The Importance of Self-Education
“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
Baldwin once said that it is nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind. But by the time I actually came around to finding out who James Arthur Baldwin was--one of the greatest intellectuals of American history to impart his teachings on the black experience-- I would be well out of my compulsory education years, and even then would have to scour the eight libraries of my undergrad’s campus to find Notes of a Native Son.
And who knows if I would have been in the right mindset to understand such a quote during my time in the US’ public education system; perhaps the extent to which I would’ve perceived his teachings would simply be a name on the grid of a “Black History Month” word search puzzle. It’s not difficult to recall the one time of year in which my entire history was summarized into just twenty eight days of arts and crafts, PBS specials, and the end-all Emancipation Proclamation; it’s funny to think what I must’ve thought Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for if equality was established in 1863.
In any case, I’m certain that Baldwin’s connotation of the “independent mind” would not have reconciled with my own because I was exactly who he and this country were and still are referring to...and that is exactly the point.
Living in a predominantly all-White surrounding my entire life, I do consider myself extremely lucky, as well as privileged, to have received the wisdom, teachings and guidance I was able to accumulate over the span of my conscious awareness. I do not take my educational opportunities and triumphs for granted, and know that I would not be the person I am today had I not pursued my educational environment. I think it needs to be said however, that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society.
This means, for myself and African Americans alike, that the price of an education comes with adhering to our standings in that society’s rhetoric. Whether consciously or not, for every Black person who is raised in America, there is a certain sacrificial price to becoming “educated” within the walls of our schooling system.
This type of sacrifice that I’m referring to should not be confused or taken out of context, as if some great hecatomb was required of myself in order to keep in good academic standing, although I’m sure the cost of my time at Boston College as a student-athlete would beg to differ; that in itself is a post waiting to be written and not what I mean in this sense. What I mean is, at the earliest age of five years old, compulsorily pledging allegiance to a flag that negates any Black historical contributions to society but the invention of peanut butter, and even that being a fabrication.
I’m referring back to 2008, when Obama was elected president and the American Dream was still made to seem--in my mind--applicable to Black Americans. I remember the resentful stares my sister and I bypassed in the hallways as if we had committed severe acts of treason, yet couldn’t even vote at the time. I recall the snide remarks, the bio-racial justifications spewed by my distraught math teacher, and the impulse to agree with it all, rather than fight against the norm. I knew nothing of my history to stand on and subsequently felt no pride in myself.
I am not here to reprimand the schools/universities I’ve attended for their lack of Black History in the curriculum they most likely still adhere to, but to simply point it out and question why this is the way things are. The purpose of education is to create in an individual the ability to ask questions of the society in which they are being educated in, and to then become conscious of the problem; the responsibility of anyone who thinks of themselves a member of this society is to examine it and try to change it for the better.
Why then, is it so easy for me to recall the inventor of the cotton gin and not the Southampton Insurrection that occured around the same period? Why have we spent so much time glorifying false heroes and not those affected by their veiled wrongdoings?
I don’t think it is a mistake as to why this is the case; all that I can be for certain of is that Black people do not have the luxury of dependence when it comes to knowing our past in any role outside of victimhood or fabricated savagery.
Fearing or disliking what you don’t understand/know is not an obscure concept; I myself feared and disliked many aspects of my own identity until I read the works of authors, poets, essayists, and philosophers whom--most of which--were not brought to my attention until I actively took responsibility for my own education. And to the teachers/professors/coaches who took part in allocating an unembellished history, I thank you for doing what you do not get praised enough for.
But to the Black individuals in this country who are still under the impression they will become their most authentic selves by reading their McGraw-Hill textbooks, I must say this: You are responsible for educating yourself and must find ways to feel inclined to do so. You are not obliged to believe the world’s definitions, just because it was proclaimed as truth.
Whether it be historically, spiritually, or even internally, there are resources available that pertain to who you have been, and what you can/should aspire to be. I’ve provided a list of twenty-five books I’ve found--over the course of time--to be extremely helpful in those three categories. Remember that the extent of your being does not only go so far as the invention of America; stories of your presence have been told since well before its time, whose motifs are universally shared since the very beginning.
I don’t like to think that I have everything figured out, nor do I believe that I ever will.
So why should I think anyone else does?
25 Suggested Books for Self-Education
“Glory Field” - Walter Dean Myers
The story of an African American family, beginning with the capture and enslavement of Muhammad Bilal in 1753. The family’s journey begins with a pair of iron shackles on the shores of West Africa and spans 250 years of their experience in America up until the Civil Rights Movement. This book does an amazing job giving perspective to Black generational tribulations and stresses the perennial fight for equality.
