by Angie Thomas, 2017
Starr Carter is sixteen years old when she witnesses the police shooting of her friend Khalil. Pulled over for a seemingly routine traffic violation, things quickly go south when Khalil demands to know why he was stopped, is frisked, and returns to the car to ask Starr if she’s okay. There appeared to be a gun in the car, they say of the hairbrush sticking out of a pocket in the door. He was dealing drugs, they say with no evidence of such in the car. One more gangbanger out of the way, they say, while knowing nothing about Khalil and the life he led. It’s a sad day when a book like this is necessary and, yet, here we are, and this book is so very necessary.
by Colson Whitehead, 2016
After languishing at nearly number 500 on the waitlist, The Underground Railroad finally came in at the library! Anyone who reads any sort of books is likely to have heard of this blessed-by-Oprah, National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize winner and I was experiencing an acute case of FOMO with this one. The only question I had was, would it live up to the hype?
by Toni Morrison, 1977
I don’t think I will cease to be impressed with how deftly Toni Morrison incorporates historical events, cultural criticism, and societal strife into stories with such highly flawed, damaged, and unenlightened characters while managing to make the result nothing short of luminous. Here we have the story of Milkman Dead, born the only son to Macon Dead and sharing his name except for the fact of his troubling nickname which was bestowed upon him by a town member who was witness to an incident with his mother. Song of Solomon is at once a coming of age tale, one that tells of a man who has truly does not have to answer to anyone or be responsible for himself, struggling to learn his place his in family’s history, yet it is also a story of black history itself, of those who fight to remember who they are while whites work to erase it.
by Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, 1965
The great thing about books is that they help us understand not only others, but ourselves and our own place in history a little bit better. Growing up I knew little of Malcolm X. I was raised Catholic, owing to my mother, but my father (the black side of my family) was Methodist and the First Nation of Islam was so far off my radar as to be non-existent. It was something for other black people, the ones who changed their names and insisted they were African, not American. (Conversely, I know now that we were the “smug” and “intention-hungry Negroes” that Malcolm X detested.) I read maybe a few passages from The Autobiography in school, but Malcolm X was never studied in depth and overall I got the sense that, while he contributed to our history as black people, he was not to be admired. I could have gone my whole life thinking that had I not taken it upon myself to learn more.
by James Baldwin, 1963
“A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”
I read that sentence and it was as if I had been struck. Much of the book hit me in this way, coming at me as if its words were desperate to be seen. For although The Fire Next Time was written over 50 years ago, its message is, to put it indelicately, TIMELY AS FUCK. This should be history, I thought to myself. I should not be able to identify with this as closely as I do. We should have moved past this by now. Yet there I was, feeling the full weight of Baldwin’s call to action as if it had been published yesterday. It is disheartening and maddening to know how much we need Baldwin’s writings today, but how amazing it is that we have his voice to put out into the world what many of us struggle to put into words. We need writers to do this for us and, even after his death, James Baldwin does the job perfectly.
I must admit, I find Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901) problematic. It raises the question of how much we trust the narrative of a person whose story doesn’t align with our currently held beliefs. I came to this book knowing only that W.E.B. Du Bois (whose The Souls of Black Folk is amazing and insightful and worthy of a reread) had some beef with the author’s philosophies. Having read Washington, I now see why.