[BOOKLIST] Ten For The Times: A Social Justice Booklist To Keep Us Moving Forward

A protest held by many people of different races and genders, behind a waist-high temporary mental fence. Several of the people are holding handmade signs with protest slogans like BLM, Justice for George Floyd, and White Silence Is Violence

Where do I even begin with today, fellow readers? I woke up suddenly at 5 am Korean time on April 20th, only to find that the Derek Chauvin verdict would be read in an hour. I fixed myself a cup of tea and sat, thinking, waiting. I wasn’t expecting much–the USA has done a remarkable job of suppressing and subverting Black people’s belief in legal justice. Still, against all anticipated odds, Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts leveled against him. At 6:15 am with a rapidly cooling cup of tea in my hands, I burst into tears of pure relief. I didn’t realize how exhausting the anticipation of renewed grief, pain, and anger as well as worry for my friends and family still in the US had been, really. Knowing that Chauvin would face consequences–unlike the killers of Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and countless more–didn’t lift the weight of injustice, but it did give me a few crumbs of hope to go with my morning tea. I finished my cup of tea and went into the workday with a renewed sense of…something. Not justice, not vindication, and certainly not peace about the current state of things in the USA. But there was a certain sense of hope that Chauvin’s conviction might be an axis upon which the state of over-policing and race-based brutality in the US might finally turn, and change.

Then, two hours into the work day, I learned that a 15 year old girl named Ma’Khia Bryant had been shot to death by police in Columbus, Ohio, in an arguably botched response to a 911 call.


I avoid writing explicitly about my own personal politics and experiences in political and social justice work here, for quite a few reasons. I prefer to let my offline actions speak for me in that regard–the internet is already too full of political and social clout chasers, and I am allergic to performative activism. But I do strongly advocate for justice and social change in the small ways that I can, in the US and in the world. To be clear, the Chauvin verdict is not justice–it is the bare minimum. Had there not been a global outcry and the very real threat of destruction of property and the system that owns much of it, there would probably have been no conviction, and that is not justice. It is, however, an impetus to continue working, continue campaigning, continue thinking and dreaming and building the better world that we are all capable of to honor the memories of those whose lives were unjustly stolen, and grudgingly acknowledged, by the world we have now.

Active community starts with strong interpersonal foundations, and the words of community activists are a critical building material. We need not only to look at the present systems, but also to the past, to the joists and slabs laid down by activists before us. We need to include the viewpoints of every part of our communities–every race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality and class, giving those who have been marginalized and oppressed at multiple intersections the largest voice. (If the people who have been treated the smallest are doing well–we all will be.) We need to give a place of honor to the voices of Black women, who have a history of using our words, our labor and our time to improve the world for everyone, not just ourselves. We need to include perspectives of disabled and neuro-atypical people, who bring insights about access and equity that many never think of. We need to learn from each other, but unfortunately, it’s a whole Panera bread out there and face to face meetings of folks who are like you and unlike you and form the best intersections of experience and ability and character are virtually impossible. Or rather, they’re virtually possible, but we’re all sick of Zoom meetings, right?

That’s where the books come in. I’ve put together a list of ten books that I feel have a forward-looking, progressive view of how to build the future of America. It includes memoirs, speeches, political treatises, a few classics and some very new and vital work. As always, I am not an expert. I’m just a person who reads a lot and thinks a lot with a blog. No shade or smoke in the comments, although snark is acceptable if it’s very, very smart and funny.

Without further ado and in no particular order…here’s ten for the times, a list of social justice books to keep us moving forward.

A blue book cover depicting a stylized moon against a dark blue sky and patterned, dark land.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, by Mariame Kaba(Haymarket Books, 2021)

This is one of the newest books on this list, having been released in February 2021. Written by Guinean-Congolese-American prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba, the book collects essays, interviews and reflections from the author’s lifelong work examining and decrying the US prison system, its inequities, and its gluttonous society-to-cell pipelines. Highlights of the book include a deconstruction of the Cyntoia Brown case (generally, Black women in the prison system are given primary support and attention in this book) and a remarkably soulful discussion of Darren Wilson, written just before the court decision to not convict him for the murder of Michael Brown. This is a simply written, emotionally challenging read. Find it here.

Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom To Heal Divides and Restore Balance, by Edgar Villanueva (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018)

Many of the inequities that the US prison system capitalizes on involve the uneven distribution of wealth, which is only one facet of what racial justice activist Edgar Villanueva gets into in this book. Utilizing methodologies from Indigenous models of community, he suggest alternative ways to view, use, and encourage philanthropy and social finance. Ultimately he encourages more equal distribution of wealth and the use of money as a tool for healing, not the accumulation of power. The best part is that the author puts his money where his mouth is, helming the Decolonizing Wealth Project and Liberated Capital, both of which I highly recommend taking a look at. Find it here.

Emergent Strategy, by Adrienne Maree Brown (AK Press, 2017)

I’m not shy about my deep, abiding love for the Grande Dame of science fiction, Octavia E. Butler. It’s precisely because I’m so loud about that love that I was gifted a copy of this book by a musically gifted homegirl and…whoa. Brown uses the principles of the Earthseed communities created for Butler’s Parables series to imagine truly transformative communities and ways of belonging to society. The results do the Grande Dame proud. This book is perhaps a bit lighter on theory than some of the others on this list, but it’s grander in inspiration. There’s a concept from it that I quote to students and friends constantly–that of the need for positive imagination to combat negative projections. Find it here.

