A Reading List is Not a Syllabus

This has been a dreadful week, as protests for justice have faced repeated attacks and brutality from law enforcement across the country. (Note: if you’re reading this and the police who murdered Breonna Taylor have not yet face accountability, click here for ways to help.) One result of the continued turmoil seems to be requests/demands for materials to read or watch about racism, racist institutions, and the general racist history of the United States. In response, many writers and scholars have created reading lists, often labeled “anti-racist” reading lists or “Black Lives Matter” syllabi, etc. If you google either of these terms, many items will turn up, including the official BLM syllabus materials. However, there’s been a bit of discussion about the purported value of such reading lists, which I thought was interesting.

At Vulture, Lauren Michele Jackson wrote a piece called “What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” in which she suggests that these reading lists, many of which are floating indiscriminately around social media, are merely performative products that don’t necessarily translate into better behavior or more freedom for BIPOC. Jackson goes on to note that the reading list itself tends to be the same titles, regardless of who is doing the recommending. Books like Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander are common, alongside fictional texts such as There Eyes Were Watching God. But to answer the question in her title, she argues:

I suppose the anti-racism reading list is exactly for that person, the person who asks for it. And yet the person who has to ask can hardly be trusted in a self-directed course of study, not if their yearning for gentle education also happens to coincide with their earliest exposure to books written by people who are not white. Anti-racism reading lists fail such a person, for they are already predisposed to read black art zoologically. 

She further observes that the reading lists cannot possibly provide the type of “absolution” that the well meaning white person may be seeking, and so what is the reading list really supposed to accomplish, especially given that racism has hardly abated despite the proliferation of such lists over the years.

Clint Smith III wrote a short twitter thread in response (I assume it was in response; he does not mention Jackson’s article), and I’ve linked the first tweet below:

Clint argues that while interrogating the purpose and audience of these reading lists is worthwhile action, he comes down on the side of more reading and more education. Smith cites his own experience teaching incarcerated individuals, for whom reading was profoundly transformative. He says the reading is really just a starting point – and whether folks post lists out of solidarity, or to merely perform anti-racism, or because they really will do the reading, others’ behavior can’t be controlled. Ultimately, according to Smith, more than one thing can be true at the same time.

This is one of those rare cases where I truly agree with both side of the discussion. I think Jackson is right when she says these genre-clashing, ubiquitous lists are typically devoid of any scholarly or educational context, and may in fact be letting readers down by not offering any type of instruction. But Smith is also right – reading is crucial and can change lives.

NBC News published a story that engaged with just this debate, by Gwen Aviles. It’s a helpful look at what it means to get educated on race and associated issues, as well as the education gaps that make reading lists a necessary starting point.

So I’d like to talk about some books and texts that could be helpful to anyone looking to learn more about racism, racist institutions, and the general racist history of the United States. Don’t think of this as just another “anti-racist reading list,” but rather a discussion – with context – about African American literature and scholarship that I’ve read and taught in my role as a literature professor. Two things to note about that role: I taught at a primarily white institution (PWI), and I am white myself. But, since these reading lists tend to be for white folk, I think I can offer some helpful educational experience in this context.

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2 Responses to A Reading List is Not a Syllabus

  1. Pingback: A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, part II | Sharyn Emery

  2. Pingback: A Reading List is Not a Syllabus, Part III | Sharyn Emery

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