Posts Tagged ‘black history’

james baldwin quote books

Here in the middle of Black History Month, I have to start with a disclaimer: any reading list I can offer will be woefully incomplete.

I am reading more books by and about people of color these days, but I have a lot of catching up to do. While I recognize the gaps in my reading list, and the absurdity of highlighting black history during only one month of the year, I wanted to share a few titles that have helped me see beyond my own experience.

These books celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans, ask difficult questions about race and responsibility, and tell a good story – fiction or nonfiction. (For a list of great kids’ books on this theme, see my librarian friend Shelley’s recent post.)

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is the fascinating true story of the brilliant black women who worked for NASA (doing complicated math the likes of which I can’t imagine) during World War II, the Cold War and the space race. It focuses on their accomplishments but doesn’t minimize the discrimination they faced. I also loved the movie version, starring Octavia Spencer and a knockout cast. Meticulous research + engaging writing + fantastic real-life characters = a brilliant launch.

I’ve recently discovered the work of Tracy K. Smith, who was named U.S. poet laureate last summer. I read Smith’s new collection Wade in the Water (out in April) for review; it’s thought-provoking, often searing, with some gorgeous lines. Then I picked up her memoir, Ordinary Light, which I just finished. It’s beautifully written, and powerful. (I appreciated Smith’s admission that she didn’t want to deal with the hard truths about her heritage for a long time.)

I love young adult fiction, and I’ve recently read several spectacular novels that feature young black women:

  • Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham is a dual-narrative novel that tells the story of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 and also hits on present-day issues.
  • Nicola Yoon’s second novel, The Sun is Also a Star, has one protagonist who’s terrified she’s about to be deported back to Jamaica, where she can barely remember living, when she meets (and falls for) a Korean-American boy.
  • Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give needs no introduction from me. It’s a horrifying portrait of the aftermath of a shooting (from the viewpoint of a witness), but I also loved it for its rich, complicated depiction of family life.

An oldie but a goodie: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was the first book I ever read (at around age 10) that featured a black protagonist who wasn’t a slave. Cassie Logan lives in Mississippi in the 1930s; her family owns their land, but is still dealing, every day, with the legacy of slavery, sharecropping and pervasive, damaging racism. I loved Cassie and her family, and my heart also broke for them every few pages. The sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, is also great.

Fast forward to a recent discovery for me: Brittney Cooper, whose essay collection Eloquent Rage is out this week. Cooper tips her hat to bell hooks, Audre Lorde and other giants of black feminism, but her tone and approach are very much her own. So much here to ponder; so much that made me uncomfortable, for good reason.

I recently read A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality and the Law (out in March), a transcript of a conversation at NYU Law School by four leading black thinkers and activists: Sherrilyn Ifill, Loretta Lynch, Bryan Stevenson and Anthony C. Thompson. It’s short, but thought-provoking, and reminded me that I still need to read Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

You probably don’t need me to tell you about Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward or Colson Whitehead. Or about James Baldwin, whose quote (above) I found in the bathroom at McNally Jackson in NYC. Some of these authors are still on my to-read list. And they are only the beginning. I know, above all, that I still have so much to learn.

What are the most essential books you’ve read by and about people of color? Please share in the comments.


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