By Adam Schendel
In the past two weeks, books written by African American authors about race and the role of racism in society have become runaway bestsellers, now occupying nearly every spot on bestseller lists, with many bookstores running out of print editions.
The surge in popularity of these books is a national phenomenon, and local readers who frequent the La Crosse Public Library and area bookstores are no exception.
As the U.S. has experienced unprecedented protests and uprisings in hundreds of cities since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the national conversation has focused on the lived experiences of African Americans and the legacy of racism across American history in shaping the persisting racial inequalities that have led to this present moment. Americans have turned to reading to understand these issues, and sales of books written by black authors about racism have skyrocketed.
Dawn Wacek, Youth Services Manager at the La Crosse Public Library, says that the library has seen an increase in requests for these books by patrons and parents in particular, who are seeking ways to start conversations about race with their children. The same goes for local bookstores, as Beth Hartung of Pearl Street Books in La Crosse reports that “a higher percentage of our sales are going toward books that promote antiracism, social justice, and equity” and that customers are seeking books written by authors who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), which she also says is a “wonderful and simple way to help support BIPOC authors.” Eddy Nix, owner of Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua, has also seen an “explosion” of online orders for these books at his business.
Many of the books in demand from La Crosse readers are the same ones topping bestseller lists, such as “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, which provides guidance on actively opposing racism and supporting social policies that produce antiracist outcomes, and “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo, about how white people can overcome emotions of discomfort about race to help achieve actual racial justice. If you’re looking to check out either of these books from the local public library, as of this writing, you’ll have to get in line behind 30 other people to reserve a physical copy of Kendi’s book, and behind 66 people for DiAngelo’s book.
Pearl Street Books has also had people seeking works by a wider variety of 20th century African American writers such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and poet Langston Hughes.
As for what La Crosse readers are hoping to learn from these books as residents of a city that is over 90% white and less than 2% African American, Wacek suggests that people are trying to break down their own intrinsic racism, going on to say that, “All of us were raised in this culture and learned a history that didn’t prepare us to examine our privilege or didn’t teach us the realities faced by our communities of color and these books inform in a way that allows us to learn and practice some self-reflection.”
Nix has similar sentiments and says that readers are trying to better themselves by learning more about their upbringing and education which “justifies and promotes racism” and Hartung believes this literature is analogous to windows and mirrors in that they can offer a window into the experience of someone different from ourselves, or a mirror when they reflect perspectives already more like our own.
Perhaps the most fundamental question regarding antiracist literature and books about race is how their popularity among La Crosse readers right now has the potential to change the thinking of those reading them and the community at large as a result.
No doubt, reading on its own is informative but rendered impotent without any sort of followup action to effect change in society to produce actual outcomes of justice and equality. But the local booksellers and public librarian interviewed for this piece are optimistic about the benefit of so many people taking the initiative to read books on anti-racism and race written by BIPOC authors.
Hartung of Pearl Street Books says that books change people, and antiracist literature can change this community by making people more self-aware, reflective, and empathetic. At the library, Wacek believes these books will benefit younger generations who read them by provoking them to question the narratives offered by those in power and enhancing their critical thinking abilities.
“If their teachers aren’t talking about the Tulsa massacre [of 1921] or [teaching] how redlining worked to disenfranchise whole communities, why not? And how do these things affect our political world now?,” Wacek said.
She also always advises families to read books by and about BIPOC that have universal themes outside of the topics of race and civil rights, such as fantasy stories, school tales, and all other genres intrinsic to storytelling.
From Viroqua, Nix suggests that while great books always have the potential to change lives and whole communities, this historical moment after the tragedy of George Floyd’s killing is unique: “This public lynching has pried open the blinders that allow us to normally live without seeing the injustice and racism all around us and inside [ourselves]. We are in a moment of crisis and opportunity, and education through books, slowly read and digested, has a tremendous potential to build the community we want.”