Open books, open minds: Race, racial justice topics now huge among readers

It’s one thing for a recent New York Times national bestseller list for nonfiction to feature seven of the top 10 titles focusing on race.

But it’s quite another for Columbus, a small Midwestern town in a county with a Black population of only 2.3 percent, to show that literally half of the local, independent, corner bookstore’s best-selling nonfiction releases — those to be listed in the July 26 Republic — are about race or some element of the Black experience.

Book sellers and librarians here and elsewhere say the recent, violent deaths of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of police and others across the country such as Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd have triggered anger, public protests, rallies, and something much quieter — reading.

That is, reading books about Black history, centuries of minority oppression, why it’s tough for whites to discuss racism, how the criminal justice system allegedly controls Blacks, and how to be an anti-racist, among other topics.

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Those and related racial justice books have dominated bestseller lists for nearly a couple of months now — and the local Viewpoint Books co-owner and Bartholomew County Public Library reference staffers say there’s no sign the trend is slowing in what seems to be an angry America wanting to learn more about injustice.

E-books hot

Viewpoint Co-owner Beth Stroh said many of her store customers, most of whom are white, tell her they intentionally choose to purchase books that represent views that are different from what they may be accustomed to hearing. Hence, white customers are reaching for works by Black authors such as Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”) and Ibram X. Kendi (“How to Be an Anti-Racist”).

“I think their goal is to read as much as they can on an issue and not to rely on casual conversations, anecdotal conversations, or even the news media,” said Stroh, who calls herself “a person of (white) privilege” in these times. “I realize that the opinions I have had have been formed largely by people not much different than I am.”

At the Bartholomew County Public Library, reference librarian Robert Mixner mentioned that growing e-book requests for many racial justice titles sometimes have outpaced the availability of the works.

“The desire for justice and equality is something we always should have,” Mixner said. “But because of the COVID shutdowns, there have been fewer things outside of the home to pull on people’s attention. And that created an opportunity (for reading).

“So we recently decided to ramp up our spending on some of our e-books. We are always purchasing. But we try to follow the demand.”

When the the library recently was closed, electronic copies were the only books available. Mixner figures that “How to Be an Anti-Racist” has been among the library’s most in-demand title in recent months. And he expects the public’s interest in such matters to remain.

“Right now, this looks like one of the reading trends with some real staying power,” Mixner said.

‘Never stop learning’

Columbus resident Shirley Trapp, long an advocate of racial justice and Black awareness and education, has bought several titles recently dealing with the Black experience. She recently purchased “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own” by Princeton African American Studies Professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. The book discusses what people today can learn from black activist Baldwin’s civil rights struggles and frustration half a century ago.

Even as a Black woman with a keen sense of minority history, Trapp said books on Black culture and perspective are a must for Black residents.

“You never stop learning,” Trapp said. “And a book can give you a different perspective, an ‘aha’ moment of insight, or some knowledge you didn’t possess before.”

The Rev. Johnnie Edwards, president of the Columbus/Bartholomew County Area NAACP Branch of the NAACP, said that knowing that so many people, including white residents, are reading and buying such books gives him added hope for racial harmony and understanding.

“Oh, of course, it does,” Edwards said. “Knowledge is power.

“The more information that people have, the better prepared we all can be to come to the table for dialogue.”

Edwards pastors a small, multicultural church in North Vernon. He acknowledged the idea that digesting a book challenging a person’s racial views in private can be more comfortable for some readers fearful of being singled out by others in a conversation as maybe racist or wrong.

“Taking the opportunity to read the perspective of someone who has lived that perspective gives a person a different viewpoint to consider,” Edwards said. “Therefore, when a reader enters into a conversation in his or her social circle, they then can approach it with a different feeling and a different understanding of what has taken place in someone else’s life.

“So many of these books offer a viewpoint that some people may not have had the chance to see before.”

Columbus resident Brooke Hawkins, who is white, has filled part of her Facebook posts in the past few weeks with information about Juneteenth and Black Lives Matter. And she, along with Tracy Heaton de Martinez, is soon launching a local book read group on “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” The effort, with a start date still to be announced, will be through the Women’s Giving Circle of The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.

“I am interested in helping non-racist white people in our community change what is in their hearts about racism and help them understand current ways of thinking about the system of racism,” Hawkins said. “The days of ‘I don’t see color’ are long gone, and yet I read that nearly every day in my Facebook feed. This has to change.”

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Nine of the 15 top nonfiction bestsellers at the local, independent Viewpoint Books relate to race relations:

  • “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,” Robin Diangelo 
  • “Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World & Become a Good Ancestor,: Layla Saad 
  • “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” Ibram X. Kendi 
  • “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America & Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” Eddie S. Glaude
  • “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” Austin Channing Brown
  • “So You Want to Talk About Race,” Ijeoma Oluo (P)
  • “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Beverly Daniel Tatum 
  • “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” Ibram X. Kendi