~post by Bethany
One of my resolutions for 2015 was to be more deliberate about my reading choices. Although this includes trying to read a significant number of books by non-white authors throughout the year, it’s fun to select monthly themes, and this month I’ve been sticking to works by African-Americans—all of which (so far) I’m very excited to recommend.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
It’s hard to find a fitting comparison for the prose of W.E.B. Du Bois. Reading it, I could practically hear the rich cadences of a powerful orator in my head, sweeping me up in a way I hardly thought possible without musical accompaniment. Writing at a time when his field, sociology, was in its infancy, DuBois engagingly blends the academic and the literary, the historical and the personal, moving between such diverse topics as the legacy of Reconstruction in the South (“Of the Dawn of Freedom”), the goals of universal education (“Of the Wings of Atalanta”), and the death of his baby son (“Of the Passing of the First Born.”) This book has as much to say to us today about anger, suffering, and the resilience of the human spirit as it did over 100 years ago.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow
This beautiful memoir was published last year by a beloved New York Times columnist about his coming of age in rural Louisiana in the 70s and 80s. It simultaneously immersed me in the completely foreign experiences of Blow’s childhood—dealing with poverty and racism in the immediate wake of school desegregation; accompanying his mother on a car chase of one of his philandering father’s partners, with a loaded gun, at the age of six—and made me remember the pain of unarticulated loneliness in my own formative years. It speaks with grace to anyone who has ever been a quietly hurting child, or done something they knew to be wrong in order to fit in, or struggled to forge an identity out of the irreconcilable pieces of what society wants them to be and what they are. I think it will speak to a lot of people, and it is a story that needs to be heard.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Helga Crane, protagonist of this semi-autobiographical 1928 novel, is, like her creator, of mixed heritage, the product of a black father and a Danish mother. After a childhood marred by the absence of her father and the neglect of her white stepfamily, Helga’s early-adulthood search for her identity and place in the world is more desperate than most. The pursuit of an always elusive happiness takes her from the condescending and suffocating environment of a Southern Negro school to Chicago, New York, Copenhagen, and back to the South, where she throws herself into the unlikely role of homemaker for an impoverished black preacher. I love it for its intimate and authentic look at the frustrated soul of a brilliant, complex woman in unusual circumstances; its sensuous, evocative, feather-light prose; and its quietly unredemptive ending.
Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson has given us that rare gem, a novel both philosophical and consummately entertaining, as thoughtful as it is hilarious. His book is a slave narrative based on the “Ten Oxherding Pictures,” a 12th-century series of panels in the Zen tradition that depict a man who believes he has lost his ox (a Chinese symbol for the self). Our narrator, the light-skinned slave Andrew Hawkins, is a man born with conflicting identities—the accidental product of a booze-filled night on which a plantation owner and his butler decided to switch beds on their prim, unsuspecting wives. After a childhood raised in the slave quarters, but with an education fit for a young master, Andrew sets off on a series of adventures with the intention of making enough money to purchase freedom—from his mother’s husband—for his father, stepmother, intended bride, and himself.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
“Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.” So says one of the most haunting voices in American literature, issuing from its warm, well-lit hole deep underneath Harlem. The voice belongs to a nameless African-American man, and it effects its wake-up call through the simple telling of his past, from his roots in the South, where a conciliatory speech before white supremacists wins him a college scholarship, to his role in New York as the token black spokesman of a communist movement intent on maintaining that it does not see color while manipulating racial division to its advantage. In prose steeped in symbolism and redolent of both literary and folk traditions, Ellison performs perhaps the most important of novelist’s feats, slowly revealing, for any in the audience who believe that what they gaze upon is the Other, a mirror: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”