An anti-racist reading list for a quarantine summer

A student recalls spending their summer reading anti-racist books to become a culturally responsive educator.

Listen to the author read their essay.

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended my summer plans, I felt directionless.

Lost without an internship or classes to take up my time, I dreaded the perpetual boredom of a summer spent absentmindedly rewatching “The Office” between shifts at work. As someone who needs a task to keep them busy, I was sure this lackluster summer would be unbearably unexciting.

After I submitted the final paper for my American Romanticism class in early May, I thought back to all the novels, short stories and poems I read throughout the semester from authors like Edgar Allan Poe to Emily Dickinson. As an education and English major, I fell in love with the idea of teaching these texts, and with an entire summer to spare, I decided to start reading more books I might be required to teach in the future.

I was entranced by the engaging prose of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the first novel I read that summer, to the point where I couldn’t put the book down and brought it with me to work to read on my breaks. I did the same thing for my next two novels, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

As I flipped through the pages of my next novel, Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” I was oblivious to the common denominator among these authors: they were all white men. Maybe I was conditioned to not consider this because of how the literary canon, the books considered most important to read and most often taught in schools, was almost exclusively filled with straight, white men. 

All that changed on May 25 when I, along with millions of other people, watched a video of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, lying with his neck pressed underneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Floyd’s unfortunate death sparked protests in every state in the nation, which would be followed throughout the summer by demonstrations over the unlawful shooting of Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Walter Wallace Jr. and countless other Black Americans at the hands of an unjust police state. The protests were accompanied by a nationwide reckoning on racial injustice, fueling discourse on defunding the police from my Instagram feed to my everyday conversations.

I’d argue with close friends in person and online about the Black Lives Matter protests and the reality of racism in this country, trying to remind them that Black people are killed by the police or incarcerated at disproportionately high rates. 

I wanted to disrupt the racial homogeneity and racist assumptions of the literary canon in my teaching.

As a non-white person of color, I had the privilege to engage in these conversations, but what was I doing for my future students if the only books I’d read that summer were written by white men? What justice was I doing to them if I was only reading books by these authors? And if I only read white authors, how much would I be reinforcing the racial exclusivity of the literary canon by not addressing the broad range of literature written by people of color?

Before I’d finished “Catch-22,” I knew I had to switch up what — and who — I was reading right away. I needed to read a more diverse range of authors and topics, but I also needed to unlearn my own biases and better understand the ways racial injustice affects every aspect of our society.

So from that moment on, I made a commitment to be an anti-racist educator. I wanted to disrupt the racial homogeneity and racist assumptions of the literary canon in my teaching.

The first step was to overhaul my reading list entirely.

The first few books I read were ones I’d seen on anti-racist reading lists online: Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me” and Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.”

Kendi also wrote my favorite book I’d read this summer, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which charted the history of racial injustice from North American colonization to the current day. The book was dense, disturbing and indisputably essential reading because Kendi reminded me that American literature is influenced by the racial attitudes of their time and that my teaching needs to reckon with that fact.

I was constantly reading Black authors like Angela Davis, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, to the point that I spent every lunch break or free moment at work studying their books, hiding behind an espresso machine as I read Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” before the next customer came to my register.

But two of the best books I read this summer were about education itself: Jonathan Kozol’s “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America” and Christopher Emdin’s “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education.” Kozol and Emdin challenged me to examine my own biases about teaching in urban schools — as well as the education system’s racist policies — and pushed me to fight against them in how I design lessons and manage my classroom. 

In my fall semester education classes, I’ve been referencing Kozol and Emdin as influences in my teaching practice when writing discussion posts and final papers, and I’ve spent this semester collecting more books on education to read during winter break.

It was clear that while I couldn’t change the diversity of the authors I’m required to teach because of state and school district guidelines, I can challenge those requirements altogether.

These authors made me want to be a better, more culturally responsive teacher because their work related to my own experience reading mostly white authors in a majority-white school district growing up. When Kozol or Emdin provided advice and ideas designed to disrupt that racial exclusivity, I smiled and set a sticky note on the page as a reminder for my future lesson planning.

Later that summer, when I returned to reading some canonical texts, like Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” I was intentionally analyzing their lack of diversity and racist undertones. It was clear that while I couldn’t change the diversity of the authors I’m required to teach because of state and school district guidelines, I can challenge those requirements altogether.

This semester in one of my classes, I’m creating an anti-racist unit plan focused on applying critical race theory to canonical works of American literature. In the next year and a half, I’ll be conducting undergraduate research on developing a canonical counter-curriculum, or an approach to teaching required texts in culturally responsive ways, and I’m hoping to find ways to disrupt the racial exclusivity of the books we deem as essential reading.

When the spring semester ended, I didn’t know how to spend my summer. By the start of the fall semester, I’d read 20 books in just three months — with more to read this winter — and my passion for teaching wasn’t just reinvigorated: it was redefined entirely.

I don’t want to just be an educator: I want to be an anti-racist educator, and I’ll spend each day learning how to be a better one.

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