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Tony Gentry

Summer Reading for White Folks

Updated: May 17

I’m helping a friend write his memoir. In doing so, we’ve uncovered themes that have colored his life and that have me thinking about the threads that weave through all our lives. For Americans, an important one is race, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not. So, sparked by this past week’s horrors, I’ve been trying to come to grips with it, as a writer will do, by scribbling down my own experiences as a rural Southern white boy raised in the midst of school desegregation and all that has followed that noble, failed experiment, a white man whose ancestors in Albemarle County, VA, owned other people, a white man with black friends who, in their vigilant courtesy, never share their real feelings about race with me, a white man who has written four young adult biographies about famous black Americans, wondering all the while why the publishers did not find a black author to pen them. The more I scribble, the more I realize how deeply race has threaded through my own life story, but being a white guy with all the privileges that attain, I haven’t ever really had to think about it much. I’m determined to do so now, as a form of narrative therapy. I hope it helps.

If you have begun to wonder about these things, too, I’d recommend a little summer reading that has opened my white man’s eyes. These books were written by black authors who drop the vigilant courtesy for a moment, telling it like it is, and daring white folks to attend. You may not agree with what they say, and they’re okay with that. What they want, I think, is self-reflection, dialogue, some kind of reckoning. Because without that, even now, twenty years into the 21st Century, what Joe Biden yesterday called our “open wound” cannot begin to heal.

The books:

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me. Only 150 pages long and conceived as a letter to his son, this book is also a memoir of growing up in Baltimore and learning how to navigate the world one hard lesson at a time. It pulls back the curtain for us white folk on what black parents teach their children, about the past, about the police, about dignity in the face of systemic outrage. Coates’ meditations on the “black body” in the American consciousness are instructive and unforgettable.

Also recommend Coates’ essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time. Coates clearly modeled his book on Baldwin’s, universally recognized as one of the great works of 20th Century American literature. Baldwin’s is even shorter, only 130 pages, composed as two letters to black and white America, about growing up in Harlem in the 1930s into the civil rights movement he did so much to inform. They may be letters, but they read like incisive, surgical pleas, the closing argument of a brilliant attorney who preaches from the pulpit on Sundays. That Baldwin wrote this in 1963, and that last week happened, is all to our shame.

Toni Morrison – Any of her novels, but I’d start at the beginning, with The Bluest Eye. The thing about the late great Morrison’s work, apart from the brilliant way she condenses history into personal experience expressed with lyrical concision, is that white people hardly figure in. Her novels are of, by and for black people. Black people who make their lives inside a waffle iron that is being heated and pressed on by a hand that doesn’t even have to be named. In the (white) spaces between every line she wrote seethes a righteous anger with too much pride to go there. And once you see that, as a white person, you learn something crucial about all the things your black friends don’t say to you.

A film:

Spike Lee – Do the Right Thing. This movie came out 31 years ago, and it ends with a riot sparked by three white cops choking a black man to death. So, yeah, relevant.

A documentary series:

Hip-Hop Evolution (Netflix) (4 seasons). It’s a music series, yes, but whatever your thoughts about rap, it’s also a scathing history of the past 50 years in America, with important footage of the bombed out Bronx in the 1970s, of the Rodney King riots in LA, of the crack invasion that ruined whole communities, and the prisons that filled behind all that. The talking heads keep saying that this week’s riots are not just about the killings, but also about all the other societal inequities communities of color face. So if you’ve not lived all that yourself, this series can help bring you up to date. If you also add Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to your Spotify playlist, that’s a bonus.

Another thing to think about. Before you do anything else, watch this 50 second YouTube video: Then let’s chat.

Love Over Fear!

PS – My friend Doris McGehee shares these additional readings:

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. I’ve known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation (1994).

“I’ve Known Rivers is about loss and triumph, rage and love, blackness and sexuality, trauma and healing, and the challenging journeys of life. The courage and insight of these storytellers and the wisdom of Sara Lawrence–Lightfoot as she presents their memories, struggles, and dreams inspire recognition and hope.” – Marian Wright Edelman [Katie Cannon; Charles Ogletree; Toni Schliesler; Tony Earls; Cheryle Wills; Orlando Bagwell]

 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Thirteen ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997).

“Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Bill T. Jones, James Baldwin, Albert Murray: these men and others speak of their lives with startling candor and intimacy, and their illuminating stories reveal much about the anxieties and contradictions of our society.  What emerges is an unforgettable portrait gallery of “representative” black men – which is to say, most unrepresentative ones indeed.” [also Simpson trial] Shelby Steele. The Content of Our Character (1998).

“In this controversial essay collection, award-winning writer Shelby Stelle illuminates the origins of the current conflict in race relations–the increase in anger, mistrust, and even violence between black and whites. With candor and persuasive argument, he shows us how both black and white Americans have become trapped into seeing color before character, and how social policies designed to lessen racial inequities have instead increased them. Neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” but an honest, courageous look at America’s most enduring and wrenching social dilemma.”

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