The Naruszewicz Files: Books That Changed My Thinking on Matters Related to Race

In a previous post entitled “You Know It’s a Good Book When,” I shared with you a piece of advice once given to me by my old English teacher, Jeffrey Naruszewicz.  In short, he encouraged me to always be reading books that “pissed me off.”  Why?  Because books of this nature have a way of making you see things you never saw before.  They ask you to walk in another’s shoes.  They refuse to allow for easy answers.  And in the end, they make you a stronger person by virtue of making you a better thinker.

Thus, in this post, I offer you the first installment of “The Naruszewicz Files.”  These files are the books in my library that initiated a sea-change in my thinking on a particular subject or issue.  My honest prayer is that as you approach this list, you might seriously consider picking up at least one of these volumes in the interest of growth and honest dialog.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as Told to Alex Haley) by Malcolm X and Alex Haley.   This was the book that started it all for me.  Born into a predominantly white suburban culture, I was raised to believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the beginning and the end of everything that needed to be said on matters of racial justice.  But when I first encountered Malcolm X as a junior in college, I immediately knew that there was so much more to be said.  X challenged everything that made me comfortable; and in the end, he taught me more about “living out faith” than almost any Christian I had ever read.  It is because of this book that I finally abandoned political science as a major and it is because of this book that I turned to the field of sociology.

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith.  In 2001, Emerson and Smith conducted a study on white evangelical America and the issue of race.  What they found is that despite the efforts of many evangelical leaders, it is evangelicals themselves who may be partially responsible for preserving the racial chasm in modern day America.  That is not to say that evangelicals are active racists.  Instead, it evangelicalism’s focus on individualism, personal relationships and free will that prevents them from seeing the systemic problems that plague American culture.  In other words, many white Christians believe that there’s nothing that can’t be solved by the repentance and conversion of the sinful individuals.  In the end, a tough, sobering look at the modern evangelical movement.

Black and White Styles in Conflict by Thomas Kochman.  This is difficult book to put on this list.  There are clearly problems with the methodology of comparing the styles of a white, middle class population with “community blacks,” which is code for poor, urban blacks.  Nevertheless, Kochman’s contention that viewing black culture as a deviant version of the majority white culture is worthy of serious consideration and honest dialog. In the end, the book makes the list because, methodological warts and all, it changed how I think about matters related to race.  Special thanks to Dr. Alvaro Nieves, former professor of sociology at Wheaton College, who used this book as the foundation of one of the most dynamic undergraduate courses I had the privilege to take.

Race Matters by Cornel West.  First published on the one-year anniversary of the L.A. riots, West examines a multitude of topics in a series of rapid-fire essays.  Ranging from black nihilism to the dearth of black leadership, and from affirmative action to the state of black-Jewish relations, West’s biting commentary is never short of either passion or radical suggestions.  While the reader will certainly find many things to disagree with, West does a stellar job of igniting the conversation in way that makes it accessible for all to approach.

The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry.  First published in 1970, this is an eloquent examination of the problem of race by a rural farmer/English professor – a man who has suffered as the descendant of slaves, but a man who desires to see an end to both racism and the guilt that is passed down from generation to generation.  Paying special attention to the ways in which racism has damaged the dominant white culture, this book, in many ways, reads almost  like a piece of poetry and yet, its eloquence never gets in the way of its prophetic truth telling.

Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line by Michael Dyson.  Former welfare father.  Ordained Baptist minister.  Princeton Ph.D.  While these may not be the sorts of credentials one would ordinarily cluster together, these are the credentials of Dr. Michael Dyson.  Bridging the gap between black and white communities in America, between the academy and the street, and between yesterday and today, Dr. Dyson is one of those rare intellectuals that knows how to speak the language of common sense.

So what about you?  Have you read anything on the subject of race and race relations that has changed your thinking?  Any recommendations?  I’d love to hear them. 

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6 Responses to The Naruszewicz Files: Books That Changed My Thinking on Matters Related to Race

  1. mahoneyrm5150 says:

    Thanks for the Smith and Berry recommendation; I have been wanting to read something by both of them. I now have a place to start.

    For me, there are several books I would have to list, but I keep it short.

    Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God was a game changer for me in terms of providing a lens, key or hermeneutic for understanding the whole of scripture.

    Kwame Bediako’s The Gospel In Africa: History And Experience is just one book I read that helped me realize our interpretation of scripture and our theologizing is deeply shaped by our cultural context.

    Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel is an example of the books I have read that provide an historical and biblical picture of what gospel means.

    Elsa Tamez’s Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead performed a two fold head popper. It is another fine example of how culture shapes our interpretation of scripture, and it an excellent example of a book that highlights scripture’s message for the poor and marginalized.

    Ronald J. Sider’s Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? reshaped my thoughts about political engagement by Christians.

    Cornelius Van Til’s Christian Apologetics completely changed how I view the “how” of apologetics.

    James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church and Stanley J. Grenz, John R. Franke’s Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context both profoundly impacted my philosophical presuppositions and Christian utilization of postmodern epistemology in theology.

    • I know I mentioned to you that I was going to put up a broad list of books that changed my thinking, but as I was scanning through my library, I realized that I have experienced many changes in many different fields of thinking as a result of my reading. And so, I have decided to take it topic at a time.

      As for your broad ranging list, I’m really intrigued by the Smith title and the Tamez title.

      Thanks for sharing a few suggestions. This is how great books are found.

  2. mahoneyrm5150 says:

    Just picked up the Wendell Berry book on Kindle, and I am 4 chapters into it already.

  3. Pingback: Racism, Dinosaurs, Epiphany and Wendell Berry | Christus Victor

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