Immigration, police brutality, censorship…these are just a few of the human rights issues facing us today. This year blossomed with fascinating and important books on these issues and more, so there was no shortage of works to pick from for this list. Here are five of the best to start reading:
The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story – Author Ramzy Baroud collects true stories of Palestinians from a range of time periods to paint a picture of what and who modern Palestine is. We tend to hear very narrow perspectives from the media, so learning about actual experiences allows us to step in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotions.
Baroud, who has served as editor of the Palestine Chronicle since 1999, is no stranger to the struggles of those he writes about. Born in a Palestinian refugee camp, he grew up playing with bullet cartridges and tear gas canisters. He and other boys were once lined up by Israeli soldiers and about to have their hands broken when the women of the camp chased off the attackers. These experiences made Baroud who he is today and give him an invaluable perspective on Palestine and its human rights issues.
A More Beautiful and Terrible History – Jeanne Theoharis turns a critical eye on how America has whitewashed and polished its civil rights history. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are used to boost our egos, but their stories have been watered down to fit into neat little narratives about a passionate minister and quiet ‘bus lady.’ In reality, Dr. King and Ms. Parks were radicals who got under the skin of both Southerners and Northerners, conservatives and progressives.
A More Beautiful and Terrible History examines how all of America is guilty of misusing civil rights history with chapters on degestrating schools in the North, polite racism and the white moderate, and the erasure of women in the movement. Most importantly, it shines a light on how racism is far from over. In an interview with NPR, Theoharis remarks on how the civil rights movement is “held up with a happy ending.” Her book reveals why it shouldn’t be and that by considering the chapter closed, America ignores the beauty of perseverance.
How Democracies Die – Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore history and reveal the signs of crumbling democracies from Europe to Latin America. There have always been fringe figures spouting divisive rhetoric, but a warning sign for these authors is when those figures enter the mainstream. Democracies don’t always die because of coups and the removal of elected governments. Instead, elected leaders in countries like Venezuela, Poland, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and the United States undermine democracy.
It would be impossible to publish a book like this and not talk about Donald Trump and his administration. Levitsky and Ziblatt believe Trump is a symptom – not the cause – of trouble brewing in democratic paradise. That doesn’t mean that we can rest easy, however. In the book and an NPR interview, they point to two actions that always signal a dying democracy: questioning the credibility of the electoral process and attacking the free press. How Democracies Die is a warning that every American should heed.
The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means to be American – This book by journalist Laura Wides-Munoz traces the history of the first “Dream Act” proposals to the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Through the stories of five young DREAMers, readers experience major American events like 9/11, the Iraq war, and the Obama presidency. In 2010, four teenagers walked to the Capitol wearing white T-shirts with “Undocumented” emblazoned on the fabric. They sought out President Obama to convince him to do something about the hundreds of thousands in a shared limbo. In 2012, DACA went into effect, giving these kids a pathway to citizenship.
The Making of a Dream only gets into the first few months of the Trump administration, and knowing what we do now about its actions, the book is both inspiring and discouraging. It can seem like all the progress has been undone as the future of DACA remains unclear and DREAMers are detained. However, the drive and fire in the students profiled in the book provides hope; they didn’t stop fighting, so we shouldn’t either.
There, There – The only fiction on this list, There, There by Tommy Orange stands out. The story follows a community of Native American characters from Oakland, California and switches between second and third person. They struggle with issues such as alcoholism, depression, unemployment, and more. The climax of the book occurs at a pow wow where several motivations for being present violently clash.
The book has been a huge success for Tommy Orange, a debut author and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, with his opening essay striking an especially profound chord for critics and readers. He explains his choice of “there, there” as a title, saying that for native people, the cities and towns of America represent ancient ancestral land that’s been taken. It’s all “unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”