It's hard to believe that it was only two weeks ago that a Minneapolis police officer asphyxiated George Floyd. Since then there has been a remarkable awakening both in America and in many other parts of the world in response to this. Only time will tell what will come of it, but I'm cautiously optimistic that we may see real change result from this tragedy.
One of the responses to this has been a dramatic increase in the number of books sold on race and racism. It's frustrating in a way — we shouldn't need someone's murder to remind us that racism is an issue — yet I hope that the people who buy these books will read them and take something important from them. I can certainly sympathize with their desire to learn more, as I've felt the need to read up on something so relevant to our moment, especially as for the past few months I've been a little too self-indulgent in my reading choices.
This is why I decided to order a collection of James Baldwin's essays. His is one of those names that I have long encountered without engaging in any great detail with his biography or his thinking. But lately he seems to me more omnipresent than ever. It was after reading a review of a book about his 1965 Cambridge debate with William F. Buckley that I was inspired to change that. So a copy will soon be winging its way towards me, and once I receive it I will make it a priority to read one or two essays a day until I am through with the collection.
Here are some books by African American authors you may want to read:
Kindred by Octavia Butler: The first science fiction written by a black woman, Kindred has become a cornerstone of black American literature. This combination of slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction is a novel of rich literary complexity. Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given...
Beloved by Toni Morrison: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a spellbinding and dazzlingly innovative portrait of a woman haunted by the past. Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has borne the unthinkable and not gone mad, yet she is still held captive by memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Meanwhile Sethe’s house has long been troubled by the angry, destructive ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander: "Jarvious Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."
As the United States celebrates the nation's "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status--much like their grandparents before them.
I read the Vintage edition that included an afterword where Morrison discusses the problems she sees in her first novel, and while I enjoyed Beloved and Song of Solomon more, this book in spite of Morrison's complaints is an amazing debut.
We can see in the text the seeds of the author's immense talent and beautiful use of language that come to fruition in later works. Its a book full of heart, narrated by children who have not yet been crushed by the concepts of beauty and ugliness and connect the lack of marigolds with the tragedy of their friend.
"It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, 'You are ugly people.' They had looked about themselves saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance.
It rages at a standard of beauty that excludes blackness. A school system that elevates whiteness, and a society that accepts as normal male cruelty and dominance. The prose is rich and poetic and the characters are gritty and flawed.