As an old white woman, I never knew until fairly recently that all my life I’d been the beneficiary of white privilege. I’d heard of it, but I didn’t think it applied to me, because I’m not rich. You have to be rich to be privileged, right?
Every day, I am the recipient of advantages that aren’t offered to my darker brothers and sisters. I am spared the assumptions made of people of color just because my skin is pale.
Three things made me aware of this phenomenon—an article in my Lutheran denomination’s magazine, and two groundbreaking books by African-American authors.
When I read the nonfiction book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, I realized how much I take for granted, and how many obstacles to success people of color face. It opened my eyes and broke my heart.
Next to The Holy Bible, Hidden Figures is the most important book I’ve ever read. As a boomer born in the 1950s and living through the tumultuous 1960s, I thought I knew all about the civil rights movement. It turns out I knew very little. I thank Margot Lee Shetterly for educating me. For example, I didn’t know that long before I was born, thousands of African Americans graduated from historically Black colleges and universities. They were every bit as highly educated as white college graduates, but had trouble finding employment in their fields. Many entered the teaching profession, working in Black schools, offering hope to the next generation. Good work, but low-paying, especially the farther back you go.
The book is very well-written. It reads like a novel, though it is nonfiction and scrupulously annotated. I am humbled to learn about the Langley Research Center computers, and I believe Hidden Figures should be required reading for everyone in the United States, especially white people like me. The movie based on it is often on TV, and I watch it whenever I can.
I read Angie Thomas’ YA novel, The Hate U Give, to find out what all the fuss was about. I was prepared not to like it, but it transcended my expectations. The story is multi-layered, with difficult family issues, and yet you understand that Starr and her parents are people with principles who want to do the right things. Thomas does a great job of weaving a spellbinding plot. I’m not sure if her aim was to give white people an idea of what it is like to be a Black person in America today, but The Hate U Give has opened my white female senior citizen eyes. When people started saying, “Black lives matter,” white people, me included, said, “All lives matter,” to which Black people replied, “You don’t get it.” Thanks to this brilliantly written book, I am beginning to understand.
Not every book by a Black author needs to change the world. Some are just good stories.
I’ve read Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, and it transported me to a different world. Drawing from West African myth, Adeyemi created the kingdom of Orïsha (which on the endpaper map looks a lot like the continent of Africa). Its citizens fall into two groups: the diviners, distinguishable by their white hair, who could perform magic; and the kosidán, who can’t. Eleven years before the beginning of the story, magic disappeared from Orïsha, the same night as the Raid, a genocide of the diviners orchestrated by ruthless King Saran, who believed magic was destroying Orïsha and was determined to wipe it out. And that’s all I’m going to tell you, because if you are tired of the same old fiction, you are ready for Children of Blood and Bone. One warning, though—things do not get wrapped up at the end, so you’ll probably have to read the second and third installments.
Years ago I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, and Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. I’ve read at least one Toni Morrison book, but I can’t remember which.
I love Maya Angelou’s poems and wisdom. I’ve read two of her autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name. They barely get her out of her teens; I’ve got five more to go. She lived an amazing life and overcame huge odds. Did you know she was a teenaged madam? She also wanted to join the Army and qualified for Officer’s Candidate School, but that dream ended when she was accused of being a Communist. She danced professionally for a short time; then her partner reconciled with his ex and fired her.
While researching for this article, I came across many authors whose names I know but whose books I haven’t read: Octavia Butler, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marlon James, Colson Whitehead, Jessmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Hopefully, I will read some before next Black History Month.