Photo: Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), America’s First African American Poet and the first African American Woman to publish her writing.
Every February, persons and organizations across multiple racial backgrounds celebrate Black History Month. The event encourages everyone to diversify their attention to not only history, but other academic subjects like science, art, sociology, literature, and technology. Bibliophiles hoping to expand their regular diet might want to check out the following novels, all of which contribute to a greater cultural understanding of “blackness” and its heterogeneous nature.
Clotel; or The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown
Considered the first known African-American novel, Clotel; or The President’s Daughter fictionalizes the true story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, which at the time still teetered between fact and fake. As a peek into historical realities, however, it offers a harrowing look at the horrors faced by female slaves.
Song of Solomon by Toni
The (obviously fictional) life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III proved instrumental in author Toni Morrison’s well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature — and the National Book Critics Award it earned isn’t anything to downplay, either! Critics adored it for the honest, unapologetic portrayal of an African-American man’s quest for a solid identity during the socially and politically volatile 20th century.
If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes
At the intersections of supporting unionism and anti-racist initiatives sits the boiling Chester Himes classic If He Hollers Let Him Go. Although the time span only covers four days, the book covers skin color hierarchy from within and without the African-American community.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Considered both a landmark of African-American and LGBTQ literature, this Pulitzer winner traces the marginalization of legendary central figure Celie, oppressed along gender, racial, and economic lines. Insightful and emotional, this book stands as an absolute essential in the classroom, book club, and home library.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
No book so adeptly relays the anger and fear, of socially, politically, and economically isolated African-American men prior to the Civil Rights movement like Ralph Ellison’s positively searing Invisible Man. Even so-called liberal and progressive members of the cultural hegemony still don’t understand what exactly needs doing to ensure an equitable society — an accurate reflection of the times which still resonates on occasion today.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
In her award-studded debut novel, Zadie Smith intertwines issues of race with those of religion, sexuality, nationality, immigration, mixed marriages, and conflicting personal histories. Because she includes so many diverse characters, she skillfully navigates the positive and negative perspectives that inevitable crop up in a multicultural society and, on a more intimate scale, interracial families.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
African-Americans, to James Baldwin, hold a dichotomous relationship with Christianity; at once, the faith provides comfort and solidarity (particularly in the pre-Civil Rights days), but simultaneously a rigid, often two-faced institution perpetuating problems of oppression over alleviating them. Its semi-autobiographical nature allowed the author to pull straight from his experiences to deliver one of the most scathing social commentaries of the 20th century.
Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Back in 1937 when it was first published, Their Eyes were Watching God attracted criticism for its use of a phonetic vernacular, which makes perfect sense when one considers her background as an anthropologist. More contemporary audiences praise it for the exact same reasons, along with her featuring a complex, compelling female protagonist at a time when such things were quite the rarity.
The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Dandicat
Set before, during, and after the Parsley Massacre of 1937, this acclaimed historical novel opens up about the oppression of Haitians in the Dominican Republic under the cruel leadership of dictator Rafael Trujillo. Edwidge Dandicat set about penning the book after a visit to the Massacre River where the horrors took place and he realized that its current inhabitants had no idea of its deeply troubling past.
Mama Black Widow by Iceberg Slim
Rarely does literature peek into the lives of LGBTQ minorities, which is something of a tragedy considering how frequently marginalized both demographics wind up, even within their own already oppressed communities. This hierarchy receives a thorough and brutal takedown with the tragic narrative of Otis Tilson, an African-American drag queen grappling against unforgiving streets and homosexual subculture.
Incognegro by Mat Johnson
Illustrated by Warren Pleece, the tense graphic novel Incognegro takes place in the 1930s and features an undercover reporter covering a series of lynchings while attempting to rescue his brother from a false murder accusation. Because the central figure of the story is a black man with light enough skin to pass for white, the narrative lends itself perfectly to exploring problematic race relations past and present.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Young adult readers hoping to honor Black History Month might want to consider picking up this classic bildungsroman, which discusses what life was like for African-Americans during the Great Depression. Protagonist Cassie Logan, a 9-year-old who learns all too well the toll racism and economic inequality take on society, families, and individuals alike.
