11 Must-Read Books for #BlackHistoryMonth
Your story is important. Being able to tell that story in your own words is important. Representing yourself in the terms, manner, and form which you deign appropriate and effective is important. Speaking for yourself is important.
Imagine a world where someone else has written your history, written upon your body what it means to be you in the world, written in the eyes of others what your existence means. Now imagine the monumental work of rewriting your story— not only for the world, for the countless strangers which may have influence over your employment or your freedom, but for your family, your children, your self.
These authors have done just that (and more). On every page they have rewritten their experience into the world that anyone can read and gain further insight on how great lives and cultures can be understood. They have written themselves alive and given us all different avenues of thought, possibility, and freedom.
Enjoy, and let their words transport you to new worlds. There is so much out there —
Toni Morrison’s third novel is a celebration of language which celebrates language — as problematic as it is. Often, though mistakenly, seen as a work of magical realism, Song of Solomon tells a narrative of mythical proportions and possibilities in a gritty world all too real. The novel’s main character, nicknamed Milkman, leaves a vivid host of characters in Michigan to search out his own heritage guided only by childhood tales, oral history, and the name his great-grandfather was mistakenly given by a drunk officer. While the story is gripping and the characters unforgettable, it is Morrison’s approach to the naming of things which set this apart. Characters live and die (or learn to fly) by the power of language. In this, she complicates what a history can mean if it has been erased, altered by oppression, or is fabricated in its entirety. This is a song of more than a man in search for self, but of a culture reaching into the unverified to find what has always been known.
-W.E.B Du Bois
Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time, The Souls of Black Folk speaks to the still relevant color line between cultures and people. Though problematic in his approach to an economics of race relations, W.E.B. Du Bois pins his ideas down in anecdotes of teaching in Tennessee or visiting Atlanta. While today’s thought leaders present more nuanced interpretations of how culture and color divide people over a hundred years after the books publication, few do not hearken back to this seminal exploration. With an early image of a “veil” which separates the oppressed from the power structure, he gives language to places dominant narratives blind or silence — or both. With heart and fear for future generations, The Souls of Black Folk is a necessary read to understand how freedom must be found within community — even after it has been granted by law.
The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, Fences, tells of a former Negro Leagues baseball player who has had to be tough and hard to survive. But Troy Maxson knows that hardness does not guarantee survival, even though he challenges death while swinging his baseball bat — for the fences, presumably. Fences is about the separation a boundary can create as much as it is about what a boundary can hold. Set in 1950s urban Pittsburgh, Maxson finds himself on a cultural divide, battling a son growing up in a time when what it means to be black and young is changing, and yet Maxson fears it is still far too much the same. Wilson presents an engaging look at how what we build holds us in and what it means to step outside those boundaries. Recently, Fences has been adapted to the screen as Denzel Washington’s directorial debut.
Taking the title from a poem of Richard Wright’s about the immolation of a black man, Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, moves the theoretical discussion of race quickly to the personal. In epistolary form, Coates writes to his adolescent son about more than the ideas behind race and racism in America — he details exactly how that is lived as a black man in Baltimore, Chicago, Paris, and on battlefields of the Civil War. With sharp intellect, Coates shows the myth behind race and the hierarchy built from it. He shows that it is not an idea, a discussion to be had, but racism is a lived, visceral experience. It cracks bones, breaks teeth, rips muscle. And that we must “never look away from this.” We cannot hide from the realities racism creates. Or as Coates admonishes with brilliance and care, “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
Jesmyn Ward’s second novel, which won the National Book Award in 2011, tells of a young, pregnant and poor Esch, stuck in the shabby town of Bois Sauvage, a gulf town in Mississippi, in the days before an oncoming hurricane the news has named Katrina. Each chapter tells of a single day with Esch, her three brothers, their friends, and her drunken father as the hurricane approaches. Ward’s prose is poetic and ripe with metaphor that borders upon symbolic representation. And while told in from Esch’s perspective, we are given Ward’s literary cues. She imposes Greek Mythology through Esch’s fascination with Medea; Esch is also convinced she understood Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying better than her classmates. In her embodiment of suffering and persistence Salvage the Bones is very much a reworking of Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness family tragedy, though Ward’s language and exposition makes it fully her own.
