Editor’s Note: Kerra L. Bolton is the founder of Unmuted Consulting, a strategic political communications consultancy. She is also a freelance writer and former political reporter and analyst in North Carolina. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Reading is the most inexpensive form of summer travel.
Sitting on the beach or underneath the shade of a tree, I read books to help me understand the world and how to be a better global citizen.
Right now, the world confuses and frustrates me because we’ve stopped listening to each other. Complex policy arguments are reduced to 280 characters or less. White people call the police on black people in public spaces rather than asking themselves why they find our presence disquieting. Friends and family members snipe at and talk past one another on Facebook. The incidents of everyday hate, online and face to face, seem only to multiply.
Reading has become more than a summer escape. It is an act of empathy that provides a passport to understanding diverse perspectives. I chose five books to read this summer because they each challenge accepted structures of form and content. Except for one, most of the books were recently published.
Issue: School shootings
Book: “Perennial” by Kelly Forsythe (August 2018)
The irony about the current debate about school shootings is that the adults making decisions about gun control forgot what it’s like to be in high school.
High school is hell. It’s a permeable world with fixed rules about who matters and who doesn’t. Feelings of isolation, powerlessness, and despair are the perennials of being a teenager.
“Perennial” shifts the conversation about school shootings from policy to people by using poetry to describe the events of the 1999 Columbine massacre from imagined, multiple perspectives of a victim, shooter, and author, who was a child at the time.
Forsythe challenges the reader to mature beyond facile arguments about gun control and bullying if we want to stop classrooms from increasingly becoming killing fields.
Issue: Identity politics
Book: “There, There: A Novel” by Tommy Orange
Orange, a First Nation author, begins his multi-generational novel about 12 characters who each have their own reasons for attending the Big Oakland Powwow with a history lesson.
“The Indian head in the jar, the Indian head on a spike were like flags flown, to be seen, cast broadly. Just like the Indian head test pattern was broadcast to sleeping Americans as we set sail from our living rooms, over the ocean blue-green glowing airwaves, to the shores, the screens of the New World.”
Orange foregrounds history to underscore the genocide of Native Americans isn’t in the past but lives as a fight in the bodies of urban people who search for connection and redemption while grappling with suicide, addiction, and alienation.
Issue: Black Lives Matter
Book: “Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over” by Nell Irvin Painter
Painter, a distinguished American history professor, would probably side-eye the thought of me grouping her memoir about her decision to leave her Ivy League career to become a professional painter in her 60s as an integral part of the next stage of the Black Lives Matter movement.
She readily acknowledges the impact of race, gender, and most importantly, age, on the perceptions among her teachers and classmates about who is an artist and the nature of art. But imposing a political agenda on her provocative and honest book might be beside the point. Yet, I argue that the existence of Painter’s memoir during this time in American history is precisely the point.
We say that black lives matter so that when we step away from the line of fire we are free to pursue our happiness in a country that claims such a pursuit is our birthright as citizens. Painter claims her birthright as an artist, a black woman, and a woman of a certain age at a time and in a cultural milieu that ignores all three.
Issue: The Rise of White Nationalism
Book: “Guardian: Book 3 in the Steeplejack Series” by A.J. Hartley
Many Americans, including a number of liberal whites, have expressed shock and outrage at President Trump’s expressed views and treatment of black and brown refugees – whether it’s his administration’s recent policy of separating immigrant children from their families and housing them in cages or referring to the places where some Africans immigrate to the United States as “shithole countries.”
In response to the understandable response of some white people, I would like to give them a copy of Hartley’s “Steeplejack” series. In the guise of a young adult detective series set in a fictional 19th century South African city, Hartley describes how an immigration crisis involving black refugees eventually leads to the rise and takeover of the city by a group of white nationalist elites.
In this, Hartley subtly uses fiction to draw parallels between the implementation of apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that existed in South African from 1948 to the early 1990s, and the racist and xenophobic fear-based rhetoric that informs the Trump administration’s approach to immigration policy.
Hartley doesn’t hide behind the perceived wrongs of low-income whites to describe the political, social, and economic factors that lead to the election of racist leaders. Instead, he renders a realistic world in which the presence or absence of a person’s whiteness determines their fate where complacency among well-meaning white people plays a pivotal role in the government’s establishing of racist policies.
“Guardian” is the third and final installment of the series. Ang Sutonga, its mixed-race teenage heroine, must risk her life in a race against time to clear her employer accused of murder and to save the city she loves.
Issue: Activism and Resistance
Book: “How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation edited by Maureen Johnson
It took me a year and a half into surviving the Trump administration to realize there is a difference between reacting and responding to the news.
We react when we write angry posts and get into virtual screaming matches on social media. We respond when we understand that bending the arc of social justice is a long-term game and we’re just getting started.
Featuring an all-star line-up of contributors like Newberry and National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson, illustrator and writer Jonny Sun, and actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family,” writing with his husband Justin Mikita, “How I Resist” offers possibilities of how we all can, with the resources we have in the moment, be the change we seek.
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So that’s my summer reading list. Here’s to surviving the dog days of summer and entering the fall with a sense of curiosity, wonder, and willingness to listen to voices that are aching to be heard.