I was watching a webinar recently about creating an anti-racist workplace, and one of the things that was talked about was reading fiction for empathy and understanding. We have shared a lot on this blog about how books can be windows or doorways, where the reader can look at or even enter into spaces that are unlike what they experience, and therefore can learn and empathize with others who have different experiences than those of the reader. This was what the presenter of the webinar was discussing as well, and during the presentation she said something that stuck with me. She said to build understanding and break down prejudice, “we can’t only read Black pain, we must also read Black joy.”
So many of our most well-known books with Black authors and characters are about Black pain. These are books like An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, where a Black couple has their lives and relationship torn apart by a wrongful conviction due to the race of the main characters. Or The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, where a young Black man is murdered by the police simply for being perceived as a threat when he wasn’t. These are the books that we see on bestseller lists, these are the books that win awards, and because they are so well known, these are some of the first books that many readers are likely to read with Black main characters and authors. And it’s not bad that these books exist and are popular, not in the slightest! These books provide insight into the emotions and effects of being discriminated against, and often reflect real life experiences that Black people in the United States go through. They teach us about how others feel based on our actions, and for Black readers, these books reaffirm they are not alone and the discrimination they face is not invisible.
But when these are the only or the main books by Black authors we praise, the ones we amplify the voices of, and the ones we read time and time again, it paints the picture that to be Black is to be in pain. It says that we as readers are only listening to Black stories of tragedy, and this mindset and representation can lead to stereotyping or drawing conclusions about the upbringing or circumstances or opinions of the Black people in our lives and our communities.
We should publish and read these hard books that reflect the real challenges of being a minority race in America, but as a society we should also be supporting and reading books that show the joy in Black communities, families, cultures, hobbies, traditions, and all the wonderful other experiences Black people can have. This means celebrating books that show Black characters as the chosen one to save the day in a magical fantasy series like Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, or the musician turned murder investigator in a cozy mystery like Murder in G Major by Alexia Gordon, or fun and loveable lead in a carefree romantic comedy like Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert. Non-Black readers seeing Black characters in all genres and in all stages of life increases empathy and understanding, and Black readers seeing characters like them in books about their joy and community and success provides a direly needed positive outlook and opportunity for connection. Black people have a vast array of experiences in the United States, both positive and negative, and when we only read Black pain, we only get half the story.
For some suggestions of books to read that celebrate Black joy, check out this list!