“Things Fall Apart” - Chinua Achebe
Written in response to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in where he describes tribal Africans as “savages”. This novel chronicles the life of Okonkwo, the leader of an Igbo community, after his banishment for accidentally killing a clansman. It addresses the intrusion in the 1890s of white missionaries, colonial government, and the subsequent disintegration of Okonkwo and his tribesmen. The novel was praised for its intelligent and realistic treatment of its content and the psychological consequences of social unraveling.
“Siddhartha” - Herman Hesse
This recommendation is for the message itself. “Siddhartha” deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man with the same name. Through his journey, Siddartha learns that experience leads to understanding. Rather than desires and belongings being a distraction, they are as important to our perception of the world as all other actions and thought.
“As a Man Thinketh” - James Allan
A very short, self-help book everyone should read! James Allan argues that the key to mastering your life is harnessing the power of your thoughts and helps you cultivate the philosophy and attitude of a positive, successful person.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” - Alex Haley
I grew up learning and thinking of Malcolm X as a violent extremist who promoted “black supremacy”. This book, made up of interviews Haley conducted over the course of two years with Malcolm himself, proves this libel couldn’t be further from the truth. A bit of a long read, this spiritual conversion narrative outlines X’s philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism.
“Message to the Blackman in America” - Elijah Muhammad
I’ve included this recommendation, but have to admit I myself have not read it all. The book serves as an autobiography of Elijah Muhammad and is then broken down by his philosophies. Use this resource as you’d like (I personally skipped around), but there are a lot of positive teachings on the transcendent Black man and how one can improve themselves living in America.
“The Divine Comedy” - Dante Alighieri
If you haven’t read any epic poetry before, I highly suggest using their allegorical themes as a resource for self-help.The story is simple: a man is miraculously enabled to undertake an ultramundane journey, which leads him to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Its content shares truths and generalizations of the human experience by means of symbolic fictional figures and, through the narrator’s journey, reveals the hardships that come with seeking spiritual maturity.
“The Power of Myth” - Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell might just be one of the most overlooked historians and philosophers of the 20th century. This book is compiled of recorded interviews, in which Campbell speaks on the universality and evolution of myths in the history of the human race and the role of myths in modern society. I’ve probably gone back to this book hundreds of times, simply because of the eye-opening facts of our reality and how cohesive spirituality really is.
“My Bondage and My Freedom” - Frederick Douglass
A slave narrative from one of the most conceptual individuals of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography discusses his journey from enslavement to liberty. It is a deep meditation of the meaning of slavery, race, freedom, and serves as the pinnacle of social, intellectual, and political thought of the time. I’m a huge fan of Frederick Douglass for, amongst many things, his early philosophies of intersectionality and all the WOMEN behind his journey who made it possible.
“Between the World and Me” - Ta-Nehisi Coates
In a personal letter to his son, Coates organically portrays the black experience in modern day America. Nobody can really know what it’s like to live life as an African American in the US unless they’ve experienced it themselves, but “Between the World and Me” shows how there is racism and discrimination in every aspect of of public life. Within these pages, Coates shares his own personal experiences that have led him to the conclusion that destroying the black body is a cultural heritage in America.
“Beloved” -Toni Morrison
This story represents the inescapable, horrible past of slavery returned to haunt the present.The work examines the destructive legacy of slavery as it chronicles the life of a black woman names Sethe, from her pre- Civil War days as a slave in Kentucky to her time in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1873.
“The Bluest Eye” - Toni Morrison
Another amazing period piece of work from Morrison, “The Bluest Eye” is a story about the oppression of women. The novel takes place in Lorain, Ohio and tells the story of a young African American girl named Pecola who grows up during the years following the Great Depression. The story’s women not only suffer the horrors of racial oppression, but also the tyranny and violation brought upon them by the men in their lives.
“And Still I Rise” - Maya Angelou
This is the third volume of poetry of Maya Angelous’ published, after having written three autobiographies and two others just before. It is made up of 32 poems, divided into three parts, and focus on a hopeful determination to rise above difficulty and discouragement. Angelou speaks for her race and gender in many of the poems, emphasizes the strength and resiliency of her community, but also covers a wider range of topics, including springtime, aging, sexual awakening, drug addiction, and Christian salvation.
