These Books Will Help You Better Understand Colin Kaepernick’s Protest


Ah, 2018. Angry people are cutting logos off of socks that they already own and burning shoes that they already paid for because an athletic apparel company rolled out a TV ad featuring a man who peacefully protested for racial justice.

When Colin Kaepernick was recently announced as the face of a new Nike campaign, a certain sector of Americans became nothing short of apoplectic. But aside from Nike’s decision to feature the controversial figure being a good business move, their support of Kaepernick — and, by proxy, his protest — is something all Americans should get behind. It is, as Life editor Steve Bramucci wrote, “A motor that pushes society along in its gradual arc toward justice for all.”

In order to help push this movement forward, we’ve put together a list of 10 books to help you better understand why Colin Kaepernick took a knee.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

If you want to understand how police brutality against black Americans works, pick up Thomas’s novel.

What happens when an unarmed black person is shot by an officer of the law? It depends on who you ask: there are those who will defend the officer, saying that the teen probably deserved it for one reason or another. And then there’s Angie Thomas, who started writing The Hate U Give when Oscar Grant was shot and killed in Oakland in 2009.

One night, Starr Carter’s friend, Khalil, who is black, is driving the protagonist home from a party when they’re pulled over by a white police officer. Khalil is asked to step out of the car, and when he reaches for a hairbrush, the officer shoots and kills him. What follows is a raw and emotional whirlwind of action and devastation, with national outlets portraying Starr’s friend as a gangbanger and twisting the narrative in favor of the officer. And we follow Starr as she grapples with the reality of the shooting and its consequences.

Thomas’s young adult novel is considered the “Black Lives Matter novel” by publishers, and while it does follow 16-year-old Starr’s life as an activist with Just Us for Justice—Thomas’s nod to BLM—it also shows the life of a girl who lives in two worlds. Starr is both a student at a swanky, mostly-white private school and a resident of a majority black neighborhood. She navigates the differences between these two worlds, showing readers the ways in which white privilege and systemic racism mix and try to dictate who Starr is.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

If you’re looking for a bird’s eye view of the connection between slavery and modern systemic racism, read Gyasi’s debut novel.

Homegoing follows the lives of two half-sisters, born in 18th century Ghana, and their families throughout the centuries. One sister is sold in the transatlantic slave trade and taken to what is now the U.S., and the other lives in relative comfort in Ghana. Spanning generations, Gyasi’s book is told in short story format, with every chapter illustrating the ways in which European colonialism and the slave trade forever changed the world.

Two slaves and their child try to escape the planation upon which they’re enslaved. A Fante family makes money off of selling Asante people to European slavers. Jim Crow. Heroin in Jazz Age Harlem. The introduction of cocoa to the Ivory Coast. Every page, every word of this book is a devastating send-up of the history that has brought us hurtling into the modern age—and into the reality that Kaepernick is now protesting.

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

If you’re looking for an artful rumination on what it means to be a black woman today, go for Jerkins’s book of essays.

In 1962, Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” And Jerkins’s collection of essays is an exploration of that disrespect and neglect. What does it mean to exist at the intersection of black and female in the U.S. today? Jerkins takes the word essay—to try—and runs with it. She makes no definitive statements about what it is to be a black girl (and then a black woman) in the U.S., but she explores all the possibilities.

Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

If you want a personal account of how systemic racism works on an individual level in this country, pick up Coates’s book-length essay.

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates is perhaps most famous for his lengthy defense of reparations, in which he deftly connects slavery all the way to the current school-to-prison pipeline and argues that the U.S. must finally reckon with its racist past—and present—by giving reparations to black Americans.

And his novella-length essay, Between the World and Me, is a continuation of this theme, though told through the lens of his family’s story. This book effectively elucidates the connections between today’s police shootings and slavery; its power comes from how Coates pulls from his own life and uses personal storytelling to illuminate what can otherwise be too abstract to really grasp.

Race Matters by Cornel West

If you’re not totally sold by Coates’s economically-focused views on race, perhaps you should pick up philosopher and academic Dr. Cornel West’s classic book on race in America. (Especially in light of West’s criticisms of Coates.)

First published in 1993, Race Matters is still in print because its exploration of everything from affirmative action to black sexuality to police brutality. It’s an academic book, but it reads like creative nonfiction, and it brings some of West’s more intellectual theories to a broader audience. This is a great means of introducing yourself to all of the complications and intersections of race in America today, and 25 years on, it is still incredibly prescient.

The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson

If you want to understand how the brutal crack epidemic affected the black community, pick up Jackson’s book.

When you think about Portland, Oregon, you likely think about all the twee quirk of Portlandia: urban chickens, feminist book stores, aggressive cyclists. But that’s not Jackson’s Portland—and that’s not the city featured in The Residue Years. Instead, we follow Champ and his mother, Grace, as they grapple with being black in one of the whitest cities in America. Grace is fresh out of rehab, struggling to bring her family back together, and Champ is also trying to do right by his family by taking care of his little brothers and reclaiming their home in Northeast Portland. But the only way Champ knows how to make money is by selling crack. Getting out, avoiding illegal activities—it’s not easy when the system is designed to keep you down. Jackson’s novel is a poetic send-up of the way the system works against black communities.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

If you prefer sci-fi or fantasy, do yourself a favor and read Butler’s seminal 1979 time-travel novel.

In 1970s California, twenty-six-year-old Dana is celebrating her birthday when she is suddenly taken back to antebellum America. Throughout the novel, she travels back and forth between California and 19th century Maryland, where she has been “called” by her white ancestor, Rufus, the son of a plantation owner. Each time she finds herself back in Maryland is longer and more dangerous than the last, and retools traditional slave narratives for modern readers.

Bonus: Butler’s story is now in graphic novel form, if that’s more your speed.

New People by Danzy Senna

If you need a little love story, hell, even a little sense of humor, with your race criticism, Senna’s novel is the one for you.

We meet Maria as she finishes her dissertation and prepares to marry her fiancé Khalil, who is enjoying his career in the late-90s dot-com boom. They live in a “faux bohemia” full of black and brown people living out their dreams. Life is good, and the novel gets its name from the documentary in which Maria and Khalil are featured, about the “new people”—racially ambiguous, brown, post-racial—ostensibly taking over the U.S. But all is not as it seems in this world, and as Maria becomes obsessed with a poet she hardly knows, her world threatens to unravel altogether.

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson

If you like feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, Johnson’s novel will send shivers up your spine.

Four Berkeley students decide to go to Braggsville, Georgia in order to stage a protest against a Civil War re-enactment which celebrates the Confederacy. Steeped in irony, the four misguided students attempt to stage a “performative lynching.” But their prank goes deadly wrong. Braggsville plays with stereotypes and uses the white protagonist, D’aron Davenport, and his well-meaning but ultimately foolish friends to play with themes of race, class, and politics.

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

If you feel like you might be ready to start talking about race but you’re not sure where to start, Oluo has written an easily digestible book on just that.

How do you figure out what to say? What kind of tone should you use? Who should you be talking to? (Hint: don’t waste your time trying to signal that you’re woke; instead, focus on white people who don’t think this country has a problem with race.) Oluo tackles all of this and more and will give you the confidence to advocate for racial justice.