As a young man, Gus Weesfree witnesses a crime in his hometown of Tradition, Ohio and flees. Once a promising young academic, he is presumed dead until he returns as an old man to find the town different than he remembered. New developments and bulldozers have built a new social landscape while everything Gus resonated with from before dilapidated — including relationships and the very concept of home. Telling of modern and former Tradition, the novel seamlessly entwines the non-linear narrative. Blackman’s humor is as precise (and can be cutting) as the commentary she delivers on the marginalization of difference many don’t see when blinded by a traditional conception of “progress.” As Tradition can attest, Marci Blackman is a master storyteller whose mind and perspective deserve full attention.
bell hooks’ influential work, All About Love, is a structured series of essays which explore (or ‘meditate on’ to use hooks’ terminology), different aspects of love. She covers social, familial, romantic, and spiritual love. All About Love also tackles the power structures within relationships and how the work of love requires questioning the standards of love socialization teaches and finding authenticity in our own outpouring of the same. In thirteen chapters, hooks blends psychology, philosophy, and anecdote to give robust consideration to what is often regarded in academia as sentimentality, yet the caliber of her thought proves a deep, and rich, meditation for understanding ourselves and those we love.
It is not ordinary for a debut novel to be as anticipated as Yaa Gyasi’s, but Homegoing is not ordinary. This novel told in a succession of stories begins in Africa with an Asante woman named Maame and her progeny. Her daughters are separated when one, Effia, marries a British Governor and the other, Esi, becomes a slave in the quarters below. The chapters tell of each generation as different as the fates from which they began. Esi’s lineage is in America while Effia’s stay in what becomes Ghana. A ambitious and provocative novel, Gyasi examines the possibilities of an alternate history while being rooted in actual history. While criticized for not having a central character to aid in the storytelling, Gyasi highlights the extreme fragmentation of history and how we must relate to it in the snippets we can find. A monumental work in its own right, Homegoing showcases a brilliant new talent unafraid to explore problematic concepts.
In a book overflowing with research and statistics, Michelle Alexander shows just how the slant of law has been justified to uphold discriminatory economics and, in effect, disenfranchise countless American citizens from their basic rights. She argues, vigorously and persuasively, that “[w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Mass incarceration and the prison pipeline where minorities are far more likely to be sentenced and denied parole for the same infraction committed by white Americans has become an effectual Jim Crow policy of segregation. This book examines the justice system outside of the lens of permissibility and leniency, but shows how lives are ruined, hopes dashed, futures stymied, and families are torn apart from the long-standing practices of law which still echo of the chains and whips American history prefers to diminish when it does not try to forget. With the persuasive language of law, The New Jim Crow challenges this cultural amnesia and shows how prevalent and destructive these injustices are still today.
-Zora Neale Hurston
When Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, it was met with criticism from the reigning intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance. And yet, if their complaints are true, that Zora Neale Hurston wrote a novel about a black woman searching for her own voice and her own freedom from domineering men which didn’t conform to the standards of what male critics considered acceptable writing, the book is a wild success. And the very language and spirit of Janie Starks proves this again and again. In the novel, Janie returns to Eatonville and tells her story to her friend so that the townspeople can have a narration of truth apart from whatever they will make up on their own. In this Janie does what Hurston accomplishes every time this novel is read or taught — telling one’s own story in one’s own voice. Besides being a captivating novel of magnificent proportion examining love, loss, freedom, and community, Their Eyes Were Watching God is an example of the power of personal narrative and the voice to proliferate one’s own truth.
No list of must-reads would be complete without James Baldwin’s incisive wit and clear eye. The Fire Next Time, originally published in 1963, features two essays which could just have easily been written today as they were in the rising heat of the civil rights struggle. This only goes to show how much more work there is to be done. He writes of what it is to live in America as a black man, as unwanted, feared, and hyper-sexualized, and translates his experience detailing that understanding requires that the reader, “must put yourself in the skin of a black man.” This is the only way to understand what the race struggle consists of, how deep it pierces. The tale he tells is still not easy to read, and even less so to internalize. This is part of his mission. He writes, “the brutality with which Negros are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it.” This is a truth which carries beyond Baldwin’s work and into every Black Lives Matter protest, every town, every school, and every jail. Almost sixty years later, we must ask ourselves, Did we hear? Are we still listening?