The Six Books All ‘White Allies’ Should Read

To truly call yourself a white ally, you must commit to becoming a lifelong learner, but these reads will help get you going on the right track.

books on race

About once a year, I end up in conversation with a white person who sees a patently racist act being perpetrated in the news and feels like it is time for them to do something to help. I am the comfortable guy to ask, often because they have tried to engage with a person of color and their ham-fisted approach to the conversation shut it down before they got the answers they were seeking.

They see my family and assume that I am a safe person to ask. After all, my family is transracial, I live and shop in Detroit proper and I generally seem to be comfortable interacting in the African American community. What they do not know is the journey I took to get where I am at. They do not understand that learning to be an ally is a lifelong journey full of missteps, uncomfortable conversations and hours upon hours of self-reflection. 

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It is the self-reflection part that is the hardest, mostly because so much of our nation’s history has been whitewashed and we all have so much to learn. Challenging years of history classes is exhausting, worthwhile work. If you are willing to take on that challenge, below are a few books that I recommend to anyone who wants to kickstart their journey to becoming a better ally for the African American community. 

Keep in mind, it will still be important to listen to African American voices, to believe their stories, to create your own plan for self-development. This is a journey that will last a lifetime, especially if you are doing it with the hope of helping create a world where we can live in greater harmony with all of God’s children. I pray you will take the first step with me by turning a few hundred pages.      

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle

My grandmother was an erudite woman. When I was in college and struggling through an early English literature class, she walked me through Beowulf with a knowledge that rivaled my professor’s. She had an amazing command of literature and history yet she never heard the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet’s struggle to own a house despite having relatives that lived within a few streets of where Sweet’s white neighbors rioted to keep his own family from moving. 

Her experience was not unique. For many years we labored under a system that wanted to bury this history in hopes that it would finally be forgotten. Boyle’s book holds a special significance to me because it was one of the few times my grandmother and I had a raw, constructive conversation about race.

It is also an important read because people see Detroit today and want easy answers to why the city still struggles economically. Boyle does a fantastic job of making plain that these struggles have roots that are well over a century old. Such deep roots are not severed easily.  

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

Thomas Jefferson is often held on a pedestal in our history books for his role as one of our nation’s founding fathers, and he’s heralded as a champion for liberty as the third president of the United States. It is still unacceptable in many circles to acknowledge that he was a slave owner or that one of the women he enslaved, Sally Hemmings, gave birth to at least six of his children. While it was an open secret during his life, the historians running Monticello in Virginia did not acknowledge it anywhere on the historic property until 2018. 

This book by Gordon-Reed put pressure on historians to start talking about a taboo subject in early American history: the conflicting nature of Jefferson’s calls for liberty while denying it to his own children. It is also a great introduction into the power dynamics of slavery, hopefully shattering any notion you have of the happy lives of slaves. 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

In the preface to her book, Alexander writes, “I am also writing it for another audience – those who have been struggling to persuade their friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or other political representatives that something is eerily familiar about the way our criminal justice system operates, something that looks and feels a lot like an era we supposedly left behind, but who have lacked the facts and data to back up their claims.”

While this is a good primer on the laws enacted to keep the impact of Jim Crow in effect even after the statutes were deemed illegal, this book’s real power is in the work it does to tell us how awfully destructive America’s war on drugs has been for the African American community. 

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

While the Great Migration ended almost 50 years ago, its legacy can be strongly felt in cities around America. By telling the stories of three people who migrated from the south, Wilkerson does a masterful job of ensuring you understand how heart-wrenching the decision to leave for a better future was for 6 million African Americans. 

The stories are told through the eyes of people who migrated to different cities, via different means and in three distinct eras of the Great Migration. With this approach, Wilkerson will help you understand exactly why this period of African American history was more a migration to another country than it was a simple move to another part of America.

The Autobiography of Malcom X: As Told to Alex Haley and The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson

For the record, Dr. Rev. King never wrote a complete autobiography. Carson acknowledges this and notes the autobiography is really a compilation of many of King’s written works, including published and unpublished essays, sermons and letters.

I recommend reading both books because they provide a context to the civil rights movement that we gloss over with our annual celebrations of King’s legacy. Once a year, cherry-picked quotes from King adorn our social media feeds. Even worse, we do not talk about Malcolm X because he was too angry, too Black and too Muslim. 

By ignoring and distorting the legacy of both men, we rob ourselves of the chance to understand another chapter in the evolving story of how America became the land of the free – for some. We lose the ability to understand the tactics of modern political activism. We delude ourselves into believing there is only one side to this complex period of American history. 

David Lingholm is a Detroit-based writer. His blog, Adopting Fatherhood, details many of his experiences as a white parent in a transracial family. @davidlingholm

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