I want to take some time to write to all of you about a project I took on this past year and the many ways it expanded my worldview. This past January 1, I decided to take on a rather unique and unusual reading project. I love to read. I've been a bookworm for as far back as I can remember. However, I haven't always done a good job of reading outside my comfort zone or reading about other cultures. Thus, I gave myself a challenge: that I would only read books written by non-white men. I did this partly because I think that white men have had enough of a voice in our culture and I wanted to give other voices a chance to speak up. I also did it as a way to confront my own internalized racism. I realized when deciding to begin this project that the vast majority of my own favorite authors or favorite books are written by white men. While I don't mean to denigrate or deny their own marvelous writing abilities, I was aware that I needed to branch out and read books by some non-white men. Instead, I focused exclusively on historically oppressed groups. I would like to add the caveat that I did still read books by white women. This was because I wanted to include all the various ways that women, even white ones, are still systemically oppressed in our society. However, of the 46 books I read this past year, the vast majority were written by people of color.
So, what did I learn from doing this project and how did it open my eyes? A big takeaway for me is just how institutionalized and systemic racism really is. Through reading books like Americanah (Chimamanda Adichie); Roots (Alex Haley) and 12 Years a Slave (Solomon Northrup), I was exposed to the ways in which my white culture has made racism a part of every system and how far back it really goes. I confess to having a much different view of slavery and even racism before hand. My history textbooks growing up gave the image that slavery wasn't as bad as it might have been portrayed. They portrayed the idea that most slaves preferred slavery over being free and were indeed happy with their lot. I realize now just how racist and awful an idea that is to even think but before reading Roots or 12 Years a Slave, it had never occurred to me to re-think this. As a white person, I've come to realize just how little I had actually ever thought about race mainly because it doesn't affect me. I even remember thinking to myself how this project sounded very racist to take on because isn't it racist against white people to not read them for an entire year? My whiteness protects me and gives me a level of privilege that people of color don't have access to no matter their financial resources or education or ability. The books I read this year helped me see just how hard it is to be a person of color in America.
Through reading 100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez); And the Mountains Echoed (Khaled Hosseini) and the House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), I was exposed to what life is like for those who live in other countries. It gave me a new global perspective.
It also gave me the opportunity to finally read some books by authors who are well-established and critically acclaimed but who I had never read before for some reason. I finally had a chance to read Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye, Beloved); Alice Walker (The Color Purple); Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings); Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart); Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Somehow, I had never before read any of these authors and they completely expanded my reading abilities and my worldview.
What were the best books I read this year? I have to admit, not every book I read this year was that great. That's ok. I didn't go into this thinking they all would be. I knew there would be some books I'd read that would be less than awesome. However, there were definitely some that stood out to me as being excellent works. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock was an incredible book for me to read this year. Mock is an African-American transgender woman who writes about her experience growing up as a boy and then realizing that she was actually a woman and then deciding to go through with transitioning. It is a powerful story about what it is like to be transgender, black and a woman in the United States. Definitely highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about that experience. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri was a powerful story about the immigrant experience in America. Also highly recommended. I can't say enough good things about the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. He writes about his experience growing up as a Native American and choosing to attend school off of his reservation. A powerful look at how white culture has supplanted and made shameful Native American culture. I read two Khaled Hosseini novels this year (And the Mountains Echoed and A Thousand Splendid Suns). Both were great but incredibly devastating reads. He really paints a vivid picture of what Afghani life is like both pre and post Taliban. I can't stop thinking about The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Such a strong, vivid prose style that has stuck with me even now almost a year after reading it.
I had my eyes opened to the many ways that being a minority can be hard. It can feel shameful or lonely or isolating. It can even be dangerous. I won't say that I was completely unaware of this before but it became clearer to me through the works I read this past year. Some of these books were quite difficult to read and I had to force myself to get through them. Some of them contained extremely graphic sexual acts of violence, particularly against children. Not exactly pleasure reading. Some of them made me feel so incredibly ashamed of my whiteness and the fact that my ancestors did such terrible things to an entire group of people. Some even forced me to acknowledge my inner racism. That was the hardest part of this project: acknowledging that even as a somewhat enlightened, highly educated queer person that I am still guilty of racism in some ways. I still have racist thoughts or racist tendencies. I admit that. What this project did was bring them to light and help me be willing to acknowledge them to myself.
Now, that we've hit a new year, I've come to the end of my year long project. I'm looking forward to being able to read some Charles Dickens and John Green and Orson Scott Card again, three authors I had been particularly missing reading over the last year. However, I'm also going to be more intentional about seeking out and reading more books by people of color. I've got a good place to start after this past year with several authors that I really want to read more from. Perhaps I'll even be willing to admit some of them into my hard to crack list of favorite authors or favorite books! I'd encourage everyone to take on a project similar to this in your own lives. If you aren't a reader, maybe try it with something else you enjoy. Maybe only watch TV shows or movies starring or written by people of color? Perhaps only cook foods that are enjoyed in countries other than America? Travel someplace where you are likely to be the minority? Whatever you do, you owe it to yourself to do it. It will enrich your life in so many ways, I promise you. I can't believe I waited so long to discover so many of these authors but now that I have I'm very excited to see what else they have in store for me!