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Black Lives — and Authors — Matter

June 29, 2020 by in General

Mural by Kyle Holbrook in Overtown, Miami

Horror and hope are not usually two emotions I feel simultaneously, but this has been the strangest of months.

I am brought to tears by the video showing the heinous killing of George Floyd. But I also find myself surprised and uplifted by the sight of millions of people throughout the United States protesting and demanding an end to racism and police brutality.

I want to believe change is possible. I want to be part of it. But how to go beyond words and slogans? How to achieve something real when this latest outrage is inevitably overshadowed by something new or shiny or even worse?

I don’t know the answer, but when I’m feeling hopeful, I think it has to do with how we raise our children, how we talk to one another, how we love, how we vote and how those of us in privileged positions call out injustice and prejudice when we see it – and how we take a hard look at our own biases.   

And what better tool for examining our world, learning about our history and blind spots, than books? As the #PublishingPaidMe conversation has shown, black authors are too often undervalued, both in terms of the advances they are paid and the audience they are assumed to have. So, let’s change those assumptions, let’s speak with big fat dollar signs that can’t be ignored. And let’s keep doing it long after this heart-wrenching moment in history has passed. 

To that end, here is a list of some of my favorite books written by black authors that you may wish to buy. It’s very random and woefully incomplete, and I’m purposely excluding some of The Greats (Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Octavia Butler) to get beyond the established literary cannon.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

I had the privilege not only to read this collection of short stories but to attend a week-long writing workshop by this amazing author. I love the way her writing mixes the real and fantastical, how her characters show strength while still being deeply flawed. Her stories scrutinizing mother-daughter relationships are particularly powerful, including one which takes place in a world where women make children out of materials like yarn and hair instead of giving birth.  But such summaries rob her stories of their magic. If you want to see what I really mean, check out her short story Skinned (which is not in the book, but hey, it’s free) for which she won the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing.

& More Black by T’ai Freedom Ford

The lush language and imagery in this poetry collection kept me guessing. It was at times raw, bristling and full of hip-hop bravado beats, then suddenly gentle, sweat-slick and erotic. I learned of Ford’s work when I met her at a writers’ conference and she shared some of her stunning unpublished fiction in a workshop. If she ever chooses to publish a novel, I’ll be excited to buy it as well.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

This book was horrifying. And beautiful. And haunting. It centers around the plight of Lilith, a Jamaican slave who is drawn into plans for a slave revolt at the end of the eighteenth century. It is the most violent book I have ever read, and for that reason alone, I struggled a bit with it.  And yet. This is history masquerading as fiction. It needs to be witnessed. And the skill and nuance with which James deploys his craft could not be any more brilliant.  

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve gushed about this trilogy before here, if you want to read all the details. In short: If you like fantasy, it reigns at the peak of the genre’s mountain right now. If you don’t read fantasy because you’re sick of the vaguely Medieval, European settings, the reluctant white male heroes and damsels needing saving, you’ll love it even more for everything it is not.

The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull

This is a story about an alien invasion that isn’t really an alien invasion. Or, should I say, it is about the latest invasion endured by the residents of the Virgin Islands. The aliens are the Ynaa, an advanced species that arrives in shell-shaped spaceships, gives humans medical cures and clean energy, yet meets any act of aggression with extreme, disproportional violence.  I loved how the story skipped all the usual tropes. There is no “take me to your leader” moment, no Will Smith from Independence Day trying to kick alien butt (they’re too powerful to oppose), no evil alien plan to “take over” the world (they have their own agenda and we aren’t that important).  The ending of the novel left me deeply unsettled in the best way.

The Haunting  of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark

This novella was a fun, fast read that features the kind of hopeful ending that we could all use right now. Mixing good old-fashioned detective work and magic, the story is set in an alternate history version of 1912 Cairo. I found it uplifting, entertaining and insightful. 

Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson (Non-fiction)

Ah, Neil. How I love thee. In times like these, when it sometimes feels like the world is falling apart, it’s wonderful to have an astrophysicist like you calmly and expertly explain how the universe works. This book discusses everything from black holes to antimatter, life beyond our planet to mathematical constants. If that sounds intimidating, it’s not.  This is the physics book you wish you had in high school.

One thing it does not discuss in any depth is race, but as I prepared to write this, I wondered what Tyson thought about current events and his personal experiences with the police. Turns out, he’s posted a video on YouTube about it called Reflections on the Color of my Skin. Like everything else about this month, it’ll break your heart but leave you with hope for the future.

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