What’s that line of Robert Burns’s, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / gang aft a-gley”? Well, my plan to publish three posts during Black History Month has definitely gone “a-gley.” But that’s okay, because the third is finally written, and I’m excited to share it with you.
*For the purposes of this post, “contemporary” means 2010 onward.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What it’s about: Gender, race, class, love — Adichie explores them all.
Why you should read it: At just under 500 pages, Americanah can seem intimidating, but once you start, you won’t be able to stop. Adichie’s writing is exquisite, her insights sharp, her story foreign and familiar at once. Following Ifemelu and Obinze on their adventures across three continents, Americanah will open your eyes, challenge your heart, and make you hunger for stories you never knew existed.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Genre: Nonfiction memoir(ish)
What it’s about: Written as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, Coates’s book confronts the notion of race and what it is like to be a Black man* in America.
Why you should read it: I’ve wanted to write about this book for more than a month, but every time I try, I walk away tied up in knots. On a purely technical level, Coates’s writing is brilliant. Alternatively sharp, soft, brutal, and broken, his sentences cut to the bone, and the results are often bloody. Between the World and Me isn’t an easy read, but that’s precisely why you should experience it. It’s a story that commands us to listen.
*Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination shares similar themes, making it an ideal companion.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Genre: Nonfiction memoir
What it’s about: Noah’s memoir shows what it was like to grow up under apartheid in South Africa.
Why you should read it: You know those books you pick up on a whim and put down with your mind a little blown? That’s this book for me. On a technical level, it’s mediocre, but the story it tells is astounding. As exciting as they are, caterpillar dinners, attempted kidnappings, and jumping out of a speeding car aren’t the most memorable parts of Noah’s memoir; the real story lies in the fact that, as the son of a white man and black woman living under apartheid, Noah’s very existence was illegal.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Genre: Historical fiction
What it’s about: The novel begins with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, and follows their descendants in Ghana and America.
Why you should read it: Black history doesn’t start with slavery. That may seem obvious, until you ask yourself how familiar you are with it, specifically the African side of things, and then the gaps gape open. One way you can start to close them is by reading diverse stories that stretch and challenge by nudging you outside your comfort zone. Homegoing is a great place to start because it offers so much in so little; Gyasi covers 300 years in 300 pages without ever seeming rushed. Even better, the novel switches between the familiar (Esi’s family in America) and the unfamiliar (Effia’s family in Ghana), thereby providing a balance for readers who may feel disoriented when reading the Ghanaian chapters.
The March Trilogy by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, illus. by Nate Powell
Genre: Nonfiction graphic novel
What it’s about: Beginning with his Alabama childhood and ending with the march on Selma known as “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis’s trilogy hits the major points of the civil rights movement while remaining deeply personal.
Why you should read it: I thought I knew a lot about civil rights before I read these books, but within ten pages of the first one, I realized just how ignorant I was. Lewis’s narrative shows readers what it was like to live through the civil rights movement — beatings, assassinations, sit-ins, and all — while Powell’s illustrations cast the violence of the South in (literally) black and white terms, forcing readers to confront the brutality of America’s past and its disturbing parallels to the present. Though Lewis meant the flash-forwards to Obama’s inauguration to act as a beacon of hope, after the 2016 election, their effect seems more sobering than celebratory. In a post-Trump world of alternative facts and travel bans, March is a chilling read.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Genre: Historical fiction
What it’s about: The novel follows Cora and Cesar on their journey through the antebellum south and the perils that it brings.
Why you should read it: Remember when you were a kid and became so disappointed when you learned there wasn’t an actual underground railroad? Well, Colson Whitehead is about to make your dreams come true, because in this novel, the railroad really exists (and yes, it’s underground). Winner of the National Book Award (and probably the Pulitzer, too), The Underground Railroad has all the marks of a classic runaway slave story you probably read in elementary school; the difference is, this one’s for adults, and it doesn’t hold back. Violent at times, unsettling at best, Whitehead’s novel will stay with you long after you have finished it — as it should. These aren’t stories we should easily forget.
There are a lot of good films out this year, and, thanks to awards season, I’m now aware of all of them. Even better, POC films, Black ones especially, have been getting more recognition. While I haven’t had a chance to watch them all (specifically Fences and 13th), I did see some, and boy, were they amazing.
Hidden Figures (2017) – It’s on its way out, but if you can catch the story of these NASA mathematicians before it leaves theaters, do it. Or, while you wait for the film to make its way to DVD, you can always read the book. Starring Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. 127 mins. Rated PG.
I Am Not Your Negro (2017) – Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, the documentary offers a look at the civil rights movement through the lives and influences of three of its most famous martyrs: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. An essential film, it reminds us that history repeats itself, and that forgetting it is dangerous. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as narrator. 93 mins. Rated PG.
Moonlight (2016) – Black stories revolve around much more than slavery and civil rights, a fact that this Oscar-winning Best Picture easily proves. Following Chiron as he comes of age in a fraught and friendless Miami neighborhood, Moonlight will wreck you, but in the best of ways. Starring Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, and Janelle Monáe. 11o mins. Rated R.
The People v. OJ Simpson (2016) – At the risk of sounding like I live under a rock (I sort of kind of do), I must admit that I knew nothing about this case two weeks ago. It was controversial and involved a car chase in a white Bronco, but that’s literally all I knew, so you can imagine how quickly I got caught up in the drama. (I binged the whole thing in 2 days.) Those of you who lived through the OJ case probably couldn’t care less about this show and in fact may actively avoid it, but for me, it felt essential to watch. I’m still not sure what to make of it, but I do believe it’s worth your time, if only because it poses questions about race and the criminal justice system from both sides of the table and encourages viewers to wrestle with the answers (or lack thereof). Starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, and Sterling K. Brown. Miniseries. Rated TV-MA. Available on Netflix.