“The Norton Anthology of English Literature” - W.W Norton & Company
You know, I don’t actually have much to say about this one, though cannot stress the importance of understanding historical context through written pieces of work. Many of these volumes shed light on truths of the time from produced articles, poems, works of fiction, and even journal entries. To put things in perspective, I wasn’t able to make the distinction between the Disney John Smith with the real one until I read his comrade’s diary entries on how big of an ass he was. In all seriousness, this has served as a more credible source of history than any textbook I’ve received.
“Evicted” - Matthew Desmond
The first non-fiction book on the list, “Evicted” follows eight families struggling to pay rent to their landlords during the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and highlights the issues of extreme poverty, affordable housing, and economic exploitation in the United States. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize “for a deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less of a consequence than a cause of poverty”.
“The Color of Law” - Richard Rothstein
Richard Rothstein’s published argument on how segregation in America is the byproduct of explicit government policies at the local, state, and federal levels. The central premise of his argument, which calls for a reexamination of American constitutional law, is that the Supreme Court has failed to understand the extent to which residential racial segregation in our nation is not the result of private decisions by individuals, but is the direct product of unconstitutional government action. The implications of his analysis are both shocking and revolutionary.
“The Migration Series” - Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence was an American painter known for his portrayal of African-American life. Through his works, he was able to tell a story of the black experience and condition in the US. His “Migration Series” tells the story of the Great Migration, or mass movement of over one million AfricanAmericans from the rural South to the urban North in the early decades of the twentieth century, a period that altered the social, economic, political and cultural fabric of American society.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” - Zora Neale Hurston
Now considered a classic from the Harlem Renaissance, this book was actually banned for its language and sexual explicitness. Through the story of Janie Crawford, Hurston makes a powerful statement about what it means to be a Black woman in a white, male-dominated culture, while telling a universal love story.
“1619 Project” - Nikole Hannah- Jones
This recommendation had to be included--at the very least--because of it’s amazing format of long-form journalism. This ongoing, interactive project from the NY Times re-examines the legacy of slavery and subsequently aims to refrain the country’s history by placing the consequences of enslavement and contributions of African Americans at the center of the national narrative. Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her commentary, and the project itself has a multitude of contributions in the format of poetry, short fiction and even photo essays.
“Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement” - Nikki Giovanni
This is a collection of Nikki Giovanni’s early works of poetry from the Civil rights Movement. It perfectly articulates black rage felt during the 1960's in my opinion, that signifies the emotions, thoughts, and demands of Black liberation. Giovanni’s work is an important insight to a sub-movement not otherwise addressed that flows between militant, black revolution and beautiful love poems.
“The Republic”/“Allegory of the Cave” - Plato
I can’t say much about this one without ruining the themes and message relayed through the simple story. Essentially, both Plato and Socrates explain the symbolic context behind a group of people that have lived chained to a wall inside of a cave their entire lives. The allegory contains many forms of symbolism used to instruct the reader in the nature of perception. The cave itself represents superficial physical reality as well as ignorance, as those inside of the cave live accepting what they see at face value.
“Invisible Man” - Ralph Ellison
One of my favorite Black existentialist authors, “Invisible Man” is the story of a young, college-educated black man struggling to survive and succeed in a racially divided society that refuses to see him as a human being. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration for my own work as a writer and, as a Black man struggling with similar issues in my own time, would have to recommend this book to any and every Black person living in America--regardless of their status.
“Notes of a Native Son” - James Baldwin
Though not intended to be published, this collection of essays share Baldwin's concerns over the resolution of the United States' racial dilemma and the question of American identity. Baldwin’s elegant writing and unique perspective of the 1960’s lays out race relations in the most palpable and comprehensive way I’ve ever read whose psychological approach and critique on slavery/treatment of Black Americans is still relevant today.
“What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought”- Lewis Gordon
A modern day philosopher, Lewis Gordon offers a philosophical portrait of the thought and life of psychiatrist/philosopher Frantz Fanon as an example of “living thought” against the legacies of colonialism and racism. By doing so, Gordon shows the continued relevance and importance of Fanon’s ideas. This content is slightly esoteric but provides an interesting perspective on racists in America, essentially arguing that racists are not irrational people but instead hyper-rational expressions of racist rationality.
“The Souls of Black Folk” - W.E.B Du Bois
This seminal collection of essays on race is highly inspired by the transcendentalist teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Du Bois applies his coined term of “double consciousness” to the idea that black people must have two fields of vision at all times. They must be conscious of how they view themselves, as well as being conscious of how the world views them.