Since spring break started in March, I’ve finally found time to read up on some themes and topics that have been bouncing around my head the past couple years. Practically all of the books I’ve read since March have been about race, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa or a combination. I tried to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction that discuss either historical, current, or future perspectives of the topics. For the books on Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, I wasn’t looking for them to be a substitute for lived experiences (in my opinion nothing replaces living in the communities and identifying with the people you want to serve), but rather just an introduction to certain issues and challenges. Below, you’ll find my favorite reads from quarantine and why I loved them.
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
I cannot imagine starting off with a better book than Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. I read it with the intention of learning more about leadership — a quality I’m looking to grow in. I feel like it really sparked my desire to grow and learn the rest of the spring and summer. For as well as we know Mandela’s name and what he generally accomplished… we don’t actually know him. Mandela didn’t start getting mainstream international media attention until the late 80s, but by then he had already been dedicated to the anti-apartheid struggle for 25+ years. In his autobiography, he takes you through the childhood that formed him, his young adult years in Johannesburg, and eventually the struggle itself. Three aspects of Mandela’s accomplishments resonated with me:
- Teamwork. Despite Nelson Mandela being the name most associated with the anti-apartheid struggle, there were countless people who contributed to the cause. The people he surrounded himself with (ANC members), were just as dedicated to the struggle as he was.
- Long-term goals. They require courage, discipline, and leadership. You have to be willing to work towards them, even if you won’t see them accomplished in your lifetime. What are you so passionate about that you’re willing to dedicate yourself to it even if the goal isn’t accomplished in your lifetime?
- A sound mind. Mandela was often by himself and underwent tremendous trials, yet maintained his focus. He was in prison for 27 years, but came out stronger than he entered. In my opinion, this was Mandela’s strongest attribute.
Overall, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, was wonderful insight into the mind of one of the greatest leaders ever.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah follows Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to the U.S., and her high school love Obinze. After moving to the U.S., Ifemelu is confronted with racism and what it means to be Black in America. She comments on this through a blog entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black”. The way Adichie uses Ifemelu’s blog to comment on race and relationships in the U.S. makes the book unique. To be honest, it’s difficult to put into words how great I feel about this book, but I absolutely love it. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read and I recommend it to everyone.
Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth
Wow! I’m not sure what other people think after reading this book, but I definitely view how I want to contribute to economic development in a different way after reading it. I think it’s the best book I’ve ever read. It 100% cemented my desire to work in development economics in some capacity.
Raworth essentially proposes an economic system that places human well-being and the climate as the priority instead of profit. That isn’t revolutionary (hopefully), but rather it’s her explanation of how she believes we can accomplish this. Raworth lays out 7 ideas that she believes are what we need to address 21st century challenges. Two of these ideas that stuck out to me were:
- Change the Goal… from GDP to the Dougnut
- Be Agnostic about Growth… from growth addicted to growth agnostic
From front to back, the book reveals just how deeply embedded for-profit practices are in our society. More than anything, Doughnut Economics equips readers with the perspective to ask challenging and necessary questions of our politicians, businesses, and society as a whole.
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
Lastly, Down These Mean Streets is a wonderful memoir on Piri Thomas growing up in Spanish Harlem. Piri is Puerto Rican, but unlike everyone else in his family, he’s Black. He’s confronted with this reality (privileges and hardships) as he enters his teens.
Through his life, the intersection of race and poverty in mid 20th century America is seen. Initially, Piri resists being labeled as “Black,” because he thinks he is above that. However, he comes to realize that despite identifying culturally as Puerto Rican, America defines him as Black. To learn more about being Black in America, Piri embarks on a trip through the Deep South. He finds that everywhere he goes, he is Black. After returning to New York, he grapples with this newfound identity in all aspects of life.
What does it mean to be Black in the Latinx community? Should one identify primarily with their racial or national identity? Has the Latinx community made any progress on address anti-blackness since the mid 20th century? These were some of the questions I pondered while reading Down These Mean Streets.
Every book I read during quarantine added something to my perspective, but the books I highlighted above were the most impactful. If asked to describe what I learned in a concise way, I would describe these four books as a crash course on racial/economic justice in the 21st century.