One of the things people often ask me is “How do you find time to read?”—or, for that matter, take in art, theater, and music. My knee-jerk response—which I withhold because I don’t want to be rude—is “How do you live without it?” And I mean that literally. These rituals keep me steady, and I know I’ve chosen the correct profession because I consider reading and absorbing culture to be forms of spiritual hygiene. Not escapist, mind you; every good work of art says something profound and usually painful about the human condition. But art also allows us to step back from the world to reflect and assess. Most of all, it begs us each to consider what our legacy will be in relation to our societies.
On that note, this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I offer a few recommendations. In the course I co-teach with Eddie S. Glaude Jr., “African American Studies and the Philosophy of Race,” we recently had students read the historian Nell Irvin Painter’s classic article “Soul Murder and Slavery.” In it, Painter details the violence endemic to the peculiar institution. She describes the layering of physical and emotional violence in the lives of the enslaved, but also how this violence became baked into the culture of slave societies; Painter understands this legacy as part of why southern states remain those with the highest rates of physical violence. Painter’s essay is important for understanding the history and culture of the United States, of course. But it is also an insightful testament to the power of habit, its inheritability, and how it shapes who we are.