Four powerful reads from black authors
I had a number of blog posts in the pipeline for this valuable period between one job and the next, a moment when I have the liberty of time otherwise occupied by work to dedicate instead to writing. But in light of what happened last week and the sentiments which have echoed around the world since, I would feel wrong writing about something else. The strength of conviction with which I addressed the topic last week and have continued to converse with friends and family hasn’t and won’t be leaving me. It will continue to inform how I move through the world. And so, I will write about a subject I love to write about on the blog – that of books – while keeping these sentiments front and centre.
I have written before about how novels and stories are the great instructor in empathy. How decolonising our bookshelves is a crucial step in the journey to equality. More than almost any other medium, reading stories places us directly in the experience of a completely other person, no matter how different their experiences may be. It enables us to see the world from their perspective – be that through their experiences, memories or imagination – if only on the page.
One of the reasons white supremacy has been able to cling onto our lifestyles for so long is the inability for the advantaged group – namely, white people – to place themselves in the minds and shoes of those who they oppress. Imagine what a different place the world would be if we truly did that. If Donald Trump put himself in the position of a south-of-the-border immigrant trying to secure a better life for themself and their children. If Derek Chauvin put himself in the position of George Floyd.
To do so requires genuine care and a certain sense of curiosity, sadly neither of which are as prevalent as they should be amongst grown society. They still are amongst children, those ever questioning minds which have not yet been told how to think. And they are both something that gradually open our eyes and minds and hearts to so many injustices in the world. It’s why surrounding children with stories centralising on all sorts of characters different from themselves is crucial. It’s why making an active effort to seek out these stories as an adult is too.
How many of the last ten books you read were written by someone from a different walk of life than yourself? It is important to read experiences and words from every corner of society and of the globe (psst… check out the Reading the World list if you haven’t yet!), but just as #BlackLivesMatter highlights, it’s the black community who needs us all right now. To that end, get out and read black authors. Here are four I have devoured in the last few months and why I think they’re worth your time.
The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
Representation matters. This is the unavoidable fact at the heart of The Bluest Eye, the debut novel of celebrated African American author, Toni Morrison. It tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. With language as beautiful as it is powerful, Morrison studies the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child's yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfilment. She comments on how damaging it is to be a young girl who looks nothing like the images of beauty she is faced with. Imagine no one around you telling you you’re beautiful, because they themselves were never told they’re beautiful, and you see no evidence whatsoever in the world around you to suggest you might be. Or worse, that you’re the very opposite of what is beautiful. Toni Morrison imagines this for us, and the desperately detrimental effects it has on the lives, minds and bodies of children of colour. Representation matters. Don’t just accept what is the norm out there, be part of the change, creating and demanding more inclusive imagery everywhere imagery exists.
Go Tell It on the Mountain (James Baldwin)
This story about John, a black teen in 1930s Harlem grappling with his domineering family and church is valuable for many reasons, but I confess there is one moment that struck me and stuck with me more than all the rest. It comes in one of the story’s back stories, that of the mother of John’s violent stepfather. It recalls her memory of the actual days leading up to the emancipation of America’s slaves, and the fateful day itself. Unlike anything I have ever read, discussed or seen on screen, it forced realisation of the truly unfathomable situation of African Americans who overnight went from white property to “free” people living in a land that didn’t want them, and certainly wasn’t about to accommodate them. Without any existing community willing to care for them, these lost and heartbroken and unbelievably resilient people made their own community, and they did their best, despite having hands held up against them at every single turn. These are the communities that provided the foundations of the black communities in America today, who are still having hands held up against them, who still have not been given due space within the wider community of America. It put the African American reality in a powerful perspective that changes how I see society today, and it’s a perspective every white person needs to gain.
Becoming (Michelle Obama)
I started reading Michelle Obama’s wonderful autobiography Becoming about three weeks ago. Little did I know at the time it would be the most important book to be reading as the issues she discusses blew up in the global conscience. Addressing feelings of hopelessness and despair regarding the wider African American reality is central to Michelle Obama’s narrative, but she skilfully does so through a very personal narrative. Telling her own story and that of her family, she paints a portrait that is bigger than her. She talks about her grandfather who was part of the Great Migration of African Americans moving from the rural south to urban north, and the difficulties he, like so many others, was met with, and lived with throughout his life; how this over the course of a lifetime built a deep distrust in white establishments… the ones that still run the country today. She talks about childhood trips with her brother to stay with relatives in the south; how that part of the country speaks to her in a way she can’t quite quantify, but feels in her bones, the way all descendants of slaves do. She recalls times when – be it as an Ivy League student, or a respected lawyer, or an active partner helping her husband’s presidential campaign – all her sense and intelligence and strength is dismissed in one foul swoop with the “angry black woman” paintbrush. She had tools in the form of support from those around her and a good education (this second tool a direct result of the first) which enabled her to rise above in the most spectacular way and become the very picture of black excellence. But she acknowledges the places her path diverges from what is the devastating norm, and directly speaks to how we can all contribute to making sure her story transforms from an extraordinary to an ordinary one. Finally, as impossible as it seems, Obama’s narrative ends on a note of hope directly in response to Donald Trump’s presidency, and to read it in this moment in time is a huge gift.
Gather Together in my Name (Maya Angelou)
This is the second of seven autobiographical books by beloved Maya Angelou. In addition to penning novels, Angelou was a celebrated poet, arguably most known for her powerful Still I Rise. Her immense talent with words is on every page of this and her other books, which is made evident merely by the titles. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, A Song Flung Up to Heaven. She uses that language to tell a story that somehow speaks beyond circumstance, and for me reading this second instalment it resonated with me in a powerful way. The book finds her as a young woman who feels everything particularly keenly, describing it all in dramatic and evocative language not dissimilar to the kind I use to write to my past and future self every New Year in a fifteen-year-old tradition. There were parts I read that might as well have been describing myself, and no story has more made me realise how, at our core, before the circumstances fall around us and the outside forces get in, we all have so much common ground. Somehow while reminding me of this, this book also points out how those circumstances cannot be overlooked, and how central a role they play in the shape our individual lives take. Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographical books span from her childhood in 1940s post-war America to the time of Martin Luther King’s death, but it puts the wider story of the country in the context of a personal story, rather than a history book chapter. It left me with a heavy but lasting impression.