Four days from today, on January 20th, the forty-fifth president of the United States will take the oath of office.
There are a lot of actions going on around the country this week—protests, marches, concerts, and more–organized by communities coming together to send a message to the incoming administration: we will not be silenced. We will not allow hate, bigotry and xenophobia to be the loudest voices at the table.
Even if you can’t join the Women’s March on Washington, their platform is phenomenal and worth a read. I’ll be at the Boston Women’s March on Saturday; you can find sister marches in your city here. The Movement for Black Lives has a great website where you find “Resist & Reclaim” actions taking place around the country this week to honor the radical legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even more urgent this year in light of Trump’s impending presidency.
What does any of this have to do with books? Friday will come, and Donald Trump will be inaugurated. Afterward, continued action, protest, political pressure, and resistance will be as important as ever. But no movement succeeds unless it is fueled by thinking, feeling, eyes-wide-open people. The movement begins inside each of us. On Saturday, I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with my community and march down the streets of Boston. I’ll use my body to voice my anger and my commitment to fighting for justice. But on most days, I don’t march. On most days, I go to work, cook a meal, and read. It is not enough to take to the streets at the big historical moments. We must build the movement from the inside out. We must look inside ourselves—not just on inauguration day, but on all the days of our ordinary lives—and find there the courage and strength and humility that fuels change.
Books teach me how to resist. They challenge me and humble me and incite me to action. They help me unlearn the white supremacy I hold in my body, simply because I was born white in a white supremacist society. They give me hope; they teach me practical lessons; they remind me why I care about any of this messy human business in the first place. They also make me laugh and fill me with joy. They are a deep comfort when the world is just too much.
This week, as my own protest to the inauguration, I’ll be publishing this series of posts, which I’m calling #ReadAgainstTrump.
The differences between Trump and President Obama are too deep and numerous to name. One of those differences is the way in which they read, use, and speak about books. Obama was not a perfect president, nor he is a perfect man. He is someone who understands and uses the deep and abiding power of books. Trump, it seems, is not. Books are no good if we simply sit in our individual bubbles, turning pages to shut out the world. But if we allow books to enter us and open us and change us—as Obama has done—then, I think, we have a chance to achieve some small greatness.
#ReadAgainstTrump is my own form of protest against an incoming president who is small and hateful. It is also my way of honoring Barack Obama, a president of remarkable strength, grace, and compassion.
For the next seven days, my #ReadAgainstTrump posts will feature themed booklists that speak to the many challenges that lie ahead. These are all books I love, books that have moved me deeply. Some of them are calls to action. Some of them have been a comfort and respite, and remind me to be tender toward myself and others, especially in the midst of political turmoil. Some of them are simply incredible novels, stunning specimens of the brilliance of the human mind. I hope you’ll find some books here to challenge and inspire you, to keep you company, to bring you joy, and of course, to open and open and open you to the world.
Read Against Trump, Day 1: Books to Keep You Woke
I attended a Greater Boston Writers Resist event yesterday at the Boston Public Library. An impressive roster of Boston writers, activists, and arts leaders read a beautiful and diverse selection of poetry and prose, speaking to the power of art, the nature of democracy, and the varied experience of otherness. One of the speakers read a passage from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, and I scribbled down this quote in my notebook: “If it’s a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.”
Hatred and systemic oppression have many faces—white supremacy, transphobia, misogyny, Islamophobia—to name a few. We cannot dismantle these systems of oppression in our society if we do not dismantle them within ourselves. It is impossible to do that if we are numb, shielded, obdurate, if we refuse to look squarely violent truths. As a person with many forms of privilege, I often have the choice to walk through this world without confronting such truths. Many others do not. These are some of the (many) books that have guided me and challenged me on my continuing journey toward a more awake existence. They have made it impossible for me to slip back into the warm, cozy, ease of numbness.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is one of the best novels I have ever read. If you only read one book this year, make it this book. If you only read one book in the next five years, make it this book. I cannot think of any other novel both as powerful and as flawlessly crafted as this one. The entire novel was gorgeous and heartbreaking, full of breath-stealing paragraphs like this:
“Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great-grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took the flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction–the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin in Harlem in the 60’s, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the 80’s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitably be writing, too, about the “war on drugs.” And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood were doing five-year bids for the possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he’d get so angry that he’d slam the research book down on the table of the beautiful but deadly silent Lane Reading Room of Green Library of Standford University. And if he slammed the book down, then everyone in the room would stare and all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they’d think they knew something about him and it would be the same something that had justified putting his great-grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was.”
Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
This ethereally beautiful and gorgeously crafted novel deals with the ways oppression and injustice, in their many guises, affect and infiltrate identities in the most intimate ways. It is a semi-magical family drama with unforgettable characters and sentences that took my breath away. It is also a reflection on the twining vines of racism and misogyny that wind their way into homes and families.
Guapa by Saleem Haddad
This startlingly beautiful book is the story of Rasa, a young gay man living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, on one life-changing day. The novel unflinchingly confronts homophobia and Islamophobia in the US and in the Middle East. It is also a brutally honest and deeply human story about people living their lives in the midst of war. It not only refuses to normalize war, but it also refuses to depict those living through war only and exclusively as refuges, or survivors, or victims. It is both heartbreaking and life-affirming.
Butler’s vision of post-apocalyptic America is painful to read. Perhaps even scarier is the way her vision is rooted in the present and historical realities of the United States. These two books are impossible to put down, and the characters are deeply compelling. Butler uses a seemingly-inconceivable future to illuminate just how bleak our present can be for the most marginalized among us.
I mention these books together because, for me, they are inextricably linked. They are both essential American reading and literary masterpieces. I do not want to discredit the brilliance of either of these works by simply comparing them or diluting them into something neat and manageable. I can only speak to my experience of reading them both within the span of a few months, and how their words continue to challenge and influence the way I think.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
For those of us who can walk around safely tucked inside the shield of numbness and who do not experience the daily violence of racism, Rankine’s shattering poetry in Citizen is a book that cracks right through
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
If you haven’t already read it, I’m sure someone has told you to. Do it.
I realized after I wrote this list that all of the books on it deal with race in America. Over the past year, I’ve been working to educate myself as a white person concerned with racial justice, and my reading list reflects this. There are lots of other injustices it is important to wake up to, of course, although they are all interrelated. What books have woken you up?