7 Social Justice Beach Reads to Stoke Your Inner Activist All Summer Long
Courtesy the publishers
Sure, you might be on a tropical vacation, sipping fruity drinks and working full-time on your tan, but everyone knows fascists don’t take breaks. Besides, books provide a leisurely respite from the nausea-inducing tailspin we all experience on a daily basis scrolling through our online newsfeeds. The fact of the matter is you can stay informed without having to be glued to a screen. And with these socially minded books, you can be as liberal with your learning as you are with that sunblock.
1. Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith (Nation Books, $24)
A deeply personal account, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching explores what it means to grow up black in America, plumbing the peculiar agony of watching the first black president excel while young black men continue to die at the hands of law enforcement. It’s a millennial coming-of-age story at heart, but the crushing weight of America’s deeply racist history complicates the dividing line between public and personal. Smith is a masterful writer, seamlessly combining memoir, cultural criticism and political history for a fluid and indispensable narrative.
In Smith’s words:
“But the anger has not only drawn attention to injustice; it has driven people to action, sparking movements and spurring them forward. At the very least, the public expression of black rage has allowed communities and people who have felt isolated in their own anger to know that they are not alone. Anger is what makes our struggle visible, and our struggle is what exposes the hypocrisy of a nation that fashions itself a moral leader. To rise against the narrative and expose the lie gives opportunity to those whose identity depends on the lie to question and, hopefully, change.”
2. All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks (Harper Collins, $14.99)
You might not think of love as a tool for social justice, but the way bell hooks writes about it, it might be the single most effective agent of change. Though All About Love was originally published in 2000, it carries just as much (if not more) relevance today. In this groundbreaking collection of essays, hooks breaks down why we shy away from openly discussing love in modern, capitalist culture and why it’s worth the work of fostering love for each other and ourselves. Hooks weaves together elements of philosophy, psychology, feminist theory and memoir to detail the strides we’ve made and the hurdles we have yet to overcome.
This line struck me as particularly timely:
“It is no accident that greater cultural acceptance of lying in this society coincided with women gaining greater social equality.”
3. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (the New Press, $19.99)
In high school, we all learned about the segregation of public schools, restaurants, restrooms, trains and buses — blatant injustices that fell under the umbrella of Jim Crow laws. Most of us also were led to believe that Brown v. Board of Education brought an end to all that in 1954. But what too few of us know are the ways in which Jim Crow still operates today, albeit under the guise of keeping Americans safe.
Legal scholar and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander dives deep into this problem, starting with the astonishing figure that while “people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates,” black men are 20 to 50 times more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges than white men in some states. According to the NAACP, black Americans represent roughly half of the prison population while making up less than a sixth of the country’s total population. Alexander explains how the war on drugs, for-profit prisons and gerrymandered voting districts were designed to keep black Americans oppressed. This is a must-read for those looking to better understand the systematically racist U.S. prison complex as well as American history at large.
From the book:
“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don't. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color 'criminals' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”
4. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Penguin Random House, $7.95)
Maybe you don’t have a ton of time on your hands but you have a big appetite for feminist literature. Look no further than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s pocket-sized bestseller. Adapted from her famous TED Talk of the same name, We Should All Be Feminists makes a lighthearted argument for treating women like human beings. In 48 short pages, Adichie tackles institutional sexism, feminist stereotypes and sexual politics from an intersectional immigrant’s point of view.
Flip to any part of the book and you’ll find a quotable line, like this one:
“A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me. I was not worried at all — it had not even occurred to me to be worried, because a man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in.”
5. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Gray Wolf Press, $23)
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a manual for social advocacy — or even a typical memoir, for that matter. In the fragmented style that has become Maggie Nelson’s nonfiction trademark in recent years, she drifts between issues of gender identity, feminism, motherhood and sexuality until their categorical lines become so blurred you wonder how you ever thought differently. It’s a genre-bending, gender-ameliorating work of art that will get you thinking deeply about what it means to be a man, woman or anything in between. And in this age of 140-character limits and fast facts, we could all benefit from a little more complexity.
“Never in my life have I felt more pro-choice than when I was pregnant. And never in my life have I understood more thoroughly, and been more excited about, a life that began at conception.”
“The moment of queer pride is a refusal to be shamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you.”
Also this line (can you tell I’m a fan of this book?):
“Empirically speaking, we are made of star stuff. Why aren’t we talking more about that?”
6. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books, $32.99)
Why is racism so entrenched in American history? And how did America’s racist culture mutate from causing blunt trauma to insidious disenfranchisement? These are the questions Ibram X. Kendi answers in the course of his National Book Award–winning jaunt through history. Drawing from extensive research into the lives of five significant American thinkers, Kendi offers readers an almost surgical breakdown of racist ideology — from the rationalization of slavery to counterproductive intellectual discourse. As its title asserts, Stamped From the Beginning is indeed the definitive guide to the whys and hows surrounding anti-black racism in America. By revealing our country’s history for what it is, we have a much better chance at shaping the future for the better.
From the book:
“Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto black people.”
7. Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach (Penguin Random House, $16)
You didn’t think I’d forgotten about the eco-justice warriors, did you? Obviously, there’s no time like the present to take on environmental issues. But instead of drudging through the same depressing statistics, might I suggest a scientifically sound, Calexit eco-fantasy from 1975? In a novel that is at once hilariously dated and eerily prophetic, Northern California, Oregon and Washington secede from the United States to form Ecotopia, an ecologically conscious “stable-state.” Ecotopians live in perfect harmony with their environment, crafting biodegradable clothing, 20-hour workweeks, pollution-free transportation systems and urban landscapes overtaken by greenery. Sometimes it takes invigorating our imaginations to see beyond the doom and gloom and actually do something about it.
Here’s a quote from Callenbach that sums it up neatly:
“It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now. But without these alternate visions, we get stuck on dead center. And we’d better get ready. We need to know where we’d like to go.”
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