Talking about Race

Every year the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti join together for their community read programs. This year I am on the Ann Arbor/ Ypsilanti Reads Outreach Committee. The committee is made up of librarians from the public libraries and local academic libraries, booksellers, individuals from area nonprofits, and community organizers. Our job is to market the community read, and to promote events related to the read. It takes a lot of people to create the list of potential books for the community read, the final list, and then market the read. Every year a non-fiction book is chosen for the Ann Arbor/ Ypsilanti Read based on the theme of the University of Michigan’s winter theme semester. Piggybacking on the theme semester allows the Ann Arbor/ Ypsilanti Reads program to share events with the University of Michigan. The theme semesters are broad themes that can be incorporated across the disciplines. Past themes have included language, astronomy, and water. This winter’s theme semester is race.

A selection committee narrowed down a long list of titles to three finalists; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Paul Kivel’s Uprooting Racism: How White People can Work for Social Justice. The New Jim Crow was chosen as the 2013 Ann Arbor/ Ypsilanti Read.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the Drug War has led to unprecedented levels of incarceration, particularly among African American men. She compares this mass incarceration to a caste system, much like Jim Crow laws, where citizens are denied the right to vote, the right to fair housing, the right to a living wage. This book is a sobering choice for a community read.

A librarian and I lead a book discussion on this book last month at our library. The group who came to the discussion either read the book quickly because the book is so compelling, or they read slowly because they were overwhelmed by what they were reading. The New Jim Crow caused a deep reaction for all the readers. The book is important, and is sparking some very interesting conversations in the community. Religious organizations, libraries, and nonprofits have been hosting films and book discussions to get people talking about the book and about race in general. The Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti libraries provided facilitation training for those leading book discussions. I feel like this community read is my town’s bibliotherapy. We’re using The New Jim Crow to talk about race. It’s not an easy or comfortable book to read, but I’m glad it was chosen. This book has gotten a lot of people talking. That’s a really good thing.

For resources for book clubs reading The New Jim Crow, visit http://aareads.aadl.org/aareads/resources

For more information about the Ann Arbor/ Ypsilanti Reads program, visit http://aareads.aadl.org/

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