Maybe you’re like me

A year or so ago a friend in a private Facebook group made up of mostly Midwestern, Christ-following protestant/evangelical/questioning white folks challenged the group’s membership to read books by or about people other than mostly Midwestern, Christ-following protestant/evangelical/questioning white folks.

Just two years ago I realized how much I favored male authors over women after the VIDA count came out and I took a look at my past bookshelf. So I made a mental note to read more books by women.

Now, you want me to read even more perspectives, branch even farther out of my world to see the world beyond mine?

Maybe you aren’t sure what it’s like to be anything except a mostly Midwestern, Christ-following protestant/evangelical/questioning white folk. Maybe you aren’t sure why other people are so upset by political talk and political walk, presidential elects and first 100 day threats.

Maybe you’re like me and grew up in a county that’s 97% white, 3% other. Maybe you’re like me and you went to a school in the rural Midwest where the others in your midst spoke broken English and mostly kept to themselves, in their own dorm rooms, at their own lunch tables. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve only kind of sort of experienced another culture on a study abroad assignment or a week-long mission trip to an island, only kind of sort of seen and heard the beating heart of the planet’s places and people, only kind of sort of felt a twinge of empathy but otherwise just haven’t had the opportunity to see, to meet, to listen, to understand.

About the one black neighbor your family might have known, you might have heard, “He’s not like the others,” and by that you might have known “the others” meant the ones on the news, the hooded, the convicted, the robbers.

You might have heard “faggot” and “retard” flung casually around circles of construction workers until one among you suddenly had a child with a disability or a son crawl out of the closet, afraid, so long afraid, and suddenly “gay” as an insult gets stuck in your throat.

You might have seen pinups of half-naked women and assumed that’s how you ought to look, what must be okay to just give away, what must be done in order to be loved.

Maybe you’re like me, and you carry this latent history with you still, like mud caked and dried between the treads of the work boots you’ve been wearing since you were old enough to hear things, see things, absorb things, and even though you’ve chiseled at the clay it sticks: all the old prejudices.

So I let the call to action stand: read other people’s stories. When I look for books now I look for books told from somewhere else, someone else. I look for books that will show me something I’ve never known, that might make me uncomfortable, that might push against my default assumptions, that might challenge me to think bigger, broader, more lovingly about the world. I look for books that are windows into other worlds.

When you can’t cross a county or a city or a country, read other people’s stories. Books bring Elie Weisel’s Auschwitz and Malala’s Afghanistan and Maya Angelou’s Louisiana to the rolling cornfields and foothills of Ohio.

Books draw out the thoughts and emotions of the “other” so they can be seen and felt as the universal truths of existence they are, a part of this broad and beautiful thing we call humanity, which is not “other,” or “them,” it’s us, all of us, all of us hurting and angry and grieving and rejoicing and broken and bruised and loved, loved by God and therefore ought to be loved by one another.

You can do hard things. If it seems hard to find people who are not like you and me–Midwestern, Christ-following protestant/evangelical/questioning white folks–it is not so hard to find the stories of people who are not like you and me. Start here. Start with stories.

Read other people’s stories, and you will find your way into knowing your neighbor here and knowing your neighbor far. Read other people’s stories, and suddenly other people won’t seem so scary, so threatening, so Goliath in their shadowy unknowns. Read other people’s stories, and you will become more fully able to connect to this vast world, more fully able to be bold and courageous, more fully able to stand against the unrighteousness and the injustice, emboldened to all that is good and real and true and beautiful. You will become more fully human.

Here is an extremely brief and recent list of books (both fiction and nonfiction) I’ve read since my friend issued the other-than-people-like-me challenge.

  • I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
  • Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman

If you feel so inclined and have read something that changed the way you view the world, please share your recommendations in the comments. I would love to build a Goodreads to-read list so full I’ll never reach the end.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

4 thoughts on “Maybe you’re like me

  1. Sarah — this is beautiful. It says everything I’ve wanted to say and couldn’t think of the words. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard lately from my conservative friends and acquaintances, “The election wasn’t about…” fill-in-the-blank — racism, sexism, nationalism… simply because it wasn’t about that for *them*… Or, often, more accurately, it was *absolutely* about that, yes, even for them, and they’re not even self-aware enough to see it. It frustrates me and it hurts my heart, and I haven’t been able to think of a solution that could possibly get us all out of our midwestern silos, our safe little echo chambers.

    I’ve longed for the same for some of my students of varied backgrounds and cultures. No, young man, you’re *not* always and everywhere hated and vulnerable because of the color of your skin… No, sweet, quiet young woman, with your strong Hispanic accent, or brilliant, outspoken beauty under your black hijab, you’re not a parriah to all of us, you’re not resented by everyone, you’re not always, always in danger. My heart hurts for them.

    My heart hurts for us all, and I couldn’t think of the answer until I read it here, dear Sarah, and of course this is it. Of course. It’s books. And now… now… we read. ❤


  2. Good job, Sarah. I have been reading more “black literature.” Coates was tough for me, not his moving fear for his son but because his view of America is so bleak and bitter. BUT it was good to hear him out, to understand how he felt.


  3. I love this. Thanks for sharing. I would add Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative Life of a Slave, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and I am sure I could think of more but those come to mind right now.


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