Home > Culture > Entertainment > Black Lives Matter to post-civil war Beirut: 12 books to learn more about social justice around the world
Black Lives Matter to post-civil war Beirut: 12 books to learn more about social justice around the world

Social movements, from ‘Black Lives Matter’ and more, have swept the globe in 2020.

Be it in the United States or in France, Hong Kong or in Minsk, this year has truly brought social justice and equality issues to the forefront (peacefully or otherwise). While movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ have dominated headlines of late — speaking out against the historic police brutality and racially motivated violence towards Black people; other movements and nations, however, have been protesting for years about historic injustices without mainstream media coverage. Until more recently, that is.

With all the rapid changes happening around the globe — pandemic-fuelled or otherwise — you’ll want to brush up your knowledge on the universal calls for anti-racism, gender and social equality around the world. Check out these 12 essential reads to learn more.


African American writer Ibram X. Kendi’s memoir recounts and explains how racism is far more deeply ingrained in society than we realise. As humans growing up in communities with racist pasts, we are unaware of how our varying degrees of internalised racism affects the way we view class, geography, gender, religion and even our own position and self worth.

Kendi presents the possibility of an anti-racist society, one that not only accepts that racism is wrong but also works towards weeding it out from their lives and institutions. Kendi’s book, named one of the best books of the year by Time, the Washington Post and the New York Times Book Review, has been seen as essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the demand to abolish or restructure the police in the Black Lives Matter protests. However, the ideals of the book can really be applied to any number of protest movements, regardless of location, as Kendi draws on history, ethics, law and science to explain how the opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist’ but ‘anti-racist.’

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‘Barracoon: the History of the Last ‘Black Cargo” is one of American author Zora Neale Hurston’s non-fiction books about the slave trade. The biography recounts the life of Cudjo Lewis when he was brought over on the last illegal slave ship, the Clotilda, and his journey to freedom and beyond in Alabama. Originally written in 1927–1930, ‘Barracoon’ was held up in publication till 2018 as Hurston had chosen to write the entire book in Lewis’s pidgin English, and it was assumed that audiences wouldn’t be able to understand. But within that dialect lie nuances about how Lewis saw the Middle Passage to the United States and how he interacted with the world around him. His account of establishing Africa Town, the first township to be inhabited by freed slaves in the region, is particularly interesting, as well as how Lewis saw the Emancipation Edict that officially ended slavery and changed their lives forever. It is definitely a must-read for history aficionados.

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‘The Hate U Give’ (or THUG) is a fictional Young Adult novel set in the United States that follows teenage protagonist Starr Carter as she witnesses her friend Khalil’s murder at the hands of a police officer. In the aftermath of the shooting, Carter decides to report and testify against the officer in question — known only by his badge number One Fifteen — and comes face-to-face with the obstacles presented by systemic racism. There are clear parallels between Khalil’s story and those of Breonna Taylor, Adama Traoré and countless other Black individuals who have lost their lives at the hands of police brutality. Angie Thomas’s novel is a raw view of institutional racism in the criminal justice system and how communities react in the wake of a tragedy.

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‘The Good Immigrant’ is a collection of 21 stories and essays compiled by British writer Nikesh Shukla that look at how Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) citizens of the UK experience British society. It breaks down what it means to be an immigrant or asylum seeker, to have a foot in two worlds, and how one will be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on how people view their ethnic group’s contribution to society. While the experiences recorded wrestle with the concept of race and nationality in a predominantly English-speaking, former colonising, country, they can be applied to any country that has a concept of an ‘other’ or a less than welcoming view of immigrants.

Born out of a crowd-funding campaign to increase diversity on bookshelves and not just 0n diversity panels, ‘The Good Immigrant’ offers voices from up-and-coming BAME authors such as poet/columnist Chimene Suleyman, playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, actor/writer Vera Chok and writer Wei-ming Kam.

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‘We should all be feminists’ is the written version of prolific Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2012 TED Talk of the same name. The 64-page essay is a shorter read compared to others on this list but it nonetheless breaks down the complexities of gender and sexual politics and how they affect everyday life for womxn. Using accounts from her own personal life about issues such as power-dressing and attempting to reject negative labels created for womxn, Adichie lays bare what it means to be a feminist today and that everyone should aspire to uphold the ideals of the social movement. The essay, which also happened to be sampled in the 2016 song ***Flawless by Beyoncé Knowles, also highlights how it’s not just womxn that are affected by toxic gender stereotypes but society at large.

