Monday, June 01, 2020

Beyond Reading Books About Race: A Lifelong Commitment to Study and Action

Last week, I posted a list of books that have been helpful to me on this journey toward anti-racism.  Over the past several years, I have committed a great deal of time to reading books and learning, unlearning, relearning, reflecting. I have realized that reading books is not enough, not even really enough as a first step and I wanted to share my thinking about that today.

A few weeks ago I picked up the book Lifting as We Climb: Black Women's Battle for the Ballot Box.  It was a book recommended by Julia Torres (@juliaerin80). I buy pretty much anything Julia recommends.  I know that I do not know enough about women's history and a friend called me out/in a few years ago for not knowing the history between white and black women.  And I've been trying to understand that history for years. I have been trying to learn more and this book seemed perfect. Since it was middle grade I figured it would be a quick read.

But it ended up that this book is REALLY difficult for me. It is brand new information. Names and events that I know almost zero about. I felt like I was back in high school reading a science textbook about a topic I had zero background knowledge for.  And I felt a lot of shame and guilt and sadness and anger. How could I be in my mid 50s and not know these things? How could I be having so much trouble understanding all of the important information in this book that I so wanted to read? How could these stories have ALL been missing from the women's history work that I've read and learned over a lifetime.

So, I made a new plan for getting through the book. I now have the book in three formats--audio, eBook and hardback. And I will take it slowly and give myself time to really understand it, cross reference, reread and research/dig in when needed.  I also ordered two other books (Hood Feminism and They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (thanks to Shekema Dunlap for sharing) and have committed to spending a chunk of time this summer relearning much of what I thought I knew about women's history with a focus on race issues.

Because here's the thing. When people share books, it is not about just reading books. I do not share these books in the same ways I share great read aloud or new series books I've discovered.  For me, this work is about STUDY.  It is about a long-term commitment to study and learn and grow and act.  The books I shared on my list are not quick reads, they are not easy reads. They are not the books you read for leisure. These are books that become part of a study because  study is part of the commitment.

Yesterday I was fortunate to be able to attend The Author Village event with Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. I always learn when I hear these two speak and share their understandings and insights. So many things said by both Jason and Brendan yesterday pushed my thinking. Two things that Brendan said really stuck with me.

Brendan Kiely said part of the work is asking himself this question, "What are you doing today? Have I done enough?"

With this question, he reminds us that this is lifelong work. Both internal work and external work. That we will never do enough. But it's a commitment to do something EVERY DAY.

And then he says that part of this work is asking yourself:

"How much of my day do I spend learning so I can speak to it when asked to?"

How much of my day do I spend learning?

What I am realizing is that books and reading have been so important to my learning. But the fact that this journey is a lifelong commitment to study and action means that books are just a piece of the study.  When we commit to this work, we commit to talking to others, being intentional about who we follow on social media, being intentional about who we learn from and with, intentional about listening and learning.  We commit to spending time studying the work of people who have been doing this work for decades instead of reading a fun novel by our favorite author.  We make this work a priority-something we commit to every day. It is all of those things and so much more.

Jennifer Gonzalez (@cultofpedagogy) said it well in her Twitter thread this weekend.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I've progressed from reading a book and talking about it with others to making a lifelong commitment to do this work.  To every day think about what I don't know and how I can fix that.  And then as Brenden Kiely said, "so I can speak to it when asked to". I hope all of this reading and all of these books help give me more knowledge and understanding to speak up.

One of my favorite quotes is from Laura Jimenez (@booktoss).

"This is why it is called THE WORK and not cake."

Once this quote appeared on a t-shirt, I purchased one immediately. It is so true.

When I see things like the Me and White Supremacy Challenge  and Dayton's YWCA's 21-Day Challenge (Thanks Stella Villaba for sharing), I see that it is a way to commit every single day.  It is a way to commit to study and to learning. It is a hope that these 21 days build a habit of study that continues for a lifetime.

I've realized that since writing the post sharing books, that this work must be about more than reading a few books.  As a white woman trying to learn all that I don't know and to understand so much, the move from going from reading books to committing to study and commitment was a subtle one but so important for my own internal work.

So if during this week, you decided to buy a book or a few books and you decided to read them alone,  or with friends, be honest about the commitment you are willing to give to this work. How can it become a priority every day? Think about the question Brendan Kiely asked on the webinar last night:

"How much of my day do I spend learning 
so I can speak to it when asked to?"

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