Civil rights have weighed on me a lot lately. Whether it started with the novels for my African-American lit class, the research I conducted during senior sym, or the strange, almost magnetic pull I’ve felt toward Black literature these past eighteen months, I can’t say. But whatever the reason, America’s racial legacy has set up shop in my heart.
Awareness is a good thing — it’s the first step in the journey toward action — but in the face of an evil as enormous as racism, it can also make you feel helpless, which is exactly how I’ve felt these past five weeks during the race relations class I’m taking at my church. The class, designed to educate participants on the racial walls dividing America, as well as equip us to begin to dismantle them, has been challenging. I leave each night feeling limp and lethargic, exhausted by the force of my grief. Each week as I listen to the litany of crimes that white Christians have committed against our black neighbors, I want to jump up and do something, but I don’t know what. What can I, a 22-year-old white woman, do to defeat racism?
Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. Anne Lammott, in her book Bird by Bird, tells the following story:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
A simple story, but a powerful one, nevertheless. In the grand scheme of things, I have no control over America’s treatment of non-whites, but on a personal level, I have all the control. I can read, write, blog, discuss, and do my best to make my corner of the world as aware and passionate as possible. What better way to start than by talking about books?
Perhaps it seems cliché to publish a series of posts on Black literature during Black History Month, but I’ve wanted to talk about these books for a while, and now’s as good a time as any. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve divided them into three categories: classics, poets, and contemporaries. This week I’ll discuss the classics.
These are not comprehensive lists. With the exception of Lucille Clifton (a poet I’ll discuss next week), I’m a novice on these works, and for every author I’ve included, there are dozens I’ve left out. But that’s okay — these lists aren’t meant to be perfect. They’re meant to be a starting point, a launch point for your own journey, one I hope you will take not just because Black literature is important, but because it is good. It is human. It is art, and art makes us more empathetic and all-around better human beings.
Lived: c. February 1818 – February 20, 1895
Known for: Being an author, orator, abolitionist, suffragist, and social reformer
What you should read: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the one you’ve most likely read / heard about / encountered in school, but I recently met a professor who specializes in early African-American literature, and she mentioned that Douglass wrote his later autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, after his falling out with the American Anti-Slavery Society. As a result, his later work shows less restraint and more freedom, because he didn’t have to worry about censoring himself by saying what the Society wanted him to say.
Zora Neale Hurston
Lived: January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960
Known for: Being a novelist, folklorist, anthropologist, and ethnographer
What you should read: Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most famous work, but her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road received critical acclaim, as did her short stories and anthropological work.
Lived: September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960
Known for: His writing helped shape race relations in mid-20th century America
What you should read: Wright’s novel Native Son was the first book by an African-American author to be chosen for the Book of the Month club. His 1945 memoir Black Boy was also featured as a Book of the Month, but only after Wright agreed to cut the 2nd half due to its discussion of his involvement with the Communist party (I share this anecdote not to arm you with interesting trivia, but to caution that if you want to read this book, make sure to buy an updated copy, not the original, bastardized version like I did).
Lived: March 1, 1913 – April 16, 1994
Known for: Being a novelist and literary critic
What you should read: Invisible Man. It’s a long, tense, densely-metaphorical read, but it earned Ellison a coveted seat in the mostly-white American canon, and for good reason. It may not be the easiest book, but it’s worth your time and attention. In addition, Invisible Man was the first novel by an African American to win the National Book Award. It also impacted President Obama so deeply that he modeled his memoir after it.
Lived: August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987
Known for: Being a novelist, essayist, poet, playwright, and social critic. His work also provided representation for queer Black men, which was unheard of at the time.
What you should read: I haven’t explored Baldwin’s writing nearly as much as I should, but I did read Go Tell It on the Mountain in high school and was struck by the force of his prose (it reads like a marriage between Wright’s insights and Ellison’s metaphors — in my opinion, only Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and Tim O’Brien come closer to perfection). Other notable works include If Beale Street Could Talk (novel), The Fire Next Time (essays), and Notes of a Native Son (essays).
Lived: April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014
Known for: Being a poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. Her memoirs, especially, did much to expand the genre.
What you should read: Her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is effortless and brims with grace. You will laugh, you will cry, you will finish feeling inspired. You should also listen to her read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the 1993 presidential inauguration.
Lived: February 18, 1931 – present
Known for: Being a novelist, editor, and literary critic, as well as the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993)
What you should read: Anything. Everything. Morrison is essential. She belongs on the list of greatest American authors and has the Pulitzer, Nobel, and Presidential Medal of Freedom to prove it. Start with The Bluest Eye or Beloved or A Mercy, Song of Solomon, Sula, Tar Baby, Paradise — it doesn’t matter which, just pick up a book and read.
Octavia E. Butler
Lived: June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006
Known for: Being a science fiction writer, the first to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant
What you should read: Though it falls more under “speculative fiction” than “science fiction,” I’d suggest you start with the standalone novel Kindred (you can find a more in-depth review of it here). Butler’s work is important because she was one of the first Black women to build a successful career by writing science fiction. Other notable works include her Patternist and Xenogenesis series.