Powerful Books About Race
When I started writing this blog post, I didn’t intend for it to be about race, or racism. I recently read The Underground Railroad and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I decided to recommend 5 powerful stories that had that effect. But as I started to write this post, I realised the books that had the biggest impact, that I was still thinking about days and months later, were about race.
I don’t know what racial discrimination feels like – but it’s my duty to try. Not just to have empathy, but so that I can help make change.
Stories, real or fictional, help. They give an insight into what life would be like if people defined you, without even knowing you. If people treated you like a second class citizen – or much worse – because of the colour of your skin. If there was one set of rules for some people, and another set for you.
Finding it hard to imagine such inequality? Read on.
1. The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
I read this book because Former US President Barack Obama called it “terrific” and I love the Obama’s. I’m so glad I did.
During the pre-Civil War era – when segregation is embedded in the south of America – Cora, a Georgian slave, lives on a cotton plantation. Cora has had to learn how to defend herself, as her mother escaped (the only person to ever succeed) when Cora was a child.
Caesar, new to the plantation, tells Cora about the underground railroad. The underground railroad is a secret train network that runs below the ground. Caesar convinces Cora to escape and they head north to South Carolin, thinking they’re leaving their troubles behind ‒ but the worst is yet to come.
It’s such a powerful and heartbreaking story about a woman who doesn’t ask for much – just true freedom.
2. To Kill A Mockingbird
By Harper Lee
If you haven’t read this, you should. If you haven’t read it since school, you should read it again. It has to be one of the most powerful books ever written.
The story is infamous: Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, an African American, who’s been accused of raping a white girl in a small southern town. The story, told by Atticus' daughter Scout, is about the prejudice, violence and hypocrisy that follows the accusation.
Harper Lee was a literary genius – she somehow managed to lace the story with warmth and humour while discussing two serious issues: rape and racism.
3. Jasper Jones
by Craig Silvey
This is the only Australian book on the list (sorry) but it’s a goodun.
Jasper Jones raps on Charlie Bucktin, our storyteller’s, window late one summer night. He begs for Charlie’s help, and the two of them sneak through their regional hometown, Corrigan, to a secret glade. There Charlie discovers why Jasper so desperately needs him.
This story has the same message as a couple of the books on this list: a community finds you guilty, no matter the truth. The Corrigan community blame teenage Jasper, an outcast, because of his indigenous heritage.
The prejudice against Indigenous Australians is still so prevalent in today’s society – and this story, despite being set in the 1960’s, is a classic example of how.
4. Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult
In Jodi Picoult's acknowledgement at the end of small great things, she discusses why she decided to write about racism. She acknowledges that as a white woman she can never truly comprehend it, but she hoped she did the issue some justice. I’m glad she decided to write about it, because it’s a topic that we still hide from. The perspectives she brought to the issue were powerful.
Ruth Jefferson, a highly-skilled and capable nurse, performs a routine check up on the baby of a white supremacist couple. Ruth, an African American, is then assigned to another patient. The next day, the baby goes into cardiac arrest while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Ruth hesitates before performing CPR, and as a result, the couple sue Ruth. Kennedy McQuarrie, Ruth’s "not racist" white lawyer, is determined to get Ruth acquitted ‒ but she refuses to mention race in the courtroom.
The story is written from the perspectives of a white supremacist, an African American nurse and a white American lawyer (who goes out of her way to show she isn’t racist). The last character is interesting – it challenged my way of thinking. small great things highlights the gaps that prevent us from even talking about race – let alone doing something about it.
5. The COLOR PURPLE
by ALICE WALKER
I read The Color Purple when I was in high school – not because we did it in my class. No, they did it in another class and one of my friends was talking about it and I thought “I have to read that.”
I re-read it as an adult, and it was even more powerful than the first time.
I can't imagine a life like the one Celie experiences ‒ poverty, segregation, abuse, rape, children stripped from your arms, and then separated from your sister, the most important person in your life. You can only imagine how hard and painful it would be.
But the beautiful part of this story is reading as Celie discovers joy, power, happiness, a sense of self and – finally – freedom.