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Reading list: Understanding racism in America

The U's Department of English compiled a list of books, graphic novels and poetry to help readers better understand and further explore racism in America.

As protests continue across the country demanding an end to injustices and police brutality against the Black community, many are turning to books to educate themselves about the history and current state of racism in the United States. There are many great resources online such as a book list in The New York Times compiled in 2019 by Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, that provides an overview of race by decade.

Below, the Department of English at the University of Utah has put together an additional list of books, graphic novels and poetry to help readers better understand and further explore racism in America.


"Angela Davis: An Autobiography" and "Freedom Is a Constant Struggle" by Angela Y. Davis

Davis' biography relays her trial and lessons learned from participating in freedom movements. The other is a more recent collection of her writings and interviews on the global freedom struggle.

"Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

An exploration of America’s racial history.

"Black Boy" by Richard Wright

An early critique of how progressive white movements espouse inclusion and equity but don’t actually support Black people.

"Borderlands" by Gloria Anzaldua

Focuses on the US/Mexico border cultures. It’s a passionate and eye-opening discussion of both physical and metaphorical borders and of the cultural/linguistic hybridity of “borderzones.”

"Citizen: An American Lyric" by Claudia Rankine

Explores racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in 21st-century daily life and in the media

"The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin

Two essays that discuss the relationship between oppression, religion and justice. It’s a precursor for Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me."

"The Gangster We are All Looking For" by Le Thi Diem Thuy

A lyrical, elliptical novel meditating on family and refugee trauma.

"Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations" by Mira Jacob

A memoir-in-essays about the author’s mixed-race family.

"How Racism Takes Place" by George Lipsitz

Breaks down how space, particularly urban spaces, are encoded with racial assumptions and policies. It also points to how communities have reimagined these spaces for liberation.

"How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective" by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Taylor interviews founding members of the Black feminist collective, as well as contemporary Black Lives Matters activists, to get their take on the work needed for a just world.

"The Marrow of Tradition" by Charles W. Chesnutt

A fictional account of the 1898 Wilmington Riot in Wilmington, North Carolina.

"Minor Feelings" by Cathy Park Hong

A collection of essays that considers Asian American identity, racism and intersectionality.

"Native Speaker" and "A Gesture of Life" by Chang Rae Lee

Both books explore issues of transgenerational and transnational trauma, racism and assimilation.

"No-No Boy" by John Okada

Explores the costs and consequences of assimilation, as well as the complex intersections of patriotism, loyalty and race in the Japanese American community during World War II.

"Orientalism" by Edward Said

A classic academic study of how cultural discourses create racial and cultural stereotypes.

"Playing in the Dark" by Toni Morrison

Considers the problematic and often deliberately racist ways that American literature has depicted the presence—visible or invisible—of African Americans in many canonical novels.

Also, "Beloved."

"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois

Defines and explains the double consciousness that African Americans and—by extension—other minoritized identities are forced to experience.

"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Examines the legacy of the Vietnam War on both American citizens and post-1975 Vietnamese refugees to America, while also reconsidering the global political intersections of need and connections that people of color share.

"The Wretched of the Earth" by Franz Fanon

A study (and powerful statement) about the psychological effects of racism and colonialism.

Graphic novels


Poets whose collections tackle issues of race, identity and the legacies of slavery and/or colonialism.

  • Audre Lorde
  • Lucille Clifton
  • Marilyn Chin
  • Tyehimba Jess
  • Wanda Coleman
  • Natasha Tretheway
  • Terrance Hayes
  • Eduardo C. Corral
  • Alberto Rios
  • Jericho Brown

Their work can be found online at the Academy of American Poets or the Poetry Foundation.

White poets who explore issues of racism and race include Martha Collins with "Blue Front," which is an examination of lynching and the racism in her own white family, and Jake Adam York, whose collection "Abide" considers the relationship between white and Black communities via music.

Special thanks to Vincent Cheng, Distinguished Professor of English, Paisley Rekdal, professor of English, David Roh, associate professor of English and Crystal Rudds, assistant professor of English, for their recommendations.