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Reading List: Understanding Racism in America

June 3, 2020 - As protests continue across the country demanding an end to injustices and police brutality against the black community, many are turning to books to educate themselves about the history and current state of racism in the United States. There are many great resources online such as a book list in the New York Times compiled in 2019 by Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, that provides an overview of race by decade.

Below, the Department of English at the University of Utah has put together an additional list of books, graphic novels and poetry to help readers better understand and further explore racism in America.


Angela Davis: An Autobiography and Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by Angela Y. Davis

Davis's biography relays her trial and lessons learned from participating in freedom movements. The other is a more recent collection of her writings and interviews on the global freedom struggle.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

An exploration of America’s racial history.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

An early critique of how progressive white movements espouse inclusion and equity but don’t actually support black people.

Black, Red, and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territory by Art Burton

Talks about major black and Native American figures of the Old West, including Deputy Marshall Bass Reeves.

Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldua

Focuses on the US/Mexico border cultures. It’s a passionate and eye-opening discussion of both physical and metaphorical borders and of the cultural/linguistic hybridity of “borderzones.”

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Explores racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in 21st century daily life and in the media

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Two essays that discuss the relationship between oppression, religion and justice. It’s a precursor for Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me.

The Gangster We are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy

A lyrical, elliptical novel meditating on family and refugee trauma.

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

A memoir-in-essays about the author’s mixed-race family.

How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev

Further discusses the construction of whiteness.

How Racism Takes Place by George Lipsitz

Breaks down how space, particularly urban spaces, are encoded with racial assumptions and policies. It also points to how communities have reimagined these spaces for liberation.

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Taylor interviews founding members of the black feminist collective, as well as contemporary Black Lives Matters activists, to get their take on the work needed for a just world.

The Invention of the White Race, Vols. 1 & 2 by Theodore W. Allen

Goes into whiteness as a social construct in the Americas and the role the Bacon Rebellion played in this.

Lies My Teachers Told Me: Everything Your American History Teacher Got Wrong by James Loewen

Contests the mainstream account of American history, particularly with regard to race.

The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt

A fictional account of the 1898 Wilmington Riot in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

A collection of essays that considers Asian American identity, racism and intersectionality.

The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore

Talks about King Philip's War as instrumental in the shaping of a sense of national identity among the citizens of Colonial America.

A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson by Mary Rowlandson

An early captivity narrative set during King Philip's War.

Native Speaker and A Gesture of Life by Chang Rae Lee

Both books explore issues of transgenerational and transnational trauma, racism and assimilation.

No-No Boy by John Okada

Explores the costs and consequences of assimilation, as well as the complex intersections of patriotism, loyalty and race in the Japanese American community during WWII.

Orientalism by Edward Said

A classic academic study of how cultural discourses create racial and cultural stereotypes.

Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison

Considers the problematic and often deliberately racist ways that American literature has depicted the presence – visible or invisible – of African Americans in many canonical novels.

Also, Beloved.

Reconstruction by Eric Foner

Talks about the Reconstruction era of American history and the circumstances which led to its failure, as well as the consequences of that failure for people of color.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

Defines and explains the double consciousness that African Americans and – by extension – other minoritized identities are forced to experience.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Examines the legacy of the Vietnam War on both American citizens and post-1975 Vietnamese refugees to America, while also reconsidering the global political intersections of need and connections that people of color share.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The book deals with the Great Migration of African Americans to the North.

The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon

A study (and powerful statement) about the psychological effects of racism and colonialism

Graphic Novels

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

American Born Chinese by Gene Yang

Incognegro by Mat Johnson


Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Marilyn Chin, Tyehimba Jess, Wanda Coleman, Natasha Tretheway, Terrance Hayes, Eduardo C. Corral, Alberto Rios and Jericho Brown.

Their collections tackle issues of race, identity and the legacies of slavery and/or colonialism.

Their work can be found online at the Academy of American Poets or the Poetry Foundation. White poets who explore issues of racism and race include Martha Collins (Blue Front, in particular, and its examination of lynching and the racism in her own white family) and Jake Adam York, whose collection Abide considers the relationship between White and Black communities via music.

Special thanks to Vincent Cheng, Distinguished Professor of English, Paisley Rekdal, professor of English, David Roh, associate professor of English, Crystal Rudds, assistant professor of English, and Andrew Shephard, assistant professor of English, for their recommendations.


Last Updated: 12/5/22