A few weeks ago a colleague asked me for a list of books about diversity. He was looking for something that would appeal to a general university audience. Something that would be a great conversation starter. Something very readable. I came up with a couple of ideas.
Kym Ragusa, The Skin Between Us: A Memoir of Race, Beauty and Belonging (link)
Ragusa’s 2006 memoir is beautifully written. Her main theme is ‘belonging’–how does one find one’s place in a community? As a mixed race person, she seems to belongs in both the Black and Italian communities of Harlem, yet both communities question her fidelity. Too black for the Italian kids and too Italian for the black kids. The memoir gestures at the pain of growing up on the margins, but through subtle description and her talent at narration, the reader leaves feeling something quite different than sympathy for a victim. This is not a victim memoir. Ragusa visited my campus in 2008 and I asked her if she felt vulnerable putting all these stories to paper. Her answer has stuck with me–“I didn’t tell everything; I chose what to say, what not to say, and how to say it.” Her approach to creative non-fiction is inspiring, and suggests how many of us readers might relate to our own histories; how we might find the narration of our belonging and non-belonging.
Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Recreate Race in the Twenty first Century (link)
This 2012 book is an interdisciplinary work of art. Chapter 1 “The Invention of Race” is worth the price of the book. I taught this book in a Philosophy of Race course and found that students responded immediately to her arguments, which are laid out elegantly and with punchy examples. If you are looking for the historical cases to support the idea that ‘race in the US is socially constructed,’ look no further. The central argument of the book builds slowly, carefully and dramatically. Although this is not a short book, its can be ready quickly. The chapters also stand alone. Highly recommended.
Charles Blow, Fire Shut up in My Bones (link)
I began reading this book last month, and had to put it down in order to catch my breath. Like the Ragusa memoir, here we are dealing with an author narrating a past that is not without pain. I would contrast Blow’s work and Ragusa’s work with that of Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozak Nation; More, Now, Again). Wurtzel’s addition memoirs are too voyeuristic for me; they treat the reader as thrill seeker wanting to get off on someone else’s pain; and the narrator seems to also want to get off on her own pain. Fire is not that sort of memoir; it is not fundamentally about racial or class voyeurism. The point is not to get the reader to vicariously place himself in the shoes of an ‘other’ or a ‘victim.’ The memoir is about us, the reader, watching an adult narrate his childhood. This memoir is about freedom, and the construction of identity through prose. This type of memoir appeals to me much more than voyeuristic memoirs of pain.
These two last books are a bit older.
Gary Younge, No Place Like Home: A Black Britain’s Journey Through the American South. (link)
This isn’t a new book (2002), but it’s hilariously written, and sociologically compelling. I’ve taught it, and it’s wonderful at presenting a non-United-Statesian perspective on race. One of his basic themes is “looking local, sounding foreign.” What a great way to discuss what it means to “sound black” or “sound white.” The auditory qualities of race are important to racial identities, but it can be difficult to find a way into the topic of auditory whiteness. Younge has anecdote after anecdote, such as the time he ‘accidentally’ went to an all white church in the deep south. The moment Younge’s accent was heard by the congregation, he found himself mobbed by graciousness rather than anger and confusion. His IQ went up twenty points on the spot! This book is written in journalistic style, with wicked humor. A great book for talking about the notion of “sounding black.”
Cornel West, Race Matters (link)
This book is the oldest of the bunch (1997, 2001), but I continue to teach it and recommend it. Simply written, and with striking first person examples, this book describes race in terms of “liberal” and “conservative” views. The book is written for those who want a clear definition of “liberal” and “conservative,” not for the professional philosopher who wants subtlety. West’s pragmatic solution is to attack ‘nihilism’ through community organizing and addressing poverty. Pedagogically, the book gives both liberal and conservative students a vocabulary for articulating their ideas about race. Even three or four years after my students have had my class, they tell me that they remember reading the West book and debating his views on race. An effective book, and one that shows non-philosophers how philosophy can be relevant to social issues. Something that you could give your friend at the coffee shop. A great conversation starter.