Reading is fundamental


What book would you recommend to Kanye West?

We asked smart people to share some knowledge.

Recently, much has been made of Kanye West’s dislike for reading books. (Damon Young of The Roots VerySmartBrothas wrote a particularly great take on the subject.) And with every new piece of evidence that he’s been increasingly suckered by an alternative right-wing view of history, that idea becomes increasingly believable. Following West’s comments on TMZ, where he suggested that slaves chose to be enslaved for 400 years, The Outline reached out to some people who actually do read to learn what they would recommend to Donald Trump’s biggest fan.

Renee Graham, Columnist, Boston Globe

My choice is Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. To me, there’s no more comprehensive or persuasively argued book about this nation’s shameful origin story — white supremacy and black subjugation/vilification — and how both have been fostered and sustained to this day. Whether Kanye would believe any of it, well, that’s something else entirely.

“So many prominent Americans, many of whom we celebrate for their progressive ideas and activism, many of whom had very good intentions, subscribed to assimilationist thinking that has also served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority.”

— Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Steven Hahn, Professor of History at NYU and author of A Nation under Our Feet

Let me suggest two.

David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World: Walker was born of a slave father and free black mother in North Carolina at the end of the 18th century and was therefore a free man. But he moved among slaves most of his life and got involved in the antislavery movement in Massachusetts when he published this text, a withering attack on American slavery and Thomas Jefferson, and an appeal to slaves in the U.S. and elsewhere to reject their submission and throw off their chains — a critique of slavery and its impact along with a vision of redemption.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth: A searing treatment of the psychology of slavery, race, and colonialism by the Martinique-born psychiatrist and activist who spanned the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds of French colonialism.

Kiese Laymon, Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi and a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Nonfiction at the University of Iowa

I’d suggest Heads of Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Every sentence in that book is an invitation and an indictment. The brother needs a book that will keep him interested in turning the pages and keep him questioning what critical black love can look like.

“I never saw black characters like me, dealing with being the only one. I didn’t even see a lot of black nerds, which in a lot of ways is what this collection is about — just black people who are into cosplay and into all kinds of stereotypically dorky things, and I wrote the stories I wished I could have been reading and seeing.”

— Nafissa Thompson-Spires to NPR

Charles Preston, Chicago Activist

If I could recommend a book to Kanye, it would be Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis… the audiobook version. Kanye says he doesn’t read and that historical figures like King and Malcolm X seem so long ago. So, I think we should meet him where he currently is. Why not start with a Black woman — who was a political prisoner — who is very current on issues, the movement, and would disrupt his white capitalistic bubble?

Nikhil Goyal, PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and author of Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix our Educational Malpractice

The Half Has Never Been Told is a remarkable book that argues that without the more than two hundred years of the commodification and exploitation of black bodies, America could not have become the wealthiest nation in the world. Baptist traces the political economy of slavery and shows that the unprecedented rise in cotton picker productivity was the result of new labor innovations, such as torture, performed on slaves. Calling slavery “a choice” is not just a barefaced lie, but a tactic to transfer the responsibility for this heinous institution from the profit-hungry bankers, merchants, investors, and slaveholders to the slaves themselves.

Gilbert King, Writer and Author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

Lyrics of Lowly Life by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar was a young genius poet from Dayton, Ohio, sometimes called the “Black Prodigy,” so Kanye might relate. Dunbar was also born in 1872 to parents who were once slaves, and at a young age, he counted many of the leading black intellectuals of the day as friends. Tragically, Dunbar died of tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of 33. I think Kanye would not only have a deep respect for Paul Laurence Dunbar’s rise to greatness, but I think he’d also be lyrically inspired by the timeless beauty of Dunbar’s verse in this collection.

“Not they who soar, but they who plod/ Their rugged way, unhelped, to God/ Are heroes; they who higher fare,/ And, flying, fan the upper air,/ Miss all the toil that hugs the sod.”

— Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Excerpt from “Not They Who Soar,”Lyrics of Lowly Life

Michael Arceneaux, Writer and Author of the upcoming book I Can’t Date Jesus

I would recommend Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson by Blair L.M. Kelley. In it, Kelley, a historian, pushes back against the narrative that Black people cowered in the initial period of Jim Crow. Unfortunately, a lot of people share Kanye’s idiocy that Black people were meek in the face of oppression, and since he tweeted that slavery was so long ago, perhaps something a little more current might suit him. However, since I know books aren’t his friend, if all else fails, he should check out seasons one and two of Underground; I’m sure John Legend can send him some DVDs.