The Essential Importance of Fiction in Social Justice

This post by Jasmine Guillory is wise, wonderful, and true. Stop now and read it if you haven’t already.

Reading Anti-Racist Nonfiction Is a Start. But Don’t Underestimate the Power of Black Fiction
(Time, posted online on June 30, 2020, accessed July 1, 2020)

Black lives are not a problem to be solved or an academic text that can be studied. To recognize Black lives as ones to celebrate, empathize with and care about, here’s your antiracism work: read more fiction by and about Black people.

It brings to mind a story that has become core to who I am and how I see the world:

My freshman year of college, I attended an author talk on campus. I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember the name of this author anymore, nor the title of his book. He was the author du jour of the academic literati at the time and I don’t recall hearing much else about him after his first burst of fame.

He was a gay black man who grew up during the 1980s in the poorest, most violent borough of New York City. His book was a memoir: growing up surrounded by gangs and violence and drugs, growing up poor, coming to terms with his sexuality amidst a hypermasculine culture, and how he worked his way into an Ivy League college and escaped. (*)

I came to college more “woke” than most white, middle class, straight, cisgender teenage boys who were raised in the middle of the U.S., in a town with almost no violent crime. I grew up in a feminist household, my parents were active in charity and anti-poverty work, my father was a career educator committed to expanding educational opportunity, and many of my friends in high school were gay or queer. One of my best friends was Korean and I saw how people treated him differently because of it. I was a nerd and an outcast for much of my childhood, which taught me that I have a responsibility to relate to and support other outcast groups in our society.

In high school in the early ’90s, I became active in the social justice movements for gay rights and compassionate homeless reform. I watched Spike Lee joints, the Hughes Brothers, and John Singleton movies. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I tried listening to hip hop but I admit it kinda scared me and made me uncomfortable. In high school, I fell in love with the fiction of Samuel R. Delany, also a black gay/queer academic man from New York.

I was aware of diversity and social inequity and injustice in a way many of my high school classmates were not.

But I understood the limitations of my understanding. I had never had any black friends growing up. There had only ever been two black students in my school: one foreign exchange student from South Africa who attended my school in 2nd grade, and one who transferred to my school for their senior year. All of my teachers had been white. I didn’t know anything about black life outside of a few books and movies and hip hop music.

I entered college at a time when students on campus were beginning to form student organizations around ethnic and social identity issues. The African-American student group was only a couple years old, the Asian-American student group formed my sophomore year. There were several LGBTQIA groups. I knew I wanted to help with their goals of educational and social reform on campus but I struggled to find my place in that work, largely because I felt I couldn’t relate well enough to these communities. Our differences were too great.

After this author’s official talk was over, he invited anyone who was interested to come up to the stage for a less formal conversation. I went up, thanked him for his presentation. He asked me what interested me in coming to it: I spoke about my desire to learn and help. I spoke about my fear that I would never be able to understand what life is like for someone like him, given how different my upbringing was. I spoke about my fear that my inability to understand would limit my ability to help.

He said to me: “I think you can understand what it was like for me growing up. You’re curious, you’re concerned, you’re willing to listen. And you have an imagination. You can imagine what my life has been like.”

This remains one of the most powerful learning experiences of my life.

I won’t ever directly experience what it’s like to be anyone other than a white, middle class, straight, cisgender man in the central U.S. But I can listen, I can learn, I can imagine, and I can choose to care.

There are only two ways that I know how to learn what it’s like to be someone other than myself:

  1. Build relationships with people who are different than you.
  2. Read fiction written by people who are different than you.

Nonfiction is essential in understanding the issues we’re dealing with and our respective roles in problematic structures. It’s the work of learning that we have to do.

But fiction is necessary to build empathy. To expand my understanding of all the different ways human beings can be. And to know what those experiences feel like. (**)

I’ve had friends and family ask me for anti-racist reading recommendations to help them understand what’s going on in the world right now. They know I’ve read a lot recently about racism, white fragility, and the history of race in the U.S. I’m happy to rec every book I’ve seen on all the anti-racist reading lists circulating online.

But it’s never been more important to recommend fiction written by authors of color. Especially fiction that doesn’t center the suffering and injustice people of color have been subjected to in this country.

Works focused on injustice and inequity teach us what the problem is. Works celebrating the full and complex humanity of people of color show us why we should care.

Please, always make an effort to include some fun and happy and interesting fiction from people of color in all your reading lists. It’s deeply important.


(*) This author’s memoir was popular with white academic audiences at the time mostly because his story could be interpreted as a bootstrap narrative touting the essential savior role of education and individual hard work. This was problematic and tokenistic at best. In his book, he focused very much on structural and systemic problems, the generational history of poverty in New York City, a message clearly lost on pretty much his entire white academic reading audience.

(**) Narrative nonfiction—especially memoirs—can build empathy much the same way fiction can. What’s essential is the focus on people and their personal lived experiences.

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