When my white friends ask me what to read about racial injustice in America, I always include novels.
Of course, theological and historical works are critical. But good literature has an almost unmatched power to spark empathetic and imaginative possibilities in our mind and hearts. Good literature invites us, through our imagination, to incarnate in the story of another for the sake of understanding, radical Jesus-like love, and solidarity.If we are willing, our bookshelves and our readings lists can have an incarnational bent.
Good Literature Creates Possibility
The skilled public speaker knows telling a story is nearly always more memorable than dishing out stats. Statistics alone don’t stir people. Stories do. A stat is information interpreted for your audience to think about; a story details incarnated experience for your audience to identify with.
When I taught African American literature, I watched my students experience literature’s invitation to empathy while reading the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. These stories of determination in the face of slavery’s dehumanization stirred them.
When Douglass laments the pain caused in his soul by not being able to even know his own birthdate, readers can’t help but imagine what critic Martha Nussbaum calls the “link of possibility.” What if that were me?
This is the part of the power of both narrative and literature: “It focuses on the possible like an invitation for readers to wonder about themselves,” Nussbaum observes, “[u]nlike most historical works, literary works typically invite their readers to put themselves in the place of people of many different kinds and to take on their experiences.”
Because of its ability to produce “links of possibility,” the novel is a vital asset in the never-ending work for justice.
This is why abolitionists leveraged literary narratives of Douglass’s Narrative and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl to warm the cold consciences of Americans to the plight of African slaves. Many in the 19th century shifted their view of slavery through the awareness and possibility presented in these literary slave narratives.
Love, Justice, and Literature
In order to love our neighbor as ourselves, the vital work to which Christ calls us, we must know and identify with our neighbor.
While no substitute for true relationships in meaningful community, literature is one way to consider the lived experience of others from a perspective outside of our own.
Working for racial justice requires prayers to be prayed, rebukes to be given, bold sermons to be proclaimed, comments to be called out, attitudes to be repented of, restitution to be made, and much more. This is lifelong work. But I think we’d do well to remember that a valuable piece of the work includes novels to be read, particularly for those beginning to see the racial injustices long present in our country.
Novels can open doors of understanding, possibility, and Christian love. If we are willing, our bookshelves and our readings lists can have an incarnational bent. They can put us in an empathic stance from which we can more readily be moved by the Spirit to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Reach out to your local independent bookstore or find a black-owned one online to buy some novels to read this summer and incarnate in the experience of others. Here’s a short list of my fiction recommendations to get you started:
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright (short story/novella collection)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
(And two excellent non-fiction reads I must recommend: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass.)