Reading Black History
with Ebony LaDelle and Yahdon Israel
In the wake of a chaotic post-election world, it’s more important than ever to find understanding and solidarity in each other’s lived realities. This February, we are finding it especially restorative to remind ourselves of the experiences, accomplishments, struggles, and triumphs of fellow Black Americans. In times of division, it’s a radical act to acknowledge and celebrate each other. We asked two of our favorite people doing amazing work to get diverse voices published, heard, and read to give us the scoop. Here are their favorite books to Read Black History.
Ebony LaDelle founded Coloring Books, a curated email of multicultural books that are worth reading, in the hopes that she can help people discover a book that speaks to them and their unique experiences. She has years of experience in publishing; her career began working in the marketing department at Howard University’s then independently-owned bookstore. A few years after graduating, Ebony enrolled in a publishing program at Pace University and soon landed a marketing job at Simon & Schuster. Ebony has had the pleasure of working with authors such as Shonda Rhimes, Hoda Kotb, Atul Gawande, Andy Cohen and many more.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lord
This is a book every feminist should read. EVERY FEMINIST. Audre shows the complexities of being a woman, a black woman, and queer. It’s such an honest and heartfelt coming of age story; growing up and finding yourself in the midst of a country filled with racism, misogyny and homophobia. But what I love most about this autobiography is Audre’s poetic references — the imagery and metaphors she uses are breath taking.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
This is one of my favorite books and always poignant for oh so many reasons — a strong black female protagonist, a beautiful love story, the richness and audacity of Zora to showcase the powerful town of Eatonville, which was governed by African-Americans during the backdrop of the Jim Crow era. This book is relevant now as it was then, a beacon of hope in such a dismal time and a nontraditional story of the black experience that Zora was bold enough to tell.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gray
Roxane takes readers on a journey of her thoughts on the state of feminism as a feminist and woman of color. What is most refreshing is she is unapologetic about her views, and makes it very clear that these thoughts are hers, and that we should constantly be searching for our own definition and not allowing others to define what feminism really is because like anything, these definitions can be flawed. Also her pop culture references are equally as important; we consume media on a daily basis and pointing out the lack of POCs in television shows, movies, and even in books, is something I appreciated.
Yahdon Israel is a 26 year-old writer from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, who writes about race, class, gender, and culture in America. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, ESPNW, and Brooklyn Magazine and is a contributing editor at LitHub. He recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from the New School. He runs a popular Instagram page which promotes literature and fashion under the hashtag #Literaryswag. He’s the Content and Social Media Director for MakersFinders, a digital platform that connects independent makers to passionate finders through stories. Above all else: He keeps it lit.
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker
The day after the Women’s March in DC (and elsewhere), a picture went viral of a black woman named Angela Peoples who was sucking on a lollipop and holding a picket sign that read: “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Behind her, were three white women. One was taking a selfie, they all were on their phones, and they all seemed to be oblivious of what was going on in front of them. Now I don’t think that the women in the picture voted for Trump necessarily, but the picture captured the ongoing tension between mainstream feminism and women of color. Particularly black women. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens is a beautiful collection of Womanist Prose which thinks and feels bravely through the minefield of black women erasure. Her essays — “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and A Partisan View” and “Looking for Zora” — resurrected critical, academic, commercial, and cultural interest in the life and writing’s of Zora Neale Hurston. We read Zora because she’s brilliant. But we also read her because Alice Walker led the search party. That message of looking for what is lost is how we’ll continually find ourselves.
No Name in the Street by James Baldwin
With the new documentary that features his speeches and writings, I Am Not Your Negro, a lot of people are coming to the altar of Baldwin. The challenge when coming to anyone’s altar, especially a writer’s, is knowing the difference between critically engaging with a legacy and blindly worshipping one. With Baldwin, the latter often happens and it’s understandable: in terms of articulating the moral conundrum of what it means to be an American while simultaneously being, for many, a prophet, he’s in a class of his own. There is a price — something Baldwin often tries to make us aware of in writings — for being brilliant, for being a writer who is both black and gay and famous, for being him. No Name in the Street is a collection of essays where Baldwin confronts what that price means for his body on sobering terms, particularly when so many of his friends — Malcolm, Martin, Medgar, et al — are paying this price with their lives. Whereas many of his other essay collections give you the sense that he’s peering through a window, No Name is the collection where you see him looking square in the mirror.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
It’s a narrative non-fiction book that interweaves history, statistics, politics, culture and personal narrative to tell the story of The Great Migrations here in the US. Starting in 1915 and ending around 1970, the Great Migration was the en masse movement of black people living in the south, heading to different parts of America — North, Midwest, West — in search of more opportunity and better lives. As history can sometimes be misconstrued as separate from the present, Warmth of Other Suns uses the stories of three actual participants of this mass migration to humanize it as well as show us that people are history and take it with them wherever they go. This is also seen in the migration itself as many people who fled the South in search of better often found worse, ironically. This book shows the blatant and latent effects of systemic racism on a people as well as the individual. But even in the face of all the unnameable terrors, inspiring about Warmth of Other Suns is its ability to show you that there is an inimitable beauty in everyday black life.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
During her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, for which Cave Canem was awarded with Literarian Award, Cave Canem’s co-founder Toi Derricotte reminded us that joy was “an act of resistance.” So while I know how hard it is for many people to find joy in our country’s current political climate, it is necessary, which is why the last book I’d like to suggest is Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. It’s a laugh-out-loud novel that gives you the best idea of what would’ve happened if Dave Chappelle had been a novelist. But like the comedy of a Chappelle, or a Pryor, Beatty’s sense of satire humor is inspired by the conundrum of the black identity. After his father is murdered by police, and his city (Dickens) is virtually erased from the map, the narrator reinstitutes slavery and segregation back into his neighborhood as a way to put the all-black city of Dickens back on the map. Boundaries are both projected and internalized. Not to mention they’re about power. As absurd as the plot sounds, reading it will give you an understanding as to why Toni Morrison says that, “laughter is serious.”