“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” Kimberlé Crenshaw
Nicole Young shared this quote on a recent episode of the podcast Kidlit These Days on the topic of anti-racism, and when I heard it, I knew the next thing I wanted to write: a list some of the middle grade and young adult fiction I love that addresses racism and tells stories of black lives. The fiction that is speaking to my heart right now.
“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” With this swell of discussion and interest in the work of anti-racism, there are tons of lists being shared with books to read, especially to help us white folks catch up and educate ourselves. The New York Times best-seller list this week for non-fiction is flooded with titles by Ijeoma Iluo, Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, and more. I am a voracious reader of fiction and a slow, cranky reader of nonfiction, so my work right now is to push myself to pick up these titles to deepen my understanding of the issues around racism and white supremacy.
At the same time, stories are my favorite way in to understanding. Last week, I read Nic Stone’s beautiful YA novel Dear Martin. I picked it up months ago at a used book sale, but it sat waiting towards the bottom of my TBR pile. It waited, in part, because I knew that it was about police brutality toward Black teens, I knew it would be hard to read, and I thought I knew how it would make me feel.
But here’s the thing. Until I enter into the story, and get invested in the lives of the characters, and let myself feel all the feelings through the narrative, I don’t really know. Not in my heart. There are studies that show that reading fiction cultivates compassion and empathy (like this one), and this has happened to me countless times. I opened Dear Martin knowing that it was about a Black teen who is a victim of police brutality. And knowing that, I still wasn’t prepared for how I would feel when I turned that page. And then beyond the gut-punch of that moment, reading Justyce’s inner monologues and the conversations he had with his best friend, his mom, his Black teacher, and his white girlfriend all gave me an even deeper understanding, in my heart, about what we’re talking about here. What white supremacy, systemic racism, and police brutality mean in people’s lives. In individuals’ lives, in their lived experiences. I’m not saying that we can’t develop understanding and empathy outside of stories, and from the real-life stories shared in the news, in talks and forums, or in conversations with loved ones. But reading is another way that my white self can find some of this understanding, without a Black person having to repeat their traumas and experiences for my education. Nic Stone did the work once as the author so that all of us can read it, as many people and as many times as we need to.
So. This list is for people, like me, for whom stories are a way in, and for those who might want to put these in the hands of their kids. Some are stories of racism and struggle, and some are stories that are, for a white reader, windows into Black lives. These are also all written by Black authors. (Thank you to Rudine Sims Bishop for the concept that reading provides windows into experiences that differ from our own, mirrors to see our own experiences reflected back, and sliding glass doors that we can look into and then step through as we learn and grow. Read more about it here or watch this video to see Dr. Bishop explain it herself.) I hope you find something that speaks to your heart, too.
I have been quiet. Not entirely silent, but quiet. And I have not written in this space. In part, it’s because I’ve been listening, reading, and processing. In part it’s because my voice as a white woman isn’t the one that needs to be heard right now. (It’s Black women. The answer is always follow Black women.) In part it’s because I’m worried about saying the wrong thing, which I know isn’t an excuse, but it is true.
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.