See No Stranger, by Valarie Kaur(One World, 2020)

This was one of the most profoundly affecting books I read in 2020–part memoir, part manifesto, and part manual for living out community in interfaith, intercultural, interconnected ways as inspired by divine love. I don’t trust people who say that their activism/politics/belief/community are powered purely by logic and eschew emotion. I trust Valarie Kaur, however, and I’ve never met her. She taps into the emotional, loving roots that bring many of us to social justice and activism in a warm, welcoming way that I both enjoyed and took inspiration from. As a bonus, through the author’s devotionals this book offers an introduction to the Sikh faith, which many Americans are not over-familiar with but has quite a lot of presence in our country. Find it here.

Crip Kinship, by Shayda Kafai(Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021)

I haven’t actually read this book yet because it won’t be released until November, but I’ve seen the cover floating around on Bookstagram a bit lately. I instantly remembered watching the author’s Ted Talk years ago and being surprised at how deeply it made me examine my own neglect and tokenization of the disabled and mentally ill people in my life and community. I’ve ordered a copy of this book because it promises to explore the liberation and full joy of disabled people from the perspective of the Sins Invalid performance project in California, which operates under the proclamation “An Unashamed Claim To Beauty In The Face of Invisibility”. In keeping with that line, the other reason I want this book is because it has a genuinely beautiful cover that makes me smile every time I see it. Find it here.

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons From Marine Mammals, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs(AK Press, 2020)

This is the other book on this list I have yet to read, and also probably the most visionary and creative. Part of a series inspired by Emergent Strategy (the 3rd book on this list), it meditates on social movements using the framework of marine mammal behavior seen through a Black feminist lens. My noodle is a bit baked just trying to put all of that together, but its an undeniably intriguing premise that I really must see and absorb for myself. I have no idea what the conclusions or community foundations in this book are, but I’m all for innovation, creative thinking, and reclaiming aspects of the natural world and its lessons and metaphors in the activism of BIPOC. I’ll let y’all know what I think when my copy arrives, fellow readers. If you want to beat me to it, find it here.

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, by the Debt Collective(Haymarket, 2020)

The average American is nearly $100,000 in debt, with little to show for it. Unfettered capitalism is destroying vital human and natural resources, and the repaying of the debts it incurs is exhausting the population too much to build new systems. That’s where this very practical economical disobedience manual by Debt Collective (with chapter titles like “You Are Not A Loan: Recognizing Our Power in the Age of Debt”) comes in. While I can’t say I fully agree with or endorse everything in this book, I do think its an excellent tool for reframing our thinking and conversations about debt, corporate power, and the constructive application of funds rescued from debt structures. Find it here.

Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of A Movement, by Angela Y Davis (Haymarket, 2016)

Angela Y Davis has been in the public eye since 1969, teaching, speaking and demonstrating about and on behalf of Black liberation, feminism, prison abolition, Palestinian liberation and socialism. This dense collection of transcribed speeches and interviews only scratches the surface of her immense body of work, but it functions as a great primer for understanding the applications of that work in present times. Sadly, things haven’t changed that much and some of Davis’ points have been repeated for years, which is also evident in this collection. Find it here.

The End of Policing, by Alex S Vitale (Verso Books, 2018)

I just finished reading this and a review is forthcoming. For now, suffice it to say that this is a very timely read in the present situation, well-written, well-researched, and equal parts hopeful and critical. It’s not enough for Vitale to indict the police with statistics and theory–he also suggests alternatives, and manages to do so in a way that comes across as reverent to the loss of life and community grief that necessitated a book like this. I think he even manages to assuage some of the natural defensiveness felt by people who work in law enforcement(assuming any manage to get past the matter of fact title). This is a good book for the current work that needs doing. Find it here.

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Haymarket Books, 2017)

This is the book with perhaps the oldest roots on the list; it’s also the nearest and dearest to my heart. As a collection of essays and interviews about the members of a Black feminist lesbian socialist collective that sprung up in 1960s Boston, it illustrates several things; 1) effective activist doesn’t need a celebrity spokesperson, or a single spokesperson at all, 2) the people who come up with academic language and concepts(identity politics, interlocking oppressions, strategic essentialism) don’t always get the credit for it and 3)Black women are such a vital part of social justice and progressive politics in America, have always been, and I am proud of us, and of being us. The story of the Collective and the work that they did is complex and Taylor does a good job laying it all out, making this an essential read. Find it here.

There are blind spots and (unintentional) omissions on this list, I know. I won’t apologize for them, though, because this list is meant to be inspiring, not definitive. Read these books, or others that appeal to your sense of justice, that are relevant to community, or that help you make sense of the times. Then go act. Go find the people in community who are doing what you want to do, or who want to, and do something with them. (Be safe, though. If you can’t be safe, be wise. If you can’t be wise, be impactful. I’m sure someone wiser than me has said that better than me, but my point is–do something effective and sustainable that you can write your own book about later. Don’t go doing stupid unhelpful reactionary shit and then come crying in my inboxes, because that is not what this blog is about.)

The world is unfair, beautiful people. It doesn’t have to stay that way. Do what you can, and love while you do it. Peace!

(I hate to ruin my own preaching, but for legal reasons(this is not a joke) I have to tell you that this blog contains affiliate links and if you click and purchase using any link you find here, a commission may be earned. It helps keep the lights on in this part of the internet, so if you feel so moved, I’d appreciate the support. Now, for real this time–peace!)

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