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Nick Estes in his beautifully written book recounts the history of Indigenous American resistance in the United States — specifically the resistance of Estes’ own nation: the Oceti Sakowin Oyate (the Great Sioux Nation). He attempts to combat instances of Indigenous erasure before tying them in with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

The story of the Dakota Access Pipeline is one that is not new to Native American peoples. It involved digging up sacred ground, polluting rivers and cutting through reservation land for an oil pipeline that would serve people outside the Standing Rock Reservation. Starting in 2016, the protest movement (#NoDAPL) has now become the biggest Indigenous resistance movement in the twentieth century: Involving local and federal governments and legal systems. Estes places the movement in the larger context of Indigenous history and how anti-colonial campaigns have evolved since the landing of the Mayflower. The book provides straightforward explanations as to why protests by Indigenous peoples are important for the preservation of their land and culture.

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‘House Made of Dawn,’ winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is the work of Native American author Navvare Scott Momaday and is hailed as the novel that brought Native American storytelling to mainstream American audiences. The book follows Abel, a young American Indian World War II veteran, who returns to his reservation in New Mexico after the war. The novel is written from several points of view and explores how Abel wrestles with the world of his ancestors and the twentieth century. Drawing on his own experiences living on Kiowa reservations, Momaday presents the seemingly opposing nature of colonial and Indigenous value systems and how Native Americans in the 1960s were expected to choose between one or the other.

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‘Potiki’, published in 1986, is a fictional account of a coastal Maori community in New Zealand that was inspired by real-life political events. Written in the wake of the 1975 Maori Land March against the selling of ancestral Maori land, it follows a community who are fighting against developers wishing to turn their homes into a tourist attraction.

Using elements of magic realism to weave in Maori beliefs as well as relying on the use of the Maori language (te reo), Grace outlines the very real struggles that Indigenous peoples in New Zealand have to face when they are treated like the ‘other.’ It is also a no-holds-barred look at the abuse of power and legal systems that allow for government officials to strip away private land from citizens (more increasingly than not, ancestral land) for public projects.

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Set in Beirut, which still hosts remnants of political and military strife in the aftermath of civil war, ‘Between Beirut and the Moon’ follows Adam, a young teenage boy who dreams of becoming an astronaut. His friends and family refer to him as the Arab Armstrong but dismiss his passion as a passing childhood fancy: Dreams don’t really have much place in the tiny bathroom where he and his family have to take refuge, especially when there are still bombs going off in the distance.

While Lebanese author Naji Bakhti’s chosen backdrop is dark and rife with instances of sectarian and political violence (which are particularly hard-hitting as we follow the news after the recent devastating Beirut blasts), we are introduced to life in Beirut in a more lighthearted, comedy-driven tone as Adam comes of age on the shores of his city. A nuanced look at childhood in a conflict zone and the concept of nationalism in the Middle East, this is a novel that will keep you hooked till the end.

Preorder for 27 August here

With the announcement of the recent landmark treaty between the UAE and Israel, the saga of political conflict in the region have only gotten more complicated. A memoir from award-winning Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh, ‘Where the Line is Drawn’ looks at how military occupation and politics have affected relationships and friendships. It follows Shehadeh’s friendship with Henry Abramovitch, a Jewish Israeli, and how their starkly different lives and political identities permeate through the bonds of a friendship they initially believed could remain apolitical and secular. It is one of the ten books written by Shehadeh that document the occupation of the West Bank in a manner that has been described as combining “stubborn humanity, melancholy and fragile grace.”

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The 100-page ‘Aftershook: Essays from Hong Kong’ was compiled by freelance journalist Holmes Chan and published in the Summer of 2020. With the second reprint now available at partner bookshops and online, we recommend you pick up a copy while stocks last and read about how frontline journalists covered the Anti-Extradition Bill protests in 2019. The 11 essays included in the book feature writers that have been published by the SCMP, the HKFP among others and whose names have now become synonymous with protest coverage. Having lived in Hong Kong their entire lives, ‘Aftershock’ follows Holmes Chan, Karen Cheung, Elaine Yu, Sum Lok-kei, Rachel Cheung, Hsiuwen Liu, Ezra Cheung, Nicolle Liu and Jessie Pang as they try to find meaning in the chaos that they covered.

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Even though James Baldwin wrote the essays that comprise ‘Notes of a Native Son’ in the 1950s, elements of oppression and violence — unfortunately — still remain true in America today, and such issues are particularly pronounced through the current Black Lives Matter movement. The book is a social commentary on the African American experience as a whole: the individual essays focus on life in Harlem, Atlanta, Paris, touching upon novels, movies, fatherhood, and really anything else that is part of the human experience. For Baldwin, “The story of the negro in America is the story of America … it is not a very pretty story.” To the author, the values of American society represented themselves through the nation’s treatment of Black citizens. Hence he was a “native son,” one created by the events that shaped American Civil Rights. ‘Notes of a Native Son’ is often seen as a good introduction to Baldwin’s writings, and an essential read for anyone interested in the background of the Civil Rights struggle in America.

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