You’ve probably seen and/or downloaded some of the anti-racist reading lists circulating on the Internet. White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist are a few books that are on my nightstand now.
If for some reason you haven’t laid eyes on any of these lists and want to be better informed, here is the link to the list Ibram X. Kendi compiled for the New York Times.
Writers like to talk about showing versus telling. In memoir, there’s usually a lot of showing, a level of description that brings you right into life as someone has lived it— the sights and smells, the sounds and the feelings.
Some of the best memoirs, to my mind anyway, also include telling in the form of facts and some reflections about the greater context of the story.
The most impactful memoirs also tell the hard truths about their subject’s life, including behaviors the author might not be proud of. Jesmyn Ward talks about the difficulty of showing the whole truth in the life of African American youth in her memoir, The Men We Reaped, because of how it might be marshaled for blame:
I knew that the truth might be problematic for some people because in this country, unfortunately, the dialogue about black people seems to revolve around racist ideas. It’s all about blaming African Americans. It’s all about the individual being at fault—for our own ineptitude, our own defects. There’s no awareness of the larger systematic pressures that bear down on us that make it easier for the sort of reality I write about to exist.
Ward’s memoir is about growing up in DeLisle, Mississippi and about five Black men who died way too young, not by police brutality, but from systemic neglect, from a society that gave up on them.
In addition to the facts of these young men’s lives, as well as the author’s own history, I was drawn to the way Ward told the story, especially her decisions about structure and point of view. Which is why I reread it with my class last fall, to see how she put the book together, to figure our what made it effective.
I’ve always taken pleasure in close reading, by which I mean multiple readings during which you stop and take notes and figure out how the book is organized and why it works.
You know that this kind of reading makes you a better writer, but I want to suggest that it also makes you a better human.
When you digest a writer’s decisions in detail, the care she put into it and the skill, it not only informs you as a writer, it breeds respect for the author, who not only had to relive hard memories, but assemble them in a way that a reader could feel them.
In other words, close reading breeds empathy, which is why it can be a spiritual practice.
The books that I’ve taken time with, stopping to take notes, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, live inside of me.
On the one hand, I know their structure. I know how the author has put together each section and chapter. I see how she has juggled scene, summary, and reflection. That is part of educating yourself as a writer.
But the unexpected result is also a kind of intimacy, a deeper knowing.
Not that I would claim to have a fraction of understanding of what it means to Black in this country.
But for me, as a white woman, it is a beginning, a place to stand and start to speak up.
For my followers who are Black or People of Color, I want you to know that I support you, now and always, and vow to listen deeply and to stand with you in the fight against systemic racism.
PS: I have been hearing from some of you who are interested in the ten-month intensive. While I have pushed back the dates to begin in September (following the academic year), I’m starting to schedule discovery meetings. If that interests you, send me a message, and we’ll get something on the calendar.
In the meantime, I’m offering a shorter class on reading as a spiritual practice that will feature personal essays and memoirs by Black writers. I’ll have more information within the week.