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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

My favourite reads: Melissa Gronlund

Here are five books I’ve recently read around the subject of race

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Courtesy: Little, Brown
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Courtesy: Little, Brown

Picking from a bazillion faves is impossible, so here are five on the subject of race. In the United States, a carpet has been yanked away to reveal rotten floorboards, and even worse beneath. One of the few upsides of this is a generation of Americans coming alive to new life experiences.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2017)

The underground railroad is taught to American schoolchildren as the story of the North helping to help free slaves from the South’s plantations. This book shows that it wasn’t that simple, sketching instead gradients of oppression that relent, bit by bit, near the more welcoming north and west, as seen through the eyes of a runaway slave.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Coates’s device of a semi-public, semi-private form allows this book to be at once a history and a direct address to its readers: it’s not timeless and it’s not meant to be. The crisis it discusses feels real and present. “This was the war for the possession of his body,” he writes, “and this would be the war of his

whole life.”

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon (1952)

It’s amazing how prescient this book is, one of the first to understand racism’s psychological effects. The work appeared in the context of French colonialism – Fanon wrote the book while working as a psychiatrist in Algeria – an illuminating analysis of the wrongness that young black children are taught to associate with blackness, which persists today.

American War by Omar El Akkad (2017)

This book imagines the full horror that climate change will bring. El Akkad portrays a new Civil War between the American South and North, this one spurred by the depletion of resources – and of land itself, as the sea devours the eastern seaboard. The story follows Sarat, an operative for the South who transcends gender and race: issues, it seems, that are small fry compared with what’s coming.

Open City by Teju Cole (2011)

A scene in Cole’s novel about a Nigerian immigrant’s wanderings through New York City, stuck with me: Julius, the protagonist, gets in a cab. The driver, also black, addresses him as brother, a gesture that Julius, tired and preoccupied, dismisses. The camaraderie of black culture is an important subject, in television sitcoms and film, but this episode shows a response set a little apart.

Melissa Gronlund is The National’s arts writer

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