Paul T. Corrigan | University of Tampa
During the first year of the pandemic, in the small town of Homewood, Alabama, the Berthiaume family took a set of “discarded red chest drawers” and built a “little free library” outside their home, as CNN’s Alaa Elassar reports. The family of five “added a roof and painted it, finalizing it with the words ‘Antiracist Little Library’ on the side,” and stocked the shelves with such titles as Ashley Jones’s Reparations Now! and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. Kristen Berthiaume, the mother of the family, explained that with Covid closing their local public library, they wanted to ensure such books would still be “accessible” to readers, to provide “knowledge” about race and racism or “just a good story where all the characters aren’t White.” So far they have given away over 300 books.
The Berthiaumes are not alone in their efforts. Along the way, they partnered with the nonprofit organization Little Free Library, which, as part of its Read In Color initiative, has distributed “more than 30,000 diverse books” (Elassar). Moreover, still other folks buying antiracist books, often to give as gifts, recently propelled such titles into all of the top spots of the New York Times Bestseller list (Evelyn). These efforts to circulate books illustrate a widespread theory of antiracist reading that stresses access to books—a theory that I, as a teacher of reading and writing, want to endorse but also complicate.
One complication comes from those striving to limit access to antiracist books. In the county where I live in central Florida, two books by Toni Morrison, Beloved and The Bluest Eye, along with more than a dozen other diverse titles, have just been removed from the middle school and high school libraries after complaints and threats of legal action by a group called County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF). One of the group’s leaders, Hannah Petersen, claimed the books made her “physical (sic) nauseous.” When local reporter Kimberly C. Moore asked what was objectionable in the books, another leader, Jimmy Nelson, declared, “It’s pretty evident. The books speak for themselves.” Although the stated concerns reference sex and gender, the ban inescapably affects—and apparently targets—books that expose racism or advocate for racial justice. If the Berthiaumes are not alone in promoting access to such books, then neither are the CCDF in opposing it. “So far, at least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism,” Chalkbeat’s Cathryn Stout recently reported, and “new legislation is in the pipeline.”
If opposition to access offers one complication, another comes in the form of a surprising consensus about what access means, one that can be seen by examining a tool proponents and opponents both use: lists of antiracist books. While proponents forward lists of books to read—such as Bookshop.org’s list of books that “help examine anti-Black racism and the fight for antiracism in The United States”—opponents create lists of books to ban—such as Texas state representative Matt Krause’s list of 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex” (Chappell). Though these competing lists have opposite aims, they share a couple features. First, both contain many of the same authors. For example, the Bookshop.org and Krause lists both include Ibram X. Kendi, Isabel Wilkerson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Patrisse Cullors and Asha Bandele, Claudia Rankine, Layla Saad, Mikki Kendall, Ijeoma Oluo, and Tiffany Jewell and Aurelia Durand.
Both sets of lists also tend to give little indication of what readers ought to do with the books. As Lauren Michele Jackson observes, an antiracist reading list “seldom instructs or guides. It is no pedagogue.” The same goes for a banning list. In both cases, the exhortation, sometimes stated, other times implied, is just read or just don’t. In this regard, proponents and opponents of access appear to share a key assumption: that the messages and effects of the books are self-evident and self-enacting; that simply reading antiracist books is in and of itself sufficient to make something happen in readers, something the one group wants and the other group does not; that simply reading makes readers either more antiracist or psychologically “distressed” and physically “nauseous.” In this way, the access theory of antiracist reading is an instance of what education scholar Patrick Shannon calls “the direct-effects theory of reading” (44). Whatever it is books can do, exposure makes directly possible. In other words: It’s pretty evident. The books speak for themselves.
But though such an assumption about the inherent power of books may be shared, it is also questionable. Reading carries antiracist potential but is also plagued by recurring insufficiency. Yes, in our own experiences and in history, we may find many examples of readers being profoundly affected by antiracist reading. For instance, in my own life, reading Ernest Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men in college transformed my understanding of racism. I think also of reading testimonies by Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, and the writers included in Well-Read Black Girl (Edim) and Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing (Oliver).
