Summer Reading List: The African-American Experience

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Credit: Keith Haring (1983).

I published a couple of posts the other day about summer reading, one of mostly fiction and then another on mostly non-fiction travel. In reviewing both of the lists, I saw that I was remiss in not recommending many reads from around the world from the POC experience, and so this post is to rectify that.

(Please note that just because these titles are under the POC category does not in any way negate their value. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be reminded of the many titles that are far outside the typical Western selection of literature and than what’s on the best seller tables at Barnes & Nobles, and so that is what this post is. Just a signpost of some other excellent reads which may be more off the beaten track a bit… Feel free to add any titles. I’m always open for recommendations!)

For the queens of African-American writing (and superb artists in their own right), I would suggest starting with super stars such as Alice Walker (The Color Purple [1982]), Maya Angelou (who actually I haven’t really read yet, but is on TBR…) and the wonderful Toni Morrison (Beloved [1987], Jazz [1993] or perhaps Sula [1973]).

And for poetry, I happen to love contemporary poet, Nikki Giovanni, while Gwendolyn Brooks is also lovely… What about Langston Hughes? And if you think about it, there’s definitely an argument for looking at rap and other song lyrics as poetry (even though some of the content can be a bit rough around the edges)…

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Part of a Langston Hughes poem integrated as part of huge public art project at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Well played, my friends.

More fairly contemporary writing comes from the pen of author Paule Marshall with the 1985 Virago title and collection of short stories, Merle and Other Stories , and I recommend exploring her backlist – Marshall has a wide variety and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read from her. These are out in the trusty Virago Press if you see some around.

(Side note: Virago Press is famous for printing neglected works of female authors of the twentieth century, and the books are easily recognizable for their dark green spines — the contents of each book vary widely. Worth seeking out in if you see one in a charity shop or similar.)

For a great contemporary solid read, try  the recently published Homecoming by Yaa Gyazi (2016) or, if you’d rather have a go at some strong short stories, try Z. Z. Packer’s wonderful Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003). Don’t forget the excellent Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) or any of the other works by this author.

The historical experience of African-Americans in the U.S. has been long and pretty awful for the most part, so there are some very tough but fascinating reads about this. Go back in time to the terrible years of slavery, and learn from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 narrative of his life, 12 Years a Slave. If you’d like more NF background into the issue, there are loads of titles out there. I started with this one for a good backgrounder, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Horschild and found it to be a really accessible and useful introduction.

Nella Larson’s 1929 fiction, Passing, looks at life for two female friends in the early twentieth century when people felt that they had to hide their origins in order to live a happy life. (Good read, btw, and will leave you with lots of thinking about it.)

Another excellent read from the early twentieth century, this one with the power of a hurricane, is Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God (1937). (Hold on to your hat for that one as it’s one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. Highly recommended. Stick with it though… There’s dialect, but you get the hang of it after a while.)

The history of having African-American help is covered very nicely from the perspective in the novel Like One of the Family (Alice Childress [1954]) which explores the divide (obvious and otherwise) between the white families and the domestic black servants that they hire. (This is also a good read as it’s in one-sided conversations….)

Plays of that era are also excellent and powerful: Try A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959) and her follow-up play. (Really good if you can see if in person on a stage. Or check out the 1961 movie of the same name…) For a more contemporary look at life in American, check out Stick Fly (2006) by playwright Lydia Diamond about family dynamics in modern America…

Coming forward in time, there are some really good titles from African authors, among whom would be the Senegalese classic So Long a Letter (Mariama Bâ [1980]) about a first wife who reacts when her husband takes a second wife, or perhaps Blackass (A. Igoni Barrett [2015]) about a twenty-first century young Nigerian man who is born black, but wakes up one day with all-white skin (except for his bottom). How does this impact his life? You’ll have to see….

Mentioned in the other post the other day, I really recommend the Aya graphic novel series by Marguerite Abouret and Clement Oubrerie set on the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, or if you’d like to read a poignant and really funny novel about a young girl growing up in 1970’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), see if you can find Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1989). Great read.

If you travel north a bit from the African continent, you may run across Zadie Smith who has a great collection of work from which to choose… White Teeth is the one that brought her to the fore and the one that I remember the most, but the others are certainly as good.

For a non-fiction focus on the U.S., one of the best historical reads about African-American pioneer history I’ve read (in terms of opening up a whole new world of black history in the US) was Going Home to Nicodemus by Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994) which covers Exodusters and the African-American migration to pioneering Kansas. (Fascinating.) Related to this would be Black Women of the Old West (William Loren Katz, 1995) about the rarely talked-about world of African-American female pioneers who traveled west when the frontier was open. This led me down rabbit holes for many happy hours…

If you’d like to trace more recent history and the absolutely amazing stories of courage with reference to the U.S. Civil Rights fight, you can do no better than reading Sen. John Lewis’ graphic novel series called March. (Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III right now.)

To fully understand and appreciate our great former President Obama, try his fascinating autobiography, Dreams from my Father. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on right now, it’s a good read about a very smart and level-headed man.

Moving forward in time, there are some excellent African American authors who are very eloquent and vocal about the state of their world.

A really good and passionate start to this would be reading journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work, including Between the World and Me, his essay to his teenaged son on life in the U.S. for an African-American young man, or, if you’d rather read a plea for feminism (through the African-American lens), pick up And We Should All be Feminists by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie (2012). Both strong and provocative pieces of non-fiction writing…

(Coates also has written an impassioned plea for reparations in this article from the Atlantic mag. Totally worth reading if only to make you possibly rethink and reimagine a new future.)

For a shocking and contemporary critical look at how the medical establishment has treated the African-American population, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington (2007) will leave you shaking your head at the world around you.

In fact, there is so much really good POC literature out there, that it’s hard to choose. What a great problem to have!

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