In the 1850s, my great-great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Key, was just 14 years old when she was purchased for $1,000 by a slave owner named William B. Key at an auction in Georgia, per my family's records.
I live with the knowledge that a white man once bought the matriarch of my family for a price that's less than the average monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis.
Understanding my family's lineage at a young age encouraged my passion to learn about Black history.
By reading, I came to know about important figures such as Malcolm X through Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." But more obscure figures and works deserve our consideration, too. John D'Emilio's book, "Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin," details the life of an influential civil rights leader who stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. while also enduring the scrutiny of being a Black member of the LGBT community.
"The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave" is an essential book about one of history's most important figures. "Notes of a Native Son" is perfection from James Baldwin on race relations in America and Europe. I've enjoyed the modern tales, too. I'm currently digesting Jesmyn Ward's "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race," in which the author concludes that she knows "what a good portion of Americans think of my worth."
To ponder the past is not an optional quest for a Black person in this country. Yesterday's racism and inequities have shaped the present for a community of more than 40 million people, and they will certainly impact our collective future, too.
While I'm encouraged by the ardent attraction to literature about the Black experience in a place where more people have identified as anti-racist since George Floyd's killing, I'm also concerned about a community that seems to lack the same fervor to explore the past.
The latter is essential in any conversation about the eradication of racism and prejudice. The individual determination to live a life that recognizes and discourages inequality is important. But it can also breed a narrow view of the issues while promoting the rejection of systemic racism and the dangers of complicity.
That's why it's important to expand your reading lists this holiday season.
Christopher Lehman, a professor of ethnic studies at St. Cloud State, has written a book called "Slavery's Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State," which explores Minnesota's connection to the slave trade as a tourism hub for wealthy slave owners.
Per Lehman, a few state lawmakers had even proposed a bill in the 1860s to make Minnesota a slave state — it was voted down — to entice tourists who owned slaves. He said the presentation of the past is difficult for some because it demands a more complicated conversation about the tentacles of history, which books detail. (He recommended Eric Foner's "The Second Founding," which analyzes the impact of Reconstruction.)"It has been 55 short years since the Voting Act," Lehman said. "To really get to some healing, you have to dig deep."
Steffan Spencer, an assistant professor of African history at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said students on the predominantly white campus are hungry to learn. He said his conversations in his classes often center on what they did not learn before college.
He said books, such as Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," Harriet A. Washington's "Medical Apartheid" and Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman's "Slavery's Capitalism," speak to the long-lasting effects of racism in America.
He said his students are "relating better to the world around them" as they learn more about the history of slavery and institutional racism. A true inspection of the persistent structural barriers for African Americans, he said, also yields an understanding of the gaps that exist because of them. He cited a 2016 study by the Corporation for Enterprise Development and Institute for Policy Studies that said it would take African Americans 228 years to accumulate the amount of wealth white Americans have today.
"I think that there is a lot of resistance to structural, institutional change," Spencer said.
A lack of understanding too, said William Green, a renowned history professor at Augsburg University who has written books about Minnesota's connection to slavery, including "Degrees of Freedom: The Origins of Civil Rights in Minnesota, 1865-1912" and "The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity in Minnesota, 1860-1876."
He said Minnesotans were surprised that "George Floyd could happen here," in part because so many hadn't grappled with the state's true history of race relations.
He said reading a wide range of material about Black history is the key to knowing the steps that have led to this critical moment. It can also help counter the inaction by some who view the issues as too large and insurmountable to confront.
"Some people throw their hands up and say, 'What am I supposed to do?' " Green said. "The conclusion is they do nothing. But that's not the solution."
What is? I think about that question a lot.
And I always come back to this idea: ongoing dedication to education, which facilitates dialogue and tangible change. I'm not sure any effort against racism can thrive without that approach.
That's why I'll soon announce a new book club, where we'll discuss important books and issues periodically throughout 2021. We're working on the book club details, and in the meantime, I'd like to know if you're interested in participating, so shoot me an e-mail or a DM on Twitter if you are.
I aim to extend and strengthen the conversation. Perhaps this will help.
Either way, I'll keep reading. I hope you will too.