Our Social Responsibility as Readers of Color: 4 Principles to Read By
January was a lot. Not only did the literary community initiate a very heavy and much-needed discussion around the politics of writing and racial representation through the release of American Dirt, the world suffered a few unexpected losses that helped a lot of us put a lot into perspective.
The passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter highlighted the idea of purpose and legacy, and what that may or may not mean to each of us individually. Whatever your idea, there's always a bottom line: your place and position in the world are of great value. How you use that place and position affects more people than you have the capacity to imagine. There is a social ripple affect that happens with each and every decision we make.
With that being said, I'd like to take the time to highlight certain key elements of our social responsibilities as readers of all races and cultural backgrounds first. We have an advantage that we don't talk about: the thirst to learn, and the willingness to be taught. Whether you read for fun or for knowledge, you're still learning and accessing parts of your brain that others are interested in accessing at the moment. This alone makes you special.
Although, it must be mentioned that being a reader of color comes along with an unspoken social responsibility that isn't often discussed. How can we use our platform and influence to push the social needle? Here are my ideas of ways we can use our access to this knowledge and our relationships with the people around us to do just that:
1. Knowledge is Everything
January was also the official release for the film Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. In watching this film, we learned that valor is not always beautiful. Success isn't always easy. You will fail sometimes, but having the audacity to get back up and try it again with the same tenacity as you had before will deliver results. If not, it will at least show you something about your process.
In this movie, or in this book (if you read it first), we watched Bryan Stevenson arm himself with the knowledge to gain results even after fully understanding and internalizing the intensity of the task before him. We also watched, or read, as he learned a long the way. He prepared himself by learning the laws, the systems, the people, and the loopholes of the system hundreds of thousands of Black men had been forced to succumb to.
As readers, we are put in the unique position to learn things that others aren't interested in learning because we have made the decision to access this part of the learning process. We should do our best to take full responsibility for learning as much as we can no matter how difficult the process may be-- as long as you're taking care to protect and preserve your mental health along the way.
2. If you want to be represented, you must be the one to initiate it.
One of the reasons I began Livre Cafe was so that I can see myself more often in contemporary literature. I also wanted to make sure people like me felt included and represented in important conversations. I also aimed to shed light on books by and about Black people, in hopes that it would encourage more people of all races and cultural backgrounds to include our stories to their reading lists. My goal is never to exclude others, but to encourage other people to accept, learn, and acknowledge that Black people like me and you exist. I want them to know our history the way we do. I want them to understand we are no more of a monolith than they are.
I didn't see a lot of this-- and to be honest-- even Bookstagram has a long way to go. We still live in a world where White people are being paid the big bucks to review and promote our stories by publishers, rather than having the publishers coming to Black Bookstagramers to promote their own stories... why Sharon??
3. Correct people when they need correction.
This one is controversial. How many times have you been in a position where you're stuck in an awkward conversation because someone said something insensitive or just plainly incorrect? While some people are proud to stand up completely in their ignorance, most people can only speak from their own point of view or experiences. Some people have no idea what it's like to be on the opposite side of the coin, so without understanding or context, they may carry beliefs or assumptions with them that are incorrect or harmful to others.
One of the best things to do in an instance such as this is to speak up. Politely let them know that what they said was either incorrect, or obtuse and move on. Most of the time, even if the person doesn't acknowledge it in the moment, it will likely stick with them, making them either research it on their own time, or at the very minimum, think twice before they infer something incorrectly like that again, spreading.
And just like that-- by using your voice, you have made a small change that could have potentially impacted a large group of people.
4. Don't be offended when people don't see you.
A lot of times, people of color find themselves questioning their exclusion from largely publicized spaces. This goes for far more than literature, but in the spirit of staying on topic, I'll limit this to reading.
As a reader and a creator, of course it becomes frustrating when I get questions like "Why do you only post books about Black people?" or when I look at mainstream bloggers, booktubers, and bookstagrammers and see very few books by or about people of color, but at the same time, these questions and experiences remind of me bookstagrammers like me do what we do.
We have to participate, and invest in communities and initiatives that invest in putting our stories in the forefront, or at the very minimum, ask for our stories to at least be made a part of the conversation. Instead of getting offended by not being included, lets create our own paths and be the gatekeepers for what's interesting, cool, or worth in-depth acknowledgment/ or praise.
I say all this to say, use your voice in tandem with your mind. We have things to say!
Until next time,