But we can find plenty of counterexamples, too, times readers were not particularly moved.For instance, reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school just left me confused. Another counterexample, a particularly pointed one, comes from the crisis unfolding in my county: the people who wrote the report to ban the antiracist books first read the books, carefully enough to cite specific passages they objected to, along with page numbers, and then they went on to act in ways that are more racist, not less, by pushing for the ban. Clearly, reading antiracist books does not automatically make people antiracist.
So, to talk about the antiracist power of reading, we need caveats. Reading can be powerfully antiracist. But it is not inevitably so. There are variables: what one reads and how one reads matter. There are, as the title of David Bartholomae and Tony Petrosky’s famous anthology puts it, many different Ways of Reading. Unfortunately, considerations of what is read often overshadow attention to how it is read. The fact that internet searches for the phrase “antiracist reading” turn up the sorts of book lists discussed above, and not, say, methods for how to read, suggests that many people understand antiracist reading as tantamount to reading books with antiracist content. However important the lists are, this emphasis on content strikes me, and Patricia Roberts-Miller who pointed out the parallel to me, as an error in the tradition of the transmission model of education, or the “banking” model, to use Paulo Friere’s term. Just as learning requires more than “covering” information about a topic, antiracist reading requires more than just “reading” antiracist books. What we do with the information and with the books—how we process, respond, and use them—matter. So, in my view, antiracist reading has to mean reading in ways that are antiracist.
To help us become more conscious of the options available, more intentional in using and promoting a range of reading practices for a range of antiracist purposes, I’ve sketched the following preliminary taxonomy of modes of antiracist reading through reflecting on the approaches I have come across in my studies. Some of the models are implicit—such as Ta-Nehisi Coates immersing himself in reading about the history of US slavery and Toni Morrison critiquing white representations of Blackness in US literature—while others have been spelled out overtly—especially Asao Inoue’s step-by-step method for attending to our racialized reactions to texts. I have also been helped by Gary Lemon’s “autocritography,” Eliza Ramirez and Sarah J. Donovan’s “ABAR (anti-bias, antiracist) lens,” AnaLouise Keating’s “(de)racialized reading,” Lisa K. Taylor’s “anti-colonial feminist reading strategies,” and Timothy Oleksiak’s race-conscious “worldbuilding.”
I say “sketched” and “preliminary” advisedly. The taxonomy is not a treatise but an outline. At this juncture, I name and briefly define ten modes of antiracist reading. I also cite an example source and suggest an example lesson for each mode, gesturing toward yet-to-be-traced genealogies of these practices and anchoring them in teaching. But all of the modes need more unpacking, including consideration of their respective affordances and limitations and of, as co-editor of FEN Blog Megan Von Bergen asked me, how they might be practiced differently by readers who have lived different experiences of race and racism. Also, although I’ve tried to identify discrete modes of reading, they inevitably overlap in practice and could very well be sorted into different categories. The order I’ve arranged the modes in makes intuitive sense to me but does not necessarily represent a progression or hierarchy. Additionally, the taxonomy is not an unqualified endorsement; all the modes remain open to caveats, critiques. Indeed, I invite readers—even in comments on this post—to challenge these modes, propose new ones, and offer additional examples and counterexamples.
