but a deeply crucial one as well.

Photo: Colorful buildings in the Historic Downtown district in Staunton, Virginia – and home to the American Shakespeare Center!

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