Five Novels About Racism (That Aren’t “To Kill A Mockingbird”)

A story is often the best way to tell the truth, especially when it comes to an issue as large and multifaceted as racism. While stats and numbers certainly have their place, people who don’t live with racism often won’t understand it until they hear it described as a narrative. As for those who do experience it as part of their daily lives, a story lets them know they are not alone. That’s why novels matter. While these five books may be labeled as fiction, they speak the truth about identity, race, love, and life.

If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin

Published in 1974, this novel about an engaged couple and a corrupt police system could easily have been written today. Fonny and Tish are madly in love, but torn apart when Fonny is falsely accused of rape. He ends up in jail and Tish learns she is pregnant. With the help of family and a lawyer, Tish tries to uncover the truth and free her future husband.

A singular voice during his time, James Baldwin’s legacy still influences both black and gay Americans. He is considered one of the most significant writers on civil rights, but didn’t like the label “civil rights activist.” Instead, he resonated more with the concept of “human rights.” Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk is due November 30th. This story hits the silver screen at a time when tensions between the black community and police are at a boiling point; it is sure to provoke strong reactions.

Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison

Centered around a character nicknamed “Milkman,” this classic 1977 novel tells the story of a young man who has been raised by the women in his family. His sister, Pilate, is especially influential in his life in ways that are mysterious and possibly magical.  Anchorless and uncertain about his place in the world, Milkman’s journey is threaded by a hunt for gold he found as a child. Along the way, he tries to piece together the story of his ancestry and by proxy, his future.

Packed with memorable quotes, Song of Solomon addresses themes like identity, black-and-white relations, community, and the long-term effects of slavery. It is considered by many to be Morrison’s best work. In 1993, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Academy cited Song of Solomon in their evaluation. Like all good books, it has elements that could have been written today, especially a scene where Milkman and his friend Guitar discuss a series of killings conducted by black men as vengeance against murderous white people .

Obasan – Joy Kogawa

This Canadian novel tells the story of Naomi Kakane, a 36-year old teacher from Alberta, as she cares for her recently-widowed aunt. Naomi calls her “Obasan,” which is Japanese for “aunt.” While there, she is sent a box of journals and letters by another aunt and starts to sort through her past. As a child, she and other Canadians of Japanese ancestry were sent to internment camps during WWII. The arrival of the box stirs up old trauma and forces Naomi to reckon with the aftermath.

Joy Kogawa’s Obasan is a semi-autobiographical novel as she lived in an internment camp with her family when she was only 12 years-old. In 1942, the Canadian government cited the War Measures Act and interned nearly 21,000 Japanese-Canadians in road camps, POW camps, and forced labor farms. The American internment of the Japanese is well-known, but the fact that the Canadian government also participated in the injustice is less publicized, at least in the United States. Americans tend to have an idealistic view of Canada. Kogawa, who was best-known as a poet until the 1981 release of Obasan, sets the record straight.

The Round House – Louise Erdrich

Based in North Dakota, this novel follows a significant period of time for 13-year old Joe Coutts, the son of an Obijbwe judge. An older Joe recalls how in the spring of 1988, his mother arrived home after disappearing for an afternoon, covered in gasoline and blood. She was raped near the round house, a spiritual site for the reservation, but will not name her attacker. As Joe’s father goes through the federal, local, and tribal justice system, Joe investigates on his own. What he discovers as well as separate experiences with friends transform him and influence his future. From his narration at the book’s beginning, the reader knows Joe grows up to become a lawyer.

Louise Erdrich has written about Native Americans and the community’s struggles for decades. The reason for focusing on rape is stated in the afterword to The Round House: 1 in 3 Native women report being raped in their lifetime; “86% of the rapes and sexual assaults are done by non-Native men.” For years, Native women have suffered from the highest rates of rape and assault, as well as shockingly-high rates of murder and kidnapping. The fact that nothing is done about this injustice can only be attributed to racism.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

16-year old Starr Carter lives in Garden Heights, a black neighborhood with economic troubles, but goes to a mostly-white private school. After police break up a party, Starr’s best friend Khalil drives her home. However, they are stopped by a white police officer, who has Khalil get out of the car. Khalil, concerned about Starr, opens her door. The officer shoots the young man, killing him. The novel follows Starr’s journey as an activist with Black Lives Matter and the reactions of her white high school friends and boyfriend.

Author Angie Thomas began The Hate U Give as a short story while a student, but it grew longer and more complex. She set it aside for a while, but jumped back in following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and others. Thomas was unsure if publishers would want a book so clearly-tied to Black Lives Matter, but in 2015, 13 houses bid for the right to publish it, with HarperCollins winning. It debuted at #1 on the New York Times young-adult list. The movie adaption starring Amandla Stenberg as Starr comes out October 19.

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