On November 23, 2013, I declared, It’s official: I am reading America. I dedicated myself to reading three books set in each US state and written by someone who had lived in that state. I also wanted to read men, women, and authors of color from every state in order to be exposed to a broad range of perspectives.
Now, five years and 11 months later, I have completed the project. I took some breaks here and there for Anna Karenina and for mood reading, but reading my way across the country didn’t take me a decade like at one point I feared it might.
If you like to read literature of a certain dialect, or set in a particular region, I wrote recaps for each state on my Andrea Reads America blog, and here is a full list of the books I read. For visual folks, I also created a Maps page that shows books from each state, along with maps of Pulitzer and National Book Award winners.
My biggest takeaway
I’m still processing the full range of what I learned from this project, but I know without a doubt that my biggest takeaway is that I have tremendous privilege as a straight, white person in this country. After reading the stories of authors of color especially, my eyes have been opened to how starkly different my experience is as a white person. I have the leisure of moving freely through my life without discrimination, without fear of side-eye glances, without people crossing to the other side of the street when they see me coming, or chasing me out of their neighborhood, or beating or dragging or lynching me, without fear of police brutality, without fear of being assumed guilty, without having to hide, without fear of negative assumptions being made about me because of my color, or accent, or clothing, or ethnic origin even if I am a citizen of the United States of America (See The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez).
I don’t have to navigate my life on constant alert, fighting against centuries of oppression, fighting against deeply ingrained assumptions about me, fighting for opportunities, fighting, fighting, fighting for every damn thing, big and small. As a straight white person, I am given the benefit of the doubt. As a straight white person, I am able to move and think freely through my life. I am not held back, I do not have to overcome massive obstacles to do what seem to be basic things, things I take for granted: get an education, drive a car without getting pulled over, have white-collar job opportunities.
It wasn’t just the content of the stories that taught me this lesson. At a meta level, it was the difficulty of even finding books by authors of color. I don’t think I ever found an author of color to read from New Hampshire. For West Virginia I read Colson Whitehead, who is not from West Virginia, because I couldn’t find an author of color from the state.
Nobody can convince me that there aren’t talented black writers in the entire state of West Virginia. However, I can very easily be convinced that those writers don’t see a lot of people who look like them being published, and might get discouraged before they even begin. Or that those black writers might be in schools with no resources, or without mentors or teachers to advocate for them. Or maybe some writers of color finish manuscripts but can’t find an editor to help refine them, or agents to represent them, or publishers to publish them. Or maybe, they get all the way through all of those steps, and publish a book, but their publisher doesn’t promote them, and sales fizzle, and the book never makes it onto anyone’s radar. Which feeds into that beginning step of not seeing any authors that look like them being published. Every step is a struggle while also having to worry about whether their life or liberty is in danger simply by being Black, or Hispanic, or anything other than default White.
As I wrote about once before, reading diversely is a humbling experience, and for this reason if for no other, I am glad I embarked on this reading journey. It woke me up. I want to be a better ally.