Segu by Maryse Conde
While not reality, actual events did inspire Maryse Conde to tackle how traditional tribal lifestyles dismantled thanks to the influence of Islam imported from the East and the slave trade infiltrating from the West. A royal advisor and his family provide the viewpoint of a city in severe transition and the cultural mores prior to the severe colonial stranglehold still afflicting areas on the African continent today.
Native Son by Richard Wright
With keen sociological insight, Richard Wright answered some heavy questions regarding intersections between crime and the African-American community, drawing parallels between marginalization and violence. Native Son is at once sympathetic and unsympathetic toward central figure Bigger Thomas, whose desperation eventually drives him to a spur-of-the-moment murder.
Push by Sapphire
Intense and tragic — though ultimately bittersweet — Push heroine Precious Jones must force her way through pregnancy via incest, illiteracy, poverty, abuse, and a shocking diagnosis to ensure a healthier life for her children. An uphill battle, to be certain, but one she knows she has to fight lest she remain mired in a veritable hell on earth.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
One of the science fiction world’s most notable names tries her hand at fantasy this time, weaving a narrative of a young woman slung through time and landing on an antebellum plantation. She must cautiously maneuver her way around relatives and the inherent social dangers while simultaneously ensuring she still winds up born in the future.
Home to Harlem by Claude McKay
Published in 1928, Home to Harlem would go on to become one of the most significant African-American novels ever published, inspiring black activists and writers in completely different nations and even hemispheres. During the Harlem Renaissance, a pair of youths attempt to find their way in a city of discrimination, winding up with sharply divergent results.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan
Sexy, steamy romance aficionados consider Terry McMillan’s tantalizing tropical tale How Stella Got Her Groove Back a quintessential classic of the genre. The eponymous middle-aged woman, a professionally successful single mother, finds love and inspiration while on an impromptu Jamaican holiday, where she encounters a startling suitor half her age.
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Two separate mindsets regarding elevator repair — Intuitionism and Empiricism — compete against one another for dominance in a metaphor for the history of black empowerment and subsequent fluctuations in mainstream acceptance. Caught in the middle of this conflict is the nameless city’s first African-American female inspector (an Intuitionist) whose career and philosophy fall under hefty criticism when one of her assignments plummets.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Watch in horror as the pride of an Igbo village mentally unravels and physically weakens to the point that his anguish and that of his people foreshadow his ultimately disheartening fate. Literary types tout Things Fall Apart as among the greatest postcolonial novels ever published, encapsulating the horrors inflicted on traditional lifestyles by invading Europeans.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones earned the 2003 Pulitzer (among other prestigious honors) for his debut novel, which focuses its attentions on slavery and the shocking reality that free blacks also owned human property. A power-mad landowner’s widow manages to lose her grip on everything he left behind, resulting in a heavily detailed inquiry into all the moral and ethical components of the institution of peddling human flesh.
Those Bones are Not My Child by Toni Cade Bambara
Forty children wind up murdered in Atlanta between 1979 and 1981, all victims of the city’s volatile transition following the election of its very first black mayor. No less than Toni Morrison herself edited her close friend’s novel for posthumous publication, believing it to be her greatest, most evocative entry in her entire oeuvre.
The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace
Three men — one eagerly completing a majestic dragon costume for Carnival, one displaced Indian, and one nogoodnick — who call an impoverished Port of Spain neighborhood home eventually succumb to the maddening discrimination and racial divides. It all culminates in a frantic crime stemming directly from Trinidad and Tobago’s boiling history of colonial oppression.
The Street by Ann Petry
In Harlem, single mother Lutie Johnson wants nothing more than opportunities to work hard and support her beloved son Bub, propelling herself forward with thoughts of Benjamin Franklin. Fascinating friends and foes alike round out this realistic slice-of-life story about making it in spite of pre-Civil Rights and misogynistic odds.
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Yet another widely celebrated young adult read, Monster deals with the grim robbery and murder trial of a poor Harlem youth from start to finish. One must actually pick up the novel to learn of the jury’s ultimate decision, but whether guilty or innocent, his narrative still challenges readers to think of the criminal justice system’s own unique set of injustices and biases.
Source/Credit: Accredited Online Colleges (www.accreditedonlinecolleges.com)