Books That Inspire
The five alumni we profile in this issue share
their love of the books that inspired their work:
The Bible: I chose the Bible because I’m a Christian and this is the book that has shaped my values, guides me spiritually, and keeps me anchored.
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris-Perry: I chose this book because I read it in my early 20s and it gave me the words and language I needed to articulate my experience being a Black woman in America. It was the first book I read that really addressed head-on the nuances of identifying as a Black woman in the context of America. I felt seen, understood, and it made me understand myself in a new way. After reading it, I felt a new and profound level of compassion for myself and other Black women. This book shaped my perspective in many ways and informs the way I approach the work I’m doing with Health In Her HUE now.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Toni Morrison is one of my all-time favorite writers. The Bluest Eye was the first Toni Morrison novel I ever read, and it’s also her very first novel, which is why I selected it. The novel’s message really resonated with me as a young, Black teenage girl learning to love myself and feel comfortable in my own skin. Also, Toni Morrison went to Howard University for undergrad like me, so she’s someone I’ve looked up to and inspires me. I use her quotes in my presentations all the time, and keep her words around me in my office or wherever I am working.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin: Notes of a Native Son is the 1955 tour-de-force nonfiction literary debut of American author James Baldwin. Published when Baldwin was 31, it’s a searing collection of essays on topics as varied as Richard Wright’s Native Son to the “negro problem” in American society; Baldwin’s text remains a powerful testimony to the unique power of the essay form as a form of “activism.” As someone who lives just a few blocks away from Baldwin’s childhood residence in Harlem, I know that this is a book whose words ring as true in 2021 as they did in 1955.
The Selected Works of Audre Lorde: The work of the late “Black lesbian warrior poet” Audre Lorde is indispensable for anyone interested in understanding the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in America—particularly through an unapologetically Black lens. The patron saint of intersectionality, Lorde’s work invites us to explore what she calls “the quality of light” that resides in anyone who sits at the crossroads of multiple selves. Edited by Black feminist writer Roxanne Gay, the book underscores Lorde’s enduring influence on a new generation of Black thinkers.
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin Kelley: Award-winning historian Robin Kelley’s gorgeous book is a sweeping cultural history of what he calls the “Black radical imagination”—a freedom-seeking imagination filled with dreams of justice, love, and collective emancipation. A must-read for anyone interested in building a new world (a world void of racism, sexism, and violence)—this book is the sage guide for how to connect Black people’s contemporary quest for social justice to a much broader and longer history of radical creativity.
The End of Policing by Alex Vitale: In this watershed text by New York–based sociologist Alex Vitale, the author makes the convincing argument that the “problem” of the police in America is not grounded in a need for more “training” or more “diversified” police forces. Instead, the problem of policing is the institution of policing itself. Not since Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has there been a more relevant book for understanding the crisis of our nation’s contemporary criminal “injustice” system. In the age of Black Lives Matter, this is text to return to again and again.
The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 by Eric Hobsbawm provided a foundation for understanding all that came after, right up to the present. The empires built and overseen by a few European governments with unhinged confidence, contemptuousness for the people, culture, and their history left a legacy that continues to undermine the health and safety of the world. From King Leopold’s colonization of the Congo to Russia’s and America’s arrogance in Afghanistan, the learning curve for the powerful has been flat.
Chagall Lissitzky Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde In Vitebsk, 1918–1922 is another cautionary tale. When art and culture are inspired by radical politics and philosophy, it can be exhilarating for the artist and enriching for the public. But when the state exercises near-complete control over artistic expression, both artist and audience suffer dearly.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander expanded my awareness of the historical continuity and consequences for our criminal legal system of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. For those of us focused on making the system more accurate, fairer, and racially more just, we know that unconscious racial bias and explicit racism have always harmed people of color disproportionately, especially young and adult Black men.
My library is a challenge to create and see connections between seemingly disparate worlds—Toni Morrison cozied up to Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Carrère rubbing elbows with Oliver Sacks, a monograph on Greenwich Village 1963 mingling with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Nevertheless, the books I have chosen to highlight here are all connected with significant moments in my life. In a way, these books helped me create myself.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: Devastated by the death of Toni Morrison, and as a way of coping with that loss, I began rereading her novels; it seemed like the only way I could pay my respects. Morrison’s quote from Song of Solomon comforted me: “She was fierce in the presence of death, heroic even, as she was at no other time. Its threat gave her direction, clarity, audacity.”
The red Juilliard book [in the photo] is a history of the conservatory, replete with color photographs, and a companion to the PBS documentary. A few days after I received my acceptance to Juilliard (where I completed a master’s degree in viola performance), I ordered the book. It was akin to thumbing the pages of a yearbook, knowing that I too would soon be a part of its legacy.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: I first came across Orwell after having visited London and Paris for the first time. Reading Down and Out was a way of sustaining my interest in the sprawling mysteries of the UK and France. Orwell’s inclusion of French slang into his prose converted me into the Francophile that I am today. And, of course, I ended up living in both London and Paris, making my own way in each.
Nana by Émile Zola: Zola’s Nana is a character study of a beautiful French stage performer who leads men to their destruction—a classical femme fatale. This novel, along with Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, Femmes Fatales at the Opera, Music of the Sirens, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, and Breton’s Nadja, depict the various manifestations of the femme fatale. That fatal woman forms the crux of my research during my time at NYU. Her ability to reinvent herself, despite impossible conditions, inspires me to resist complacency and stagnation.
Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon: Black Diamond Queens is written by NYU music professor Maureen Mahon. She has written a book that unearths the complex stories of Black women’s voices and musical contributions that have been silenced by history. She was the first professor for whom I served as a teaching assistant at NYU. The other academic monograph Loving Music Till It Hurts by William Cheng is a searing assessment of the ways in which we use music to excuse or enhance exclusionary aims. The final chapter, detailing unsealed court documents in the Jordan Davis trial, is an impassioned and profound example of ethical musicology. I also had the pleasure of editing this manuscript and working as Cheng’s research assistant during my time at Dartmouth.