This Black History Month, we’re honoring lineages, legacies, and heritages in the form of literary inspirations. As writers, and readers, and even just as people, we are constantly being influenced by those around us and those who came before us. Sometimes, when reading a really wonderful book, we can’t help but think of all the wonderful books it is in conversation with. We gathered a few of our favorites from Black writers on this week’s blog, pairing new or upcoming books with older, classics that we love by themselves but even more together.
One of my very favorite American histories is Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of the Great Migration, during which millions of African-Americans moved out of the south, heading North and West for better lives — it is an epic book, and follows characters over decades, and illustrates how these new pathways changed not only the lives of her individual subjects, but also the cities they arrive in, and the entire country.
This spring, Morgan Jerkins will publish Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, in which Jerkins, the author of staff favorite This Will Be My Undoing, traces her own family’s roots back 300 years, reversing the path of the Great Migration. Jerkins connects stories she’s heard through records and interviews, drawing her own family’s map backward, to see where she began, and what was lost and found along the way. It’s a deeply personal continuation of Wilkerson’s work, and I can’t wait to put the two books in peoples’ hands together. (Emma)
Kiese Laymon chose descriptors of weight to talk about his life as a Black boy growing up a in low-income family in Mississippi. Richard Wright used ones of emptiness when he wrote about growing up as a poor Black boy in Mississippi. Both of these center oppression in the body; Wright was constantly hungry while Laymon was laden.
In my mind these books are American stories of reflection upon the hardships of racism, class oppression, and the impulse to write it all down. (Danni)
adrienne maree brown is a writer, activist, and healer whose work surrounding the politics of healing and pleasure draws heavily on black feminist tradition. In Pleasure Activism, she pays homage to thinkers like Audre Lorde, but is not afraid to critique absences in their analyses, which I love, because she acknowledges the way our thinking around liberation/revolution can and should evolve with our contexts. Like Lorde’s, her work is challenging, affirming, and rooted in a sense of community, and sisterhood more specifically. Addressing all the same subjects as Lorde — sexuality, gender, class, race, etc — brown never shies from the complex, and complicated ways that both our vulnerabilities and our privileges influence our relationship to joy, desire, sex, and activism. Instead, she confronts these complexities with the help of other social justice strategists and cultural leaders, laying new, innovative groundwork for future feminists to tread forward on. (Serena)
James Baldwin is a consummate writer of the Black experience in midcentury America. His nonfiction, including The Fire Next Time, and Notes of a Native Son, chronicle his personal experience within the specific political and cultural moment. He moves from describing his family and interpersonal relationships to critiquing art and culture, deftly and impressively.
Casey Gerald’s There Will Be No Miracles Here feels in some ways like a spiritual successor to Baldwin’s work. His memoir is set in an America nearly half a century later, and while the contexts are different, the urgency that Gerald speaks with is similar to Baldwin’s. Both men write of their personal lives, their family lives, and their political lives. Describing what it means to be a Black man in the United States, Baldwin and Gerald are attentive to a full breadth of humanity but never pander, never over-explain, and always make their readers do the real and fruitful work of understanding. (Margaret)
There are times where you imagine there is a conversation, somewhere in the ether, happening between two authors divided by time. When I first read “What it Look Like” the first poem in Terrance Hayes’s How to Be Drawn, I thought instantly of one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes and “Night Funeral in Harlem.” Though the styles and structures vary, I remember thinking of the way they seem to talk to the happenings around them. Not describing, not telling, but talking you into the moment. There is a subtle, if not distinct influence here. (Nick)
“A bandanna is a useful handkerchief,
but a handkerchief is a useless-ass bandanna.
This only looks like a footnote in my report
concerning the party.”
“ Night funeral
Where did they get
Them two fine cars?
Insurance man, he did not pay —
His insurance lapsed the other day —
Yet they got a satin box
for his head to lay.”
In a new forward for Butler’s Parable of the Sower, released for the reprint of the Earthseed books in April 2019, Jemisin talks about her relationship to the classic science fiction writer and her “powerfully prescient” work.
“Octavia Butler, to our collective horror, died in 2006. Yet here were we, her spiritual children numbering in the thousands, come to claim the future. By this time I’d begun to understand just how rare, and how strange, the mere idea of thinking about the future was, for those of us from marginalized backgrounds.”
Trailblazers in a heavily white, male-dominated genre (and world, let’s be real), Jemisin and Butler use themes of religion, new societies, climate change, and racial oppression to present stories of resistance and dismantling of tyrannical structures. The City Born Great, Jemisin’s latest coming out this March, is the first in her new Great Cities sci-fi series, steeped in myth yet bucking tradition, about five New Yorkers coming together to defeat the terrorism of an evil force. The reviews are amazing, so if you like badass feminist sci-fi, put this on your list. (Colleen)
Maafa is the Swahili word for holocaust, and is also the name of the collection’s black epic heroine, whose journey is modeled after that of Odysseus. This feminist allegory deals with themes of diaspora, erasure, intergenerational trauma, black femininity, and ultimately, redemption, reclamation, and rebirth. I adored Holiday’s previous books and suspect this one will be equally as rigorous in its effort to heed previously erased, or unimagined, perspectives from the margins, amplifying them with reverence and virtuosity. For this reason, I comped it to Hurston’s retelling of the Old Testament’s Exodus story, which reimagines Moses from a black perspective, and is ultimately a feminist story of freedom and redemption. I also want to note that I see Holiday being in tradition with Nathanial Mackey, whose serial poem (spanning multiple books!), “Song of the Andoumboulou,” is an epic rooted in West African griot tradition, and whose work, like Holiday’s, takes much inspiration from jazz music. (Serena)