Required Reading on Race, According to Black-Owned Indie Booksellers

The staff at five different black-owned bookshops across the country weigh in on the titles people need to read right now.

Collage of Books
Collage by W magazine.

Last week, there were zero out of 10 books on Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s best-selling lists whose subject matter concerned race. Now, there are seven out of 10 and nine out of 10, respectively, on each. The desire for anti-racism reading has skyrocketed in the wake of the latest surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, as people’s notions of white fragility and what it means to be an ally to black people is pushed beyond the limits of what was once accepted.

In turn, anti-racist reading lists have also shot up on the internet—How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo, and White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo have become woven into the fabric of everyday discourse. While those titles are significant and worth their salt, there are many more books, both fiction and nonfiction, which discuss racism, and the violent and complicated history between black and white people in America, using inventive storylines and moving prose.

We asked staffers at five black-owned bookshops across the country to weigh in on what they consider to be required reading right now. This isn’t a guide on how to be anti-racist—although most of these stories do bear that element, creating conversations and critical thought around race. Instead, we hope to shine a light on these black-owned, independent bookshops, what they love reading, and why they say these particular books are important for this particular moment.

Underground Books, Sacramento, California

Georgia “Mother Rose” West, Owner

“We chose three books to highlight: a history book for context and perspective, a poetry book for validation and healing, and a love letter to hip-hop for joy and celebration.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is a meticulously researched and beautifully written book seamlessly weaving many voices and viewpoints into an epic tapestry of The Great Migration. Readers follow three individuals into Northern cities, learning the history of America we all deserved to learn in school—but didn’t.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric utilizes a combination of poetry, prose, and images to convey the daily racism, both overt and covert, which Black individuals face. Accessible yet meaningful, ‘Citizen’ catalogs examples of anti-Black racism and the Black experience, which are often overlooked.

Go Ahead in the Rain by the poet Hanif Abdurraqib—a razor-sharp observer of how pop culture intersects with Black life and identity in America. Yes, it’s a self-proclaimed love letter to A Tribe Called Quest, but more importantly, it’s about how the music of our youth can carry us forward through a lifetime.”

Revolution Books, New York, New York and Berkeley, California

Selected by the staff of Revolution Books’ Harlem location

“Revolution Books in Harlem is a bookstore that stands for ending the oppression of Black people and putting an end to all oppression and exploitation on the planet. We are all-volunteer and non-profit (not owned by anybody), with a multi-racial staff.

Our picks are separated between fiction and non-fiction genres. The first, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), is an ambitious, inventive novel. There would be no United States as we know it today without slavery. Underground Railroad captures the horror of slavery, and the terror and joy of fighting to be free, with unforgettable characters who change as they risk everything.

Now, for the non-fiction, starting with The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). If racism and violent policing of black bodies and lives is institutional-systemic, we need a new system that uproots racism and patriarchy. This document, authored by the revolutionary leader Bob Avakian, is a sweeping vision and concrete blueprint for a radically different (and far better) society and world.

James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, is a chilling, scholarly study of how the Nazis studied and ‘learned’ from the Jim Crow race laws in the U.S.—looking to America as the ‘world leader’ in racist governance.”

Books and Crannies, Martinsville, Virginia

DeShanta Hairston, Owner

Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds is so great because it touches on white guilt and black people often feeling the need to assimilate into white culture or tone down their blackness in order to survive day-to-day. This book is wonderful for young adults and teenagers—and also for adults who are trying to understand racism and what it takes to be anti-racist.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a heart-gripping young adult novel about a young man who gets killed by an officer and his friend, who witnesses the murder, and her grappling with whether or not to be brave and speak on the injustice or stay silent for her safety. This is so relevant to exactly what is going on right now. If this book doesn’t move you, I don’t know what will!

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid takes a light-hearted play on racism against young, black women and how we become so accustomed to it that we often don’t even see it for what it is. This book doesn’t make you angry, but still says what needs be said about racism.”

Sister’s Uptown Bookstore, New York, New York

Janifer Wilson, Founder and President of Sister’s Uptown Bookstore

“Sister’s Uptown is not just a bookstore; we are a community resource center for the exchange of information and ideals. We are dedicated to nurturing the minds, hearts, and souls of our community with present and past works of gifted African-American authors, and other literary greats. Our motto is ‘knowledge is key,’ and this especially holds true today.

Through our online distributor, oneKIN, we are selling books that will be shipped to your home.

These times demand self-reflection and education. We’ve created this “Consciousness Reading” book list, a collection of books we think are necessary reads, especially now. We recommend The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois, among many others.

We’re currently sold out of a few titles, but are restocking this week and also adding new books to the Consciousness List. Additionally, you can access the curated Children’s Books list, and explore more books for sale here.

Beyond Barcodes Bookstore, Kokomo, Indiana

DeAndra Beard, Book Curator and Lead Creative, Beyond Borders

Donate to the Beyond Borders GoFundMe here.

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander is a stunning, celebratory picture book. Given our current plight, we must make space to celebrate and tell our children how we’ve made it through, ‘undefeated.’ Our story is beautiful and sorrowful, strong, and worthy to be heard. Kwame, with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, shares this narrative perfectly for children and adults alike.

The Langston Hughes Reader, through artistic words, gives us perspective and helps contextualize the struggle through the decades. From the roaring days of the Harlem Renaissance to the early days of resistance—Hughes wrote and depicted our story. The poet provides historical context and protest in prose. What better way to understand the roads we’ve traveled than poetry?

March: Books One, Two, and Three by Congressman John Lewis is a graphic novel series that walks readers through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, testifying of a time of great struggle, and like today, heavy grief. Through the use of comics, Lewis tells us his story—a story youth and young adults should understand while in the streets crying out, ‘Black lives matter!’ His story and our story are inextricably tied together by time and experience. They marched so that we wouldn’t have to march, but here we are.

Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement by Monica White is important work right now, as we map our way forward. Food sovereignty and justice, an aspect of this movement that is many times overlooked, is a one of the most strategic forms of resistance. Our struggle began with land—tied and torn from land as human chattel, to working on the land, to then being stripped of land. Reading this book gives us a deeper historical understanding and foundation to return to the land that gave us freedom long before our bodies ever knew bondage.”

Related: Uplifting Black Culture Goes Beyond Shopping Black-Owned Brands, But Here’s a Place to Start