It was the middle of August in Ferguson, Mo. Protesters filled the street after the shooting death of Michael Brown. It had been a week of clashes, tear gas and calls for justice. The city seemed to be tearing itself apart as the nation watched live on television. Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele stood in the parking lot of police headquarters, wondering what they could do.
They turned to what they knew best: Books.
Kleindienst and Steele are the co-owners of Left Bank Books in St. Louis. They attended many of the early protests. So did their staff. Their experiences on the streets and in the crowds inspired them to build a window display at the store: Ferguson Reads, a suggested reading list on race. "We noticed that many people didn't have any context," said Steele. "Even some who wanted to be allies didn't have the language to do so."
So Kleindienst and Steele created a list of books that could educate people on both the academic and emotional realities of events unfolding in Ferguson. Some of the books they chose offered statistics, some offered stories.
Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" and Radley Balko's "Rise of the Warrior Cop" were the first two titles they chose, but Kleindienst and Steele didn't stop with nonfiction. They added novels like "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison.
"I'd say that fiction can do more to foster understanding than nonfiction in some instances," said Steele. "If you read a novel, you are able to experience a life outside your own, to walk in another's shoes in a sustained, solitary way that leaves room to breathe and think and empathize."
What started as just a window display turned into a massive online conversation when Left Bank Books opened the list up for suggestions on social media. Children's books, poetry, magazine articles and blog posts — Steele curated the flood of suggestions.
For Wintaye Gebru, the store's general manager, the list hit very close to home. When the protests began, she was living in Ferguson.
"As a young, African-American woman and a Ferguson resident, I often feel that our story and the story of so many others who have lived similar lives have been hijacked or distorted by a narrative we didn't create," said Gebru.
"The reading list is our attempt at redirecting and widening that narrative so that it actually includes the observations and experiences of blacks in America."
As summer turned into fall and the national conversation grew to include the stories of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others, #FergusonReads turned into the Black Lives Matter Reading List.
Normally in the position of recommending books, the staff at Left Bank now finds itself on the receiving end of more recommendations than ever. "For me, it's been like a course list in empathy, in expanding past your own experiences and looking at the wider world," said Gebru. "There are so many authors, poets, and journalists I would never have come across if not for the contributions of our customers and booksellers."
Bookstores around the country are now building similar resources of their own. Stores as far away as Powell's Bookstore in Portland, Ore., have organized Black Lives Matter displays.
When Rosette Royale walked in to the Portland Powell's on a recent trip, he found a staff member organizing a Black Lives Matter display. He immediately snapped a photo and shared it on Twitter.
"Books are some of the world's great teachers," said Royale, who works as a writer in Seattle. He was delighted to see many familiar titles in the display and had a few of his own recommendations: Audre Lorde's "Zami: A New Spelling of my Name" and "The Healing" by Gayl Jones.
"I'm a queer black man, and it's wonderful to see so many stories and books that I treasure recommended to others," said Royale. "Some of the books in that display changed who I am. I know they'll do the same for other people."
Back in St. Louis, Left Bank continues to add to their list. The store holds regular meetings for those who want to discuss the titles in person.
There have been a few uncomfortable moments at these meetings, Steele said, which is inevitable, given how charged any discussion of race can be. But the power of books to promote understanding can't be underestimated — scientific studies have even shown how reading can increase a person's empathy.
The question now is: Can these books gain traction beyond the list? Can they be incorporated into high school curricula? Will they be picked up by book clubs?
Violence and unrest may have led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter reading list, but from what Steele has seen, the books shared and recommended are far too important to turn to only in times of need.
Join the conversation. What book(s) would you add to the list? What book(s) have you read that changed your perspective?
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