February is Black History Month. As a late-stage boomer, I got almost none of this history in school, despite growing up in a majority Black city (Philadelphia) and a big academic focus on American History in my youth. I’ve tried to make up for this appalling lack of knowledge in the past few years by reading some excellent writing, and I’d like to pass some of these recommendations on to all of you. I did not read these all in one month or even a single year. All are incredibly valuable.
It’s our responsibility as human beings in the world to help heal the world. For us at DCYF, it’s a core part of our agency mission. Race has been used to divide us in America for hundreds of years. Understanding what happened is why we read history, and good history gets deep into the underlying causes of what happened. These are great history books.
Part of our expectations for all employees is that they do some personal work that makes sense to them to understand racial equity and social justice in America. Reading any of these would be a good start. I like paper books (late-stage boomer, remember), but there are videos and podcasts to learn from as well.
The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee is the current RESJ book club book. It’s awesome. The author’s main thesis is that white communities have historically blocked investments that would benefit their own community members rather than share the resource. A particular example in the book reminded me of something from my childhood, and I had an amazing conversation with my mother about the O’Connor Pool, about two blocks from my house in Philadelphia. The pool was located inside an Irish community and close to the border of a Black community and a more mixed gentrifying center city neighborhood where we lived. The locals would throw broken glass into the pool if any members of the Black community (kids I went to school with, for example) showed up to swim. The pool had to be closed to everyone to clean the bottom. This wasn’t the deep South, it was South Philadelphia in the 1960s. Makes McGhee’s point.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is the epic story of America’s great migration when six million African Americans moved from the rural South to the North for both opportunity and to try to escape persecution. This book won a Pulitzer prize for the author, and she deserved it. An amazing book that weaves together the experience of actual people with historical statistics and, you know, history. I loved it. It made me understand why some things were the way they were in Philly during my childhood. The story is good too. It was a book I read in only a few sittings, even though it is quite thick. I got sucked in by the power of both the story and the language.
Some of the images of incredible degradation in Florida stick with me today, several years after I first read the book. Black people in the South faced daily humiliation, plus incredible danger from lynching and other extreme violence from angry white mobs. The George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery murders are the modern manifestation of lynching – extrajudicial killings without due process. The NAACP estimates that almost 4,800 people were lynched from 1882 to 1968.
Caste, Isabel Wilkerson’s second book, is a more detailed look at how race in America is much like a caste system, with strict hierarchical levels and the dysfunction associated with it. As with all good writing, there are stories about real people, but this book is a more challenging read, and is more structural and analytical than The Warmth of Other Suns. I found it more important to my thinking, and less like a walk through history I hadn’t known.
This book made me think. It has given me a framework to organize my thinking about why the powerful culture does what it does. It’s worth the work to read. Her use of language is exquisite, and that alone is enough pleasure to recommend the book for.
DCYF is responsible for a small part of the youth incarceration system in Washington, and understanding how law enforcement works and why it is set up the way it is seemed like an important exercise to me when I took the job as DCYF Secretary. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is the hardest book to read on this short list. Hard to read, but it’s amazing. The core argument is that white populations in America created a series of alternatives to slavery once that was eliminated in the Civil War. Formalizing Jim Crow laws was one step, and using law enforcement to put a “felon” tag on Black people allowed the same kind of control of the body and economic exploitation that slavery had. Formal Jim Crow was replaced with the “war on drugs” and other criminalization of Black people to deny economic growth and particularly to deny political power over white people. Think about “legal financial obligations” as another – one reason we are working to eliminate the parent pay statute in JR this year. Labeling someone (vastly disproportionately Black men) as a felon allows the same discrimination that the civil rights experience in the 60s made illegal to do when based explicitly on race. Alexander makes the case.
She pummels you with relentless data and stories that are painful to read. It is impossible to argue against her with a straight face, though many people try. When you are done, you have a renewed commitment to our work preparing the young people we care for to succeed in the world, and more importantly, preventing many of the traumas that our young people suffer from. Alexander’s argument is that that’s not enough, and we have to change the world at an even deeper level. I agree with her. You will too, after you read this.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me is a short book written as a letter to his son. It’s a book I didn’t have to write to my son because he doesn’t have to experience the world the way young Black men do. I never had to have “the talk” with him about interacting with the police. You can’t read this one quickly; you have to savor the language. You have to think about what he is saying and how it would impact his child (and yours.) This is a deeply intellectual and very, very strong piece written by an expert. I remember being excited to get the book after reading many of his articles in The Atlantic Monthly. I wasn’t disappointed. Coates is also the author of many of the Black Panther comic books published by Marvel Comics. I admit that these are a guilty pleasure, as I’m sure it was for him to write them. Maybe in my next life I can be a writer as powerful as Coates and get to write comic books.
To read more about the unjust incarceration of Black men, you can read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Or, you can watch the movie, which is also terrific. I listened to it as a book on tape (actually, a book on phone, but that’s the modern world…) read by the author while I commuted to and from Olympia. It’s the story of how good lawyers can create justice in the world. It’s uplifting. The space for creating justice is large, as you will have learned from some of the earlier books on this list, with many, many Black men sitting unjustly on death row. The work Stevenson does is one of the core reasons many states have repealed their death sentence laws in recent years. My conviction against the death penalty is a little deeper than the argument here. As a lifelong Quaker, I have the simple belief that there is that of God in every person and that it is not for us to take the life of one of them. The unjustness of the criminal justice system is another reason, if you need one.
March, by the civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis is a set of three graphic novels exploring the civil rights era with a power that words alone can’t convey. A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are three books worth of them here. You could get a middle school kid interested in the civil rights era with this collection, it’s so powerful. If you know any middle school kids, you understand how powerful these must be. I was driving home from Olympia one day and heard on the radio that Rep. Lewis was speaking at the Bellevue Library, of all places. I screeched off the road and worked my way into a packed room where he was doing the book tour for these books. The ability to shake his hand and get an autographed set of these is an experience I will treasure my whole life.
You don’t understand the Edmund Pettis Bridge until you’ve experienced it in graphic form. It makes your heart hurt.
Any of these books are great. You’d enjoy reading any or all of them. More importantly, you will be a person who thinks more deeply about the world and your place in it.
Ross Hunter | Secretary
Department of Children, Youth, and Families
Office 360-407-7909 | Cell 360-515-8972