Carolyn Holbrook’s new book wasn’t supposed to be released until August. But then George Floyd died after a police officer pinned him to the pavement.
So the University of Minnesota Press made the memoir available now — for free — along with two dozen other e-books that challenge the racism spotlighted by Floyd’s death.
“This is urgent,” said Holbrook, a Minneapolis-based author and educator. “I’m not going to get any royalties; I’m losing sales. And you know what? I don’t care.
“This moment is too important.”
During this time of unprecedented protest, publishers, libraries, booksellers and authors are getting anti-racist titles into people’s hands and heads.
The U of M Press has released a collection called “Reading for Racial Justice,” available online for free through August. The Friends of the Hennepin County Library group is making e-books such as “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, available immediately, without a wait. Individuals are buying out their local bookstores, rocketing black authors to the top of the bestseller lists.
“It’s clear that what people are asking for is radical change,” said Jason Weidemann, the U of M Press’ editorial director. Its staff felt a responsibility to contribute by making available books from the past 20 years that illuminate racial inequities throughout local and national history.
“We can help support this change by acknowledging and understanding the racist past of this state.”
A similar effort is taking place across the arts. Funders have banded with the MSP Film Society to do free online screenings of films such as the James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” followed by conversations that dig into the issues they’ve raised.
Film society programmer Craig Laurence Rice leads those conversations with scholars, activists and filmmakers during which the movies “become a platform to talk about larger issues — what’s going on today.”
He pointed to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” released in 1989, the landmark film that reflects racial tensions through a hot day on a Brooklyn block. That movie’s story is today’s story, Rice said, “and how long ago was that?” Finally, “people are tapping into what African-American filmmakers have been saying and what African-American writers have been writing.”
Films cannot cause a revolution, he continued. But they can educate and enlighten.
“I really hope people can engage in this and open themselves up to perspectives that may not be in their comfort zone,” Rice said. “For specifically white people who have ignored what’s been going on — this is not comfortable.
“And it’s not going to be comfortable.”
Following the killing of Floyd, the Hennepin County Library was inundated with requests for books that grapple with the knotty topics of white privilege and white supremacy. More than 4,000 people put “White Fragility,” “How to Be an Antiracist” and “Me and White Supremacy” on hold. With funding from Friends of the Hennepin County Library, the library’s nonprofit fundraising partner, the library made those e-books available immediately.
The nonprofit has committed $100,000 to keeping anti-racist titles available, said Kristi Pearson, the Friends chief executive.
The new pick for the statewide book club “One Book, One Minnesota,” offers a similar education.
“A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” edited by Minneapolis poet Sun Yung Shin, is a collection of 16 essays by Minnesota writers of color. Announcing the title, Beth Burns, president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, said that Floyd’s death has led to “a reckoning that we must confront institutional and systemic racism — and that means all of us.”
At this time, when many bookstores and campus libraries are closed, when people are donating their extra resources to food drives and rebuilding, the U of M Press decided it was important to get its anti-racist titles out there, said Weidemann, editorial director. Around the country, a few other university presses have done the same.
The U of M Press has long published works on racial justice, he said. “There’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of struggle, and there’s a lot of inspiration, frankly, in that history.”
Want to learn about the Minneapolis-born American Indian Movement, credited with protecting property during recent protests? Read “Survival Schools: The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities,” by Julie L. Davis. Want to know more about the L.A. riots and what followed them? Try “Civil Racism: The 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion and the Crisis of Racial Burnout” by Lynn Mie Itagaki. Want to hear from a Minnesota civil rights leader? Check out “Hope in the Struggle,” Josie Johnson’s memoir.
Holbrook helped Johnson write that book. Her own memoir, “Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify,” which the U of M Press is publishing, was 30 years in the making. Its essays capture, in part, the ghosts who have guided her, telling her: “Don’t hold back, child. Someone out there needs to hear what you have to say.”
They also capture the subtle racism often hidden beneath “Minnesota Nice.”
These books can “play a major role in educating people about the other side of liberal Minnesota — the underside,” Holbrook said. But she’s disappointed it took “something like this cop so blatantly murdering that man on camera” for people to begin listening to black people’s stories. She hopes that interest continues past this crisis.
“We’ve been around forever; we’re not new,” she said. “We’ve been yelling for centuries.”