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Reading Black Writers To Unlearn Racism: A Peoria Bookseller's Guide

Jeff Watts/American University via AP
In this undated photo provided by American University, Ibram X. Kendi, author of "Stamped From The Beginning" and "Antiracist Baby," poses for a portrait.

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have renewed conversations about systemic racism and inequality in the United States. This is a time white people can listen and learn from the lived experience of black Americans. A Peoria bookseller is trying to help people do just that.

Jessica Stephenson owns Lit. on Fire Books on Main Street. She has created reading guides for those who want to confront their privilege and unpack their racial biases.

Stephenson calls the lists “Anti-Racist Education For White People.” They include biographies, historical non-fiction, essay collections, and other works by black writers.

Credit Lit. On Fire Books / Bookshop.org
A screenshot of some of the titles on the "Anti-Racist Education For White People" list.

Stephenson is white, trying to educate other white people while centering black voices. She said she wants to encourage people who want to be better allies to do the work themselves.

“A big part of choosing anti-racism is also choosing not to go to your black friends, your black community members and say ‘Hey, educate me.’ It is our job to use the resources that are available to us to take that burden from their shoulders and actually take time to educate ourselves," she said.

Stephenson said black writers have already put in the time to unpack racism. And there’s a title for everyone, depending on how they learn best.

“We know that some people learn better through empathy. I would suggest a biography, in that case — something that’s a first-hand account of the oppression that one person has faced," she said. "Other people will learn better by having a workbook-style, call to action kind of reading.”

Stephenson said some might do better with historical texts, but each genre provides different tools to understand racism and how to work to dismantle it.

Stephenson offers a starting point for white people — and even non-black people of color — who are feeling lost or anxious about jumping in.

“My first suggestion is a book that hasn’t been out for too long, but the movement has been around for quite a while," she said. "It’s called ‘Me and White Supremacy.’”

The newly-published work by Layla F. Saad is a 28-day challenge to combat racism. Stephenson said it’s based on Saad’s Instagram initiative of the same name.

“As far as quick action and easy, step-by-step, jump in and do the book rather than read the book — this is the book that I suggest," she said.

Next up, she recommends works of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi: “Stamped from the Beginning” and “How to be an Anti-Racist.”

“‘Stamped from the Beginning' really walks you through the beginning of anti-Black racism — and it doesn’t shy away from internalized racism, either," she said. "For people who want to see how racist thought has affected the thinkers of our time, this is a great book to look into.”

For a quick, impactful read, Stephenson suggests "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin.

“It’s short, it’s heart-wrenching," she said. "It is a deep look into the life of a gay black man growing up in Harlem. It consists of two letters, and I would say James Baldwin has a way of writing that it just grabs you. You cannot look away.”

She said to then follow-up with Jesmyn Ward's "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race." It's a collection of contemporary essays continuing the conversation started by Baldwin's work.

These are just a few of the titles featured on the "Anti-Racist Education For White People" guides. Stephenson also created lists of works by black poets and recommendations for parents trying to teach their kids about racism.

The lists are available on Lit. On Fire's Facebook and Bookshop pages. But Stephenson said they're only meant to be a research tool. She said the goal is to amplify black voices and businesses.

“If people want, they can look at my list and then use those to write down what titles they’re interested in, and then find those black-owned bookstores and buy them there," she said.

Stephenson recommends Semicolon Bookstore in Chicago as an Illinois-based option. She said many around the country sell online, though buyers might need patience.

“A lot of anti-racist reading materials are back-ordered right now, because the outpouring for support of black voices and for white people who are choosing now as their time to jump in and do the work themselves — which they should be doing — have sold out left and right," she said. "We have so many books backlogged that we can’t get in stock in stores. Our warehouses are out of stock.”

But the wait is worthwhile, she said.

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