On Reading As a Form of Activism
Activism comes in as many forms as there are causes. And while reading typically isn't thought of as a form of activism, I'm here to explain how it can be.
When you read a book you love or one that alters your view of the world, you can't help but share it. We share the books we love (as well as other things we enjoy) as a form of social currency, which allows us to form communities with people who have shared interests.
Of course, we sometimes share books purely because we were entertained by them, but when we share the books that made us see the world in new ways, we're spreading those ideas in hopes that they'll take root in others.
As much as I love a good vampire romance, it's not my go-to for spreading important ideas. I'm talking about books like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. (Fans of the documentary 13TH--currently available on Netflix--will be interested in that one.) Books like Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay or To Kill a Mockingbird or books by Gloria Steinem or any book that makes you understand and empathize with the struggles of a population of people who have been marginalized.
Reading can be a vehicle for social justice because books give you a way to formulate and articulate your beliefs. And when you share those formative books with others, you're helping to educate them too. There are so many struggles in the black community, the Latino community, the LGBT community, the disability community, and others, and if we don't ourselves have those identities the least we can do is read about the struggles they're facing so we understand where they're coming from and don't do things that oppress them further.
Reading is inherently a political act. The pursuit of knowledge is inherently a political act. It's why books get banned, why the Nazis burned books, why school curriculums get censored, and one of the reasons why funding for schools and libraries is always first on the chopping block when money is tight. An educated populace that's aware of social injustices terrifies the people that perpetuate those injustices. It's easier to pay women less for the same job a man is doing when women aren't making a fuss. It's easier to systematically throw black men in prison for things that shouldn't even be crimes when somebody is profiteering from the imprisonment at every turn.
Prior to this election people could get away with not being political or not caring about politics because you knew that, at least for the office of President, two qualified people with different ideologies would be in the running. That's not true now. For the first time in US history we have a completely unqualified charlatan as President. This is someone who I guarantee you is not reading books about the diverse experiences of people in this country but only seeking to confirm his own misguided prejudices. This is someone who cares nothing about the pursuit of knowledge because he is capitalizing on ignorance.
It is said that "to be silent is to choose the side of the oppressor." I would even take it a step further and say that to not educate yourself on the forms of oppression being experienced by the citizens in your country is to condone that oppression. When you're aware of the many forms of oppression people face you can help change the conversation. You can speak out and educate others, you can vote the people perpetuating those injustices out of office, you can be a part of a better tomorrow---one where all people have a seat at the table, rather than being on the menu, chewed up and spit out.
No, reading isn't the same as canvassing, starting a nonprofit, going on a speaking tour, marching on Washington, writing articles about the issues, or the other important work that activists do. But it's a start. It's the seed of grassroots efforts. Reading doesn't make someone an activist, but it'd be difficult for someone who doesn't read to be an activist.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I wanted to share some books in this vein that have been on my radar lately. This list includes mostly nonfiction and poetry, but there are a few novels and graphic memoirs in there, too:
- Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
- Feminism and Pop Culture by Andi Zeisler
- The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
- The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
- Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
- Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks
- We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
- Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks
- Citizen by Claudia Rankine
- Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
- Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
- Salt by Nayyirah Waheed
- Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
- What Moves At The Margin: Selected Nonfiction of Toni Morrison
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
- The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther by Jeffrey Haas
- Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem
- My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
- We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- George by Alex Gino
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
- Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi