Books Are the Key that Unlocks Empathy

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This week, as I witness the fallout from another, yet especially blatant abuse of police power, which led to yet another death of an innocent Black man, I am embarrassed by a lot of the commentary from my fellow white people.

Commentary such as “all lives matter” in response to “Black lives matter” and condemnations of “protesters looting and causing all that property damage” proves a disturbing, yet pervasive problem embedded in the issue of racism in this country.

White Americans have a lack of empathy for the Black experience.

And even with those of us who have some semblance of awareness, we too fall short of comprehending the level of suffering Black citizens have endured at the hands of whiteness. 

There isn’t a white person on this planet who can ever fully get it.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to empathize. And empathy may be just what we need to tackle racism and bring it to its long-overdue end.

Books are the key to empathy, and while reading a book can’t change the past, it certainly can reshape our future.

Here’s how this works.

When you read a book, you enter someone else’s world. I don’t mean you get a view of their world; I mean you are connecting with the author and experiencing the world through them. You walk in their shoes, think their thoughts, see through their eyes. You feel their pain, joys, and sorrows with them.

Whether the writing is fiction or non-fiction, the author brings you into their world. As a reader, you aren’t just processing the words of the story, you are merging with the point of view that the author presents. You are being the story.

How many other mediums enable you to do that?

The answer: none.

Our day-to-day lives are saturated with multi-tasking. I’m not criticizing; I have no place to do so. I can be the Queen of Multi-Tasking.

It’s one way we’ve attempted to adapt to our increasingly busy lives.

That’s OK.

But it also means opportunities to slow down and build intimacy have become rare, which is what makes reading a book so special.

You cannot read and multitask.

You can watch the news and do the dishes. You can listen to a podcast while you’re working out. You can be sitting in a room with somebody having a conversation while you’re playing a game on your phone. (Admittedly, not the most respectful thing to do, but I’ve done it.)

Where else besides crawling into bed and reading a book do you make room in your life to give your complete and undivided attention for hours at a time? (Let’s be honest, books probably get more continuous hours of undivided attention in bed than most people are willing to give to anything else.)

And it’s exactly because those quiet moments are so precious and intimate that we keep the books we love to read by our bedsides, and not at our desks.

That exclusive focus we give to reading books is magic. It transports us through time and space and plants us in the consciousness of another human being.

When we read an author’s work, there’s a real comingling of souls that occurs.

It’s how we begin to get a sense of another’s suffering.

The recent reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement has been accompanied with a mass encouragement to read books by Black authors about racism and the Black experience in America. These books are critical to self-education on racism in the United States, which subsequently produces more awareness and action.

Beyond learning about the Black experience and struggles, I believe as white people, we can use books to assist us as we strive to become better allies in action. Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, owner of Fulton Street Books & Coffee in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has started “The Ally Box,” which is a 3-month limited book subscription for striving allies. They’ll send you a box with books and resources for self-education, and suggested action steps.

Some black activists are calling for white people to read not only books about Black suffering and discrimination, but also books that celebrate Black art and culture. Cultural education is another important portal to empathy. We should appreciate (but not appropriate) Black culture. An important caveat to this: appreciating Black culture couples with the responsibility to show up for the Black community when they are being persecuted.

Books are the portal to empathy, and only through empathy will we ever find genuine compassion, and an end to racism.

Only through empathy will we be able to demand justice and build a lasting peace, not only out in the world, but here at home.

Here’s my list of recommended books by Black American authors about the Black American experience (buy them from Black owned bookstores):

(in order of pub-date):

  • Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
  • The Invisible Man by: Ralph Ellison (1952)
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by: Maya Angelou (1969)
  • Song of Solomon by: Toni Morrison (1977)
  • Just Mercy by: Brian Stevenson (2014)
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Here’s a list from the New York Times Style Magazine

And from Penguin Random House.

Read, educate yourself, and act.

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