Groundswell of interest: Learning to be anti-racist


At lower left, Mary Beth Nebel reaches into her shop window to get a copy of “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

Last month, Community Word spoke with Jessica Stephenson, owner of the independent bookstore Lit on Fire on Main Street. This month, Mary Beth Nebel, owner of the independent bookstore I Know You Like a Book on Prospect Road in Peoria Heights, shares some insights.

“I have owned this shop for 14 years, and this time is different. Black Lives Matter has customers coming to the shop looking for books. People want to understand and be educated,” she said recently.

“People used to say ‘Yes, but I’m not racist.’ Now they are saying ‘Maybe I should learn more before speaking.’”

Some of the books on her list are in such demand, they are on back order with the publishers.

Nebel recommends a book that was originally written for young readers in junior high and high school but has proven to be excellent for adults as well: “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.

The book is a remix of Kendi’s scholarly work “Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”

Nebel said Reynolds, an award-winning writer of books for teens, has been able to team up with Kendi, a professor of history and international relations, to write a book suitable for both young and old.

The book was just recently released in March. Rather than a deep dive into Black history, the book contextualizes the history of racial concepts and how we have arrived at this moment.

Reynolds speaks with the authority and having lived the experience. He was inspired to write poetry when he was 9 years old and heard Queen Latifah’s 1993 album “Black Reign” for the first time.

He was 17 before reading his first novel cover to cover. It was Richard Wright’s “Black Boy.” Reynolds then consumed books by James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.

His books for young adults have been on The New York Times best-seller list. He was a National Book Award finalist and was named the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

Nebel donated 60 of his books several years ago to the Peoria Heights Grade School.

She said Reynolds’ books deal with issues children from low-income backgrounds face. One protagonist had a father in prison.

“Reynolds is an excellent writer of novels that address issues kids go through that adults are sometimes fearful to talk about,” she said. “Reynolds can have those conversations.”

Another book Nebel Recommends is “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson about the struggle to help people on death row.

Formerly a practicing attorney, Nebel said she did not realize the extent of the continuing abuse within the system of capital punishment.

Nebel cautions that not all books will be helpful.

“Just like social media, a book can affirm any disposition,” she said.

People have to be willing to be a little uncomfortable. Black Lives Matter gives white people the opportunity to understand ‘OK, maybe my behavior is a form of racism, and I did not even understand it.’”

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