The Witness

Antiracism and the Power of the Written Word

Jemar Tisby

Can the written word change the world? If you need an apologetic in the affirmative, then look no further than the first National Antiracist Book Festival.

Under the leadership of national book award-winner, Ibram X. Kendi and his capable staff at the Antiracist Research and Policy institute, this event gathered nearly 50 authors and publishing professionals whose work advances racial equity.

I had the privilege of serving as a panelist on the “On Christianity” panel. My co-commentator, Austin Channing Brown, wrote the highly-acclaimed book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Our facilitator, Ronald Galvin, Jr., led us in a discussion that probed the role of Christians in building and, potentially, deconstructing a racist social hierarchy.

I applaud Dr. Kendi and the Institute for including this panel which recognizes the vital role of religion, specifically Christianity, in conversations on antiracism.

Ibram X. Kendi (right) with Jemar Tisby at the first National Antiracist Book Festival

Other panels, featuring eminent scholars and activists, included “On Democracy”, “On Incarceration” and workshops such as “Self-Care in Activism.” A special highlight for me was talking for the better part of an hour to Pulitzer-prize winning author, David W. Blight. He most recently wrote Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom and generously dispensed advice to me on how to write a compelling biography.

Skeptics of such an event might expect fiery diatribes against all things America and white. But while every panel dispensed passionate and informed critiques of white supremacy and racism, a spirit of comraderie filled the atmosphere. Longtime friends and colleagues embraced in glad tidings to one another. Authors and attendees alike finally met in-person those who they considered heroes and exemplars in antiracism work.

While bitterness would be an understandable reaction in light of the discrimination people of color have received over the centuries, everyone I encountered displayed a sense of determined realism. Sobered by the reality of racism but not crushed by it, panelists offered solutions, displayed curiosity, and maintained a steady conviction to continue the work of repairing the damage discrimination has caused.

The heart of the book festival was, of course, the books. Hundreds of monographs, edited volumes, essay and poetry collections adorned display tables, each one holding the promise of transformation and progress. Never had I seen assembled in one place so much literature across so many genres, all focused on the problem of racism and what to do about it.

Some of the books featured at the Antiracist Book Festival

The books, which were products of untold hours of study and often lonely labor, represented the best of contemporary thinking on the topic of antiracism. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, and Clint Smith’s Counting Descent were just a few of the brilliant books available for sale and up for discussion on panels.

If people in this nation, and especially people of faith, grasped just a portion of ideas expressed through these books, then we would see our communities involved in pace-setting racial repair. We would see individuals and whole communities healed from generations of wounds caused by racism. We might finally begin to more fully honor the God-given dignity of all people across racial and ethnic lines.

Sadly, many Christians, especially white evangelicals, avoid reading these types of books. Since they know little of the authors and may believe that any talk of fighting racism is a “distraction” from the Christian message, the people in the pews may never access the knowledge that could spark racial reformations in their congregations.

Nevertheless, the work of antiracism continues and gains momentum with each new word written on the topic.

The potency of the Antiracist Book Festival lies in collecting dozens of books focused on combating racism. In bringing together so many authors and their works, participants get a sense of the depth and scope of the accumulated knowledge around the subject of antiracism. Attending this unique book festival leaves one with the unambiguous sense that progress is possible if we are only willing to do the work.

10 thoughts on “Antiracism and the Power of the Written Word

  1. Debbie Wiedeman

    Thomas W.
    The burden is for people like you and me to read the books, examine ourselves, take part in changing racist policies, and whatever else it takes to build trust. I’m sad Jemar Tisby feels that way. In time, I hope he will be encouraged.

  2. stephen matlock

    Many blessings to you, Bill, for your journey. There will always be more books to read! Just stay the course and read.

    “The Color of Compromise” is really a fine book that summarizes a lot of other books in an efficient way, but also one that creates an architecture to better understand the gamut of American history.

  3. Raymond

    There is a list on this website (, click on “View Details” on the right hand side. You should see a list of authors and their books under the “Main Stage Panels” heading.

  4. Thomas W.

    Hello Toviyah,

    First, I really appreciate your cordial response. Second, no to your question, because the emphasis is on a response to perceived derogatory comments, by which we all generally react the same to. Third, you’re absolutely correct that there are drunk uncles out there that no matter what you do or say they will respond defensively to what they will see as an insult.

    However, the uncles who are not a drunk, but you keep calling a drunk will also be insulted won’t they? And they’d have every right to be, wouldn’t they? So reaction is not necessarily a good enough indicator of the accuracy of your assumptions.

    The fulcrum here is whether or not you are right that they are a drunks to begin with when it comes to reading . You claim white evangelicals are, as does Tisby when he assumes “purposeful avoidance”.

    But these assumptions are broad to stereotypes and nothing empirical is offered. It’s like assuming your uncle is a drunkard because he has a liquor cabinet, and because in his case it may be true, you jump to the conclusion that most other uncles with a liquor cabinet are drunks too. And you confirm that bias by their defensive reaction when you accuse them.

    But let’s drive this further. Does it matter if one is a drunkard or not in how we ought to treat them as people, especially as Christians? Does it give us license to be derogatory or dismissive towards them? No.

    Whites can not go about treating blacks as drunks, nor can blacks go about treating whites as drunks. The gross assumptions and stereotyping of others undermines discourse, fellowship, and reconciliation.

  5. Toviyah

    Hello Thomas W.,

    You wrote this curious statement: “In addition, such characterization and assumption of others most likely is received as insulting to them.”
    Isn’t that statement assuming something on a qualitative “many” (called others)? The actual inference borders on being ridiculous. It’s like the fallacy that talking about uncle Willie’s drinking problem only causes him to get more drunk. Talking about it is received as insulting to drunk uncle Willie. The fact of the matter is uncle Willie will imbibe whether we insult him or not. why? because he’s a drunk and drinking is what he does.


  6. Thomas W.

    “Sadly, many Christians, especially white evangelicals, avoid reading these types of books.”

    Sadly, I can’t get through a Jemar Tisby article without a disparaging, devaluing comment on white evangelicals :\

    Why is that even necessary in an positive article on the conference?

    Assuming purposeful avoidance on a qualitative, “many”, is highly subjective considering the amount of variation in the interests of readers, even in non-fiction.

    For instance, I like to read a lot on persuasion and influence and lately I’ve been reading a couple of books by Sam Storms on the doctrine of election and another on Revelation.
    People vary by their interests, not their avoidance.

    In addition, such characterization and assumption of others most likely is received as insulting to them. So if you want them to read your book suggestions on race, perhaps less derogatory comments would be wise?

  7. Bill Melone

    Thanks for sharing, Jemar. I wish I could have been there, and wish I had enough time to read all those books. I’m halfway through the Color of Compromise, and very much appreciate the work you put into it.

  8. Steve Simms

    Check out my antiracism book, Off the RACE Track, @

  9. Kristi

    Is there a List of all the books that were present?

  10. Doc Courage

    Congratulations! I look forward to reading that biography!

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