★ FIVE ON better understanding the experience of race in Roanoke


Last night’s Finding Roanoke conversation (on chapter four of Dar Williams’ What I Found in a Thousand Towns) probed Roanoke’s transformations over decades, asking questions such as:

  • How do we thoughtfully and inclusively continue the successful revitalization efforts begun decades ago with Center in the Square?
  • Who historically has gotten pushed aside in the wake of progress?
  • Whose history gets remembered and how is that being expanded?
  • How can real connections across neighbors prevent mistakes of the past, build bridges, and strengthen and connect existing social networks?

finding roanoke b&wThe Finding Roanoke series is about building ‘positive proximity’ in our community. Living in close quarters can work to our advantage, helping us to engage and align the skills and talents of all Roanoke citizens. But in many ways, Roanoke remains segregated. If we’re going to change that, it’ll take creative and sincere action – by individuals, organizations, businesses, and policy makers.

Where to begin? The 20 people gathered last night (who are after all, readers) recommended some books for helping our community better understand the historic and contemporary experiences that continue to shape our interactions today. (Note that in what is now a BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke tradition, there are six titles in our FIVE ON list.)



1. Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving (Elephant Room Press, 2014). Exploring the blind spots of white America through a personal account, Debby Irving offers this summary, “As I unpack my own long-held beliefs about colorblindness, being a good person, and wanting to help people of color, I reveal how each of these well-intentioned mindsets actually perpetuated my ill-conceived ideas about race.”



2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Written as a letter to his son, this intimate essay makes social history personal in this New York Times number one bestseller.



3. The Roanoke Valley’s African American Heritage: A Pictorial History by Reginald Shareef (Walsworth, 1996). This local history is available in two editions. Purchase supports the Harrison Museum of African American Culture – a real asset in our community.


4. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Random House, 2014). Recommended by Roanoke City Councilmember Bill Bestpitch, this memoir takes a first hand look at the justice system. A New York Times number one bestseller, the book has been recognized for the insight it brings and the empathy it evokes for individuals working in a complex and not always just system, and those at its mercy.



5. Truevine – Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy (Little, Brown, and Company; 2016). Recommended by Roanoke County librarian Toni Cox, Macy’s true tale of a mother’s quest for justice shines a light on our community over generations. The former Roanoke Times reporter specializes in in-depth stories of her region, highlighting the dignity and worth of the individual. In both Truevine and the earlier Factory Man, she celebrates the strength and determination of champions fighting for what’s right within complex social structures and systems. For the reader, there’s a hopefulness and a sense that some things are worth the risk. Read more about the hope of Macy’s histories here.


6. Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn (Crown, 1966 / Chicago Review Press, 2009). Highly recommended by Roanoke Library Advisory Board Chair Marianne Gandee, this novel was written in 1966. It takes a close look at the lives of black citizens and civil rights activists during an intense period of unrest, pain, and much needed progress. This portrait of our nation’s history remains relevant today.


There are more titles out there.  Recommend one, and we’ll add it to the list. ★

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s