|Informative||Informative antiracist reading is reading to learn about race, racism, and antiracism. The “immersive” reading Ta-Nehisi Coates undertook to understand the history of US slavery is an example of this mode (66). A possible lesson in this mode would be to assign students to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to get a contemporaneous view of the 1960s civil rights movement.|
|Attentive||Attentive antiracist reading is reading to listen carefully to the words of racially othered writers. When Jacqueline Jones Royster asserts that “voicing at its best is not just well-spoken but also well-heard,” she invokes the attentive mode of antiracist reading (40). An example of applying this mode in the classroom would be to direct students to spend time carefully working through the fractured sentences in poems by Jay Wright.|
|Empathetic||Empathetic antiracist reading is reading to feel with the experiences of racially othered writers or characters. Samantha Blackmon’s argument that popular culture’s “Magical Negro” trope limits segregated white readers’ “ability to empathize” with Black people underscores the empathetic mode of antiracist reading. Asking students to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and write a letter “back” to Celie, expressing compassion for what she’s suffered, pride for what she’s accomplished, would be a lesson to teach this mode.|
|Affirmative||Affirmative antiracist reading is reading to verify one’s racialized experiences as real and shared. Jesmyn Ward’s reading of James Baldwin illustrates the affirmative mode, showing her that “someone else saw the myriad injustices of living while black in this country” (7). A way to teach in this mode could be to ask students to read Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s womanist anthology This Bridge Called My Back and comment on texts that resonate with their own experiences.|
|Introspective||Introspective antiracist reading is reading to surface racist impulses within oneself. AnaLouse Keating’s observation that “self-reflection . . . can expose the hidden ‘white’ framework” of “conventional” reading is a call for the introspective mode (85). An example lesson in this mode might have students read Jamaica Kincaid’s comments against tourists in A Small Place and take careful note of what (possibly defensive) emotions arise as a result.|
|Critical||Critical antiracist reading is reading to critique racist ideas and representations in texts. For example, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison employs the critical mode of antiracist reading to expose racism in US literature. Watching pre-Black Panther MARVEL films and critiquing the greater prominence of red, green, and purple characters, compared to Brown and Black characters, would be a lesson in this mode.|
|Rhetorical||Rhetorical antiracist reading is reading to analyze the role of race in texts’ rhetorical situations. Henry Louis Gates demonstrates rhetorical antiracist reading when he examines the racially cautious language of some of Phillis Wheatley’s poems in light of the racist confines of her enslavement. An example lesson would be to ask students to consider which audiences find comedian Ali Wong’s racial jokes funny, which audiences don’t, and why.|
|Imaginative||Imaginative antiracist reading is reading to imagine what a racially just world could look like. When bell hooks recalls that reading as a child “made the impossible possible” for her, she’s describing the imaginative mode of antiracist reading (133). A possible lesson in this mode could entail reading Nnedi Okorafor’s LaGuardia and discussing how the alternative, inclusive communities she depicts might look in real life.|
|Activist||Activist antiracist reading is reading to motivate and guide antiracist action. Elizabeth Ammons teaches this mode when she has students in an environmental justice literature course undertake a “final social activism project” connected to course texts (171). Watching Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and writing letters to representatives opposing the use of private prisons would be another possible lesson in the activist mode.|
|Sacred||Sacred antiracist reading is reading that moves readers in ways that are antiracist on an existential, even spiritual, level and difficult to categorize. Overcome by grief over the death of his mother and anti-Black violence, Andre Henry turned to this mode: “Writings on hope from freedom fighters, past and present, became my holy texts” (169). A lesson about this mode might discuss Frederick Douglass’s testimony of how reading an argument against slavery “roused my soul to eternal wakefulness” (41).|
After the Berthiaumes set up the Antiracist Little Library, vandals cleaned out all of the books twice. But supporters quickly donated enough books to replenish the supply many times over. As soon as the sixteen books were pulled from my county’s school libraries, our librarians and our local chapter of the NAACP spoke out in response. (As did I in a letter to the editor of our local newspaper.) The struggle to protect and expand access to antiracist books is unending. But it is also just the start. As we attend to access, let us also attend to the many options available for how those books are to be read.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. One World, 2017.
Edim, Glory, editor. Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves. Ballantine Books, 2018.
Inoue, Asao. “Teaching Antiracist Reading.” Journal of College Reading and Learning, vol. 50, no. 3, 2020, pp. 134-156.
Keating, AnaLouise. Teaching Transformation: Transcultural Classroom Dialogues. Palgrave, 2007.
Lemons, Gary. Black Male Outsider: Teaching as a Pro-Feminist Man—A Memoir. SUNY Press, 2008.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Harvard University Press, 1992.
Oleksiak, Timothy. “Culturally Relevant Student Response: Responding to the DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice.” Paper presented at the College Composition and Communication Annual Convention, Mar. 9-12, 2022.
Oliver, Stephanie Stokes, editor. Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Ramirez, Eliza and Sarah J. Donovan. “Harm and Healing: Reading with an ABAR (Anti-Bias, Antiracist) Lens.” Voices from the Middle, vol. 28, no. 4, 2021, pp. 54-59.Taylor, Lisa K. “Reading Desire: From Empathy to Estrangement, from Enlightenment to Implication.” Intercultural Education, vol. 18, no. 4, 2007, pp. 297-316.