HOBL – Hobble is my Highly Opinionated Book List, meant to give others the benefit of my reading into the subject of racism, historical and present-day, institutional and individual. In his second book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates tags me as one of “Those Who Think They Are White,” subsequently referred to as TWTTAW. We are hobbled by inability or unwillingness to face reality, and quick to defend ourselves against any hint of racism, but in fact, all TWTTAW are afflicted with racist beliefs and attitudes no matter how they may hate it. The culture we live in feeds and teaches this paradigm. On that premise I recognize white privilege is in our DNA—none of us (honkies?) can ever be free of it. It is our heritage, our birthright, our flesh and blood.
Witnessing Whiteness by Shelly Tochluk holds that our denial and detachment hobbles self-understanding, so talking about race is the first step toward freedom, while resistance to open conversation about it is a form of denial, illustrating the problem. I wanted to use this book to teach TWTTAW about themselves, but true to form, there was no interest. In this small city 95% “white,” only a handful of people took free copies of this challenging book. Why is it that Blacks talk about race among themselves every day, no matter where they are?
All my young life I wondered and worried, trying and failing to understand the gulf between races. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I saw Black neighbors every day but we seemed to move in a parallel world, despite living in such close proximity. In my senior year of high school my class went on a field trip to New York City, where I saw racial mixing and mingling for the first time in my life—here were the people I wanted to know, the ones who could tell me why my hometown restricted me to a White world.
Things changed starting in the 1950’s and I took joy in breaking the rules for TWTTAW, by visiting black bars and churches, dating Black brothers, and joining civil rights protests. During the sixties racial integration happened in our schools and our streets, where we demonstrated together, shared jail cells, and sometimes died together. Of course the killers were white, but in those years they could be almost anyone from the KKK to the next-door neighbor. Now a majority of the murderers wear uniforms and police the streets in neighborhoods of any city where African-Americans try to live. During the decades of the sixties through the nineties I read Black literature—Soul on Ice, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the complete works of James Baldwin, and many Black poets. All that is history. But reading has always been my first access to learning, and the books found in HOBL are life-changing, identity-creating, rare and precious to me.
Literary critics today are awed by Ta-Nehisi Coates almost as much as they were and still are awed by James Baldwin, who spoke about the fire next time and other apocalypticism . A volume of Baldwin’s collected essays sits on the table next to my primary chair for reading and meditation and nearby are two volumes by Ta-Nehisi. These are not books I have read and then put aside. They are food for thought day by day, endlessly, not just to help me quit hobbling in the chains of racism, but to satisfy a deep hunger for innovative, original, esthetically moving use of the English language. As much as I love English, I cannot find adequate words to convey my gratitude for these volumes and their authors.
I read while seated in an internal circle of writers, scholars, and autobiographers, some long gone, others alive, commenting on their own struggles and producing great literature. I see these members of the Wisdom Council picking up and handling the stuff of life, I hear their cries of outrage and the poetry of their love. Many others deserve to be listed here, so this HOBL will be a work in progress as long as I live unless and until TWTTAW confess, repent, and atone, which is to say, the Kingdom Come. Listings in order of my discovery.
Go Tell It on the Mountain. (50’s, found in my High School Library) Followed by everything else he had written by then, and continuing till his death. Master of our vocabulary, Baldwin could see multitudes of connections and relationships among words and images, stating them with such precision and power the prose becomes music and one watches the sentences dance into paragraphs, pages becoming symphonic movements, the voice echoing of eternity. Telling the world what it means to be Black in America, he also told us what it means to be White– in the portraits he drew of TWTTAW, I came to understand myself. Greatest of all, thanks to his towering intellect and courageous heart, I learned to believe in the human race.
The Beautiful Struggle. There’s no time to get “into” this book—the first pages drop the reader into night, pain, fear, and violence, described in Black English and heart-pounding action. Someone is beaten or killed in many of these pages—if the reader is one of TWTTAW like me, the word is breathless from shock. Coates tells in detail about the struggle which he calls beautiful because his people are so very beautiful to him, and he survives the struggle in body and spirit.
Between the World and Me. Critics compare this book with Baldwin’s Letter to My Nephew, much quoted in other writings such as The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander. Coates is writing to his son, and yes the book is dark and pessimistic, but I believe he sees that as the awful truth that his son needs to face in order to make a way in life. Black men in modern America are always in danger.
Witnessing Whiteness. Dr. Tochluk teaches in a liberal arts University in CA, where the iconic civil rights figure Anne Braden is part of the curriculum. Shelly did a book-length study of inter-racial relationships, drawing detailed portraits of people who worked, created, made love, or taught class together. Insights gained by intimate contact across racial divisions are laid out for others to see, and workshop activities constructed. My past friend Anne is held up as a model for students talking and learning how racism is part of us and why we fail to see it.
The New Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws, enacted soon after the War between the states, imposed literacy tests and poll taxes on Black voters, effectively denying them the vote. All citizenship rights belonged to whites only in that reign of terror. The new Jim Crow is distilled into the word felon now applied to blacks, especially males, by the drug laws and soaring rates of incarceration. Michele Alexander traced this system to demonize Black Americans, often for minor offenses, all the way back to Ronald Reagan, whose racist works put a new face on the old Jim Crow.
Just Mercy. This author is an attorney who took on the corrupt, tangled legal system in the modern South, especially the prisons housing “criminals” condemned to death.
His tireless work over many years deserves to be called an Odyssey, or journey into the depths of the “old boy network,” where white men connected in merciless pursuit of money and power, leaving trails of death. The so-called legal systems slammed doors in his face at every turn but he persevered, saving lives and damaging the grip of corruption on the poor and Black communities. A force for justice, one honest and fair-minded attorney presents a model of hope.
Towards the Other America. This author is co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and the book is really a manual for social action with BLM. It’s not armchair reading, but a volume to be taken in small chunks, with dog-eared pages and markers underlining acronyms, names, and principles. Any White who is honestly trying to become an Ally will be challenged and excited by these pages, but should start by accepting BLM as the new civil rights movement, led by the diverse American population of a new age.