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Taking a Break From Whiteness: My 50 Books Challenge

Last March, I decided to try something a bit different with my reading. This wasn’t for any particular online challenge, but just an exercise for myself to clean out the constant din of white voices for a while. I decided that for the next 50 books, excepting those required for work or reviews, I would not read any white authors. A couple of months ago, I somewhat anti-climatically finished the fiftieth book, and I thought I’d do a little write-up about the experience to end the year.

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Taking a Literary White People Break: First Ten #50POCBooks

After a somewhat abortive start when I realized I just wasn’t reading anything at all, I re-started a plan to just not read white authors for the next fifty books I read starting in March. The only exception to the rule is for books I’m reading for review: otherwise, I thought it would be a good idea to take a break from white people for a while. Let’s face it; our ideas are pretty easy to come by. If you’d like to do a similar thing, tag your posts or Tweets with #50POCBooks so we can share recs with each other.

The first ten books I read, not really by any plan, included nine books by women, and all the books were by black authors/contributors. Five of the authors/contributors were some flavor of queer. Some of the books I started with were classics I’ve been meaning to read for a million years, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Tar Baby. I also finally read my first bell hooks book (Communion) and my first June Jordan and Audre Lorde essay collections (Some of Us Did Not Die and Sister Outsider, respectively). I also read a couple of Nikki Giovanni poetry collections, a collection of writing by black gay men, and my second Octavia Butler novel (Parable of the Talents).

Most of the books I read, I loved. I was particularly struck personally by Communion, and will likely come back to some thoughts on love and what love is in a separate post inspired by that book. I want to read more of all of these authors, and this challenge seems like a good time to do so. I found it particularly powerful to read fiction and poetry by black women as I’ve read so much non-fiction about black femininity, intersectionality, and womanism but less “creative work” by black female authors. I’m also kind of on a nerdy linguistic tear after reading a fair bit of prose and poetry written in AAVE and other dialects. Sometimes I get a bit nostalgic, because I grew up in the South and went to a minority-white elementary school, so there’s this weird brain connection between Southern AAVE and childhood for me.

In the name of honestly, I’ll also note that it’s hard for me to write about literature and poetry written by POC because the last thing I want is to sound like the white anthropologist or professor: “See how the exotic other speaks!” Thus these posts may be less analytic or attendant to racial issues raised in the books, and more generally about my impressions reading. Of course much of what I read in this first batch addressed issues of black resilience, civil rights, oppression, and power, but I don’t feel that I’m the right person to comment on those themes. I will generally say that I am both struck and unsurprised by the talent of the authors I read for these first ten books, and their facility with addressing both the bullshit black communities face and the power and grace within those communities.

You can find full titles and authors to the books I read on Goodreads here.

Too Many White People Challenge: Thoughts on Finding Authors of Color

I’ve decided to do something I’m calling the “Too Many White People Challenge,” named for the simple fact that when I look at my bookshelves, there are far too many white people looking back at me.  When I think about the books I read in school, books I’ve read for fun, books I’ve read for research, the vast majority are unsurprisingly by white authors.  If I want to be an effective advocate against racism and for structural change, then I’d better start reading points of view that don’t come from white people!

The challenge is simple: no white authors for the next 100 books I read.  I’ve made a couple of exceptions for books I’m asked to review and for books I have to read for work, but otherwise, no white authors for the next 100 books.  If you’d like to join me, you can do so at this Goodreads group.  I’m not going to be blogging a lot about this experience here on Radically Queer, because I don’t want it to turn into a self-congratulatory thing, but I’ll check in from time to time.  The Goodreads group is where I’ll be a bit more wordy.

I want to start by sharing some observations I’ve made while looking for books to read.  These are mostly what I expected, but I’m sharing them here in case they’re thoughts that haven’t occurred to some:

  1. It’s not necessarily that easy to identify an author of color.  For the sake of efficiency, I had to take some shortcuts that mean I’m missing some of the authors of color on my to-read list.  I went through all my Goodreads to-read shelf, checking off authors of color.  These were almost always authors that I already know, authors with a non-Western name, or books about a race-related subject.  I then went through for the latter two to get rid of the white authors that snuck in.  I’m necessarily going to be missing a lot of authors of color with whom I’m unfamiliar, who are writing about topics other than race.
  2. Reading authors of color doesn’t necessarily mean you’re learning about race.  I kept this challenge simple because my goal wasn’t to learn about race, but simply to take white perspectives out of my reading for a while.  Some of the books I’m reading are novels, some are non-fiction, some are even self-help.  There are a few really silly looking chick-lit novels in there.
  3. Race is (surprise!) a socially constructed category.  We all know this, but it’s interesting when compiling a list like this to see the principle in action.  I had to ask myself what the goal really was, and decide where I would draw the line for “of color.”  I decided not to include Israeli Jewish authors, for example.  I also decided not to include Turkish authors, though that was mostly for personal reasons, since I’ve studied Turkish and am pretty familiar with the culture.  I did include authors from other parts of the Arab world, but it’s possible I’ve accidentally snuck some white people in there, since you can’t actually look at someone and tell whether or not they’re white, so if a white person is from an Arab country I might not realize.

I’m looking forward to the challenge, despite the difficulties in coming up with a very precise definition of which authors “count.”  I hope some of you will join me?