The last two months have been tough for business at Eso Won Books in Los Angeles. The store, which opened in 1990, specializes in African-American literature and has never had to close its doors to the public for such a long time before. But it was forced to do so when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. And while its staff has been taking online orders in the meantime and re-opened for walk-in customers last week, recent days have seen another major change. “Since Friday, we’ve had close to 500 online orders for about eight to 10 different books on antiracism and race,” says Eso Won’s co-founder James Fugate. “It’s been overwhelming.”
As protests against racial injustice and police brutality have spread across the U.S. and beyond after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the demand for books about race and antiracism internationally has soared. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race are just a few of the titles that have sold out on Amazon in the U.S., with some third party sellers hiking up prices to more than $50 for paperback copies.
All three of those authors have pointed readers in the direction of independent booksellers, and black-owned bookstore owners in particular say they’ve noticed a difference in sales over the weekend. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase, and I think it really is stemming from white people,” says Ramunda Lark Young, co-founder of Washington-based MahoganyBooks, an independent bookstore specializing in books written for, by or about people from the African diaspora. “In light of recent events, a lot of people are now feeling a very visceral response in how they show up in this world, and how they see it from our lens.”
Other titles with new popularity include Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy and Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, as well as older books like James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Popular posts on social media have highlighted anti-racist reading lists, and selections compiled by Kendi gained attention over the weekend.
For black booksellers and publishers who have been promoting these titles for years, it’s encouraging that people are now turning to books to further their own knowledge, rather than expecting the black community to educate them. Ramunda Young, who co-founded MahoganyBooks with her husband, Derrick Young, says the uptick in sales has stemmed from people asking themselves, “How do I take it upon myself to go and read, go learn and go study, rather than expect those experiences to come from the mouths of black people?”
“There has been real progress with people being made aware of the state of racial issues in the country,” Fugate says. “All my life, I’ve heard and learned about these things. But the more people become aware, the more they can talk about these issues with their families, their friends and their kids.”
The spike of interest in books about race extends beyond the U.S. In Britain, it’s a similar conversation. “A lot of people now are looking in the mirror at themselves,” says Aimée Felone, co-founder of Knights Of and Round Table Books, a children’s publisher and bookshop based in London specializing in diverse stories for kids. U.K.-based publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, says the dozen or so big-hitting titles that have been circulating on social media are a good starting point for understanding racism, but, she adds, the work of allies has to go beyond that, particularly at a traumatic time for black communities both in the U.S. and abroad. Lovegrove’s imprint Dialogue Books publishes writers from diverse backgrounds, and over the weekend, shared its own reading list via its social media accounts in response to recent events. “Why I’m Longer Talking to White People About Race is a great primer, and Me and White Supremacy is a great toolbook, but then what happens?” she says, adding that buying diverse books from different genres is more effective than “one book that tells them what they’ve got to do and makes them think they’ve done the work.”
Beyond reading the more well-known books, Lovegrove encourages readers to seek out novels and short stories by black authors that show the diversity of experience. “Each life is unique and entirely different, and fiction is the best way to take all of that learning from those toolbooks and bring it into practice with understanding the nuance of blackness,” she says. “It’s better to read than to slide into your one black friend’s DMs and ask them how they’re feeling, because we were feeling like this last week. It’s really triggering and really upsetting.”
And for some, the increased demand for books about race and antiracism being sparked by extreme injustice and violence is bittersweet. “I hate that people have to lose a family member or a loved one to instigate other people to be proactive and understand their own biases,” says MahoganyBooks’ Derrick Young.
For Felone in London, the recent surge is a reminder that people weren’t already doing the work they should have been. “While this moment of realization is a great thing, there’s been a long time prior where people haven’t had their eyes opened,” she says. “I do wonder how that feeds into the younger generation.”
Booksellers and publishers are quick to point out that the work may start with reading a book, but it can’t end there. Supporting black-owned bookshops over a sustained period of time and having conversations about the books in question are crucial, Ramunda Young says. “Hopefully people are taking a moment to really look at how they have missed a lot of the marks in engaging with the black community. If you’re really serious about changing, contributing and impacting the larger world, pay those organizations that have been supporting and focusing on this work for years.”
TIME asked the booksellers and publishers interviewed for this article for their further reading recommendations. Here, 13 books on race and antiracism to read right now.
History and Journalism
Conversations in Black: On Politics, Power and Leadership, Ed Gordon (2020)
Journalist Ed Gordon brings together prominent voices in black America to discuss the future of black leadership. “This book is a great opportunity to be a fly on the wall in a conversation amongst over 40 different leaders, entertainers and entrepreneurs,” says Ramunda Young. “People can get a real holistic sense of the topics we engage with all the time.”
55, Underemployed and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Retirement Life, Elizabeth White (2019)
Elizabeth White’s 2019 book is a deeply researched resource providing practical solutions with a focus on retirement and maximizing savings. “This takes a look at a lot of the things that come to black people financially, and COVID-19 has kind of peeled back that really dire state that we are in,” Ramunda Young says. “It’s a really personal story, and it’s one not just black people can relate to.”
An African American and Latinx History of the United States, Paul Ortiz (2018)
Paul Ortiz offers an intersectional history of the shared struggle for African American and Latinx civil rights, spanning two centuries. “This moment is not just about reading books on antiracism, it’s about reading books about our history,” says Derrick Young. “This book is incredible because essentially Ortiz is sending everyone back to high school history, and explaining history from the perspective not of the conquerors, but the people who were the victims of brutality, slavery and annexations, and how they fought back.”
Chokehold: Policing Black Men, Paul Butler (2017)
Former prosecutor Paul Butler examines modern American policing and how criminal justice laws and practices impact black men. “His book is really the best book I’ve read in the last 10 years about race relations in the U.S.,” James Fugate says. In it, Butler describes his own encounters with the police.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays, Damon Young (2019)
This memoir-in-essays offers a look at what it means to be black and male in America, by the co-founder of the news and culture website VerySmartBrothas.com. “This book breaks down some of the stereotypes about black men, where the author talks about all of his vulnerabilities, self-esteem issues and how he deals with confronting what the world has told him he is,” Derrick Young says. “Black men are dealing with this mask that has been forced on us, and that’s not who we are.”
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
James Fugate recommends Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son. It chronicles Coates’ life growing up as a young man in Baltimore and his journey to becoming a writer. In 2014, Coates’ article for the Atlantic, ‘The Case for Reparations,’ gained widespread attention and in 2019, he testified in a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the topic.
Rainbow Milk, Paul Mendez (2020)
Lovegrove recommends Mendez’s debut novel, published by her imprint Dialogue Books. The book follows 19-year-old Jesse McCarthy, a young black man in Britain as he grapples with his racial and sexual identities. “It takes really big concepts — a black, gay Jehovah’s Witness boy leaves his family and becomes a sex worker in London — and it’s written with such humility and such beauty that it’s really engaging for the reader,” Lovegrove says.
The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019)
The Water Dancer is Coates’ debut novel, set in a surrealist version of the 19th-century Deep South and features a protagonist with superpowers. “It has a lot of magical realism to it, and I just loved that,” says Fugate.
Children’s and Young Adult
Recommended by Aimée Felone.
This Book is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell (2020)
“I felt completely powerless when I was young. I was able to identify racism and injustice, but did not have the language to talk about it and definitely did not know how to stand-up, especially against racist adults,” antiracism educator Tiffany Jewell said in an interview for World Book Day. Her debut book is designed to do just that: equip young people with the tools they need to be actively antiracist.
Anti-Racist Baby, Ibram X. Kendi (2020)
This upcoming picture book from the best-selling author of the moment, Kendi, shows kids nine steps to building a more equitable and antiracist world. It will be published June 16.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (2020)
An adaptation of Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning targeted at young adults, this collaboration between the original author and celebrated children’s writer Jason Reynolds seeks to explain why young people are growing up in a world of racism, and what they can do about it.
Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson (2014)
National Book Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of her childhood through poetry, detailing her experiences as a black girl growing up in 1960s South Carolina and New York.
A is for Activist, Innosanto Nagara (2013)
Innosanto Nagara initially wrote, illustrated and self-published this board book for his own children out of a desire to see a progressive book about the alphabet for younger children. It has since become a bestseller, with over 125,000 copies in print.