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Reading Black History Month

February is Black History Month! An excellent time to celebrate black writing, black authors, and the innumerable literary contributions of folks from black and African diaspora communities all over the world. Here’s a list, by no means exhaustive, of some of the reads we’re celebrating with this year.

 

PlotClaudia Rankine

What is motherhood? How does it relate to originality, responsibility, creativity, responsibility? In Plot, the third book of poetry from Claudia Rankine, author of The End of the Alphabet and Citizen: An American Lyric, a pregnant woman’s respect for life makes her reluctant to bring a new life into the world. The poems chart her and her husband’s journey through dreams, conversations, and reflections, transcending genres and destabilizing expectations, until the birth of a unique baby named, of course, Ersatz. Rankine would go on to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Award Nomination, and more; Plot remains one of her foundational achievements.

 

Freshwater / Akwaeke Emezi

The stunning debut of a major, Nigerian-born talent, Freshwater has been recognized as one of the most original, powerful, and unsettling novels of recent years. Born “with one foot on the other side,” Ada grows from a troubled child to a sensitive adult, and begins to develop separate selves. When she travels to America for college, a traumatic event crystallizes the selves into something more powerful, and these alters—now protective, now hedonistic—take control, sending her life spiraling in a dangerous direction. Freshwater earned Emezi a place as a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree, and has been named a New York Times Notable Book, a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist, an Entertainment Weekly best debut of 2018, and much more.

 

S O S / Amiri Baraka

As we wrote a few months ago to celebrate posthumously the 84th birthday of Amiri Baraka, one of twentieth-century America’s foremost poets and a visionary of the Black Arts Movement and other radical literary groups, “S O S collects Baraka’s poetry from all the books of his fifty-plus-year career, tracking the changes in his commitments, affiliations, and interests, while simultaneously demonstrating the commitment to justice, community, and political imagination at the unified core of his writing. In the New York Times Book Review, Claudia Rankine called it ‘the most complete representation of over a half-century of revolutionary and breathtaking work.’”

 

HappinessAminatta Forna

New York Times Editors’ Choice that’s been widely praised for its keen powers of observation and moving portrayal of the intersecting lines that connect us even in amid the urban bustle of our biggest cities, Happiness kicks off with a chance encounter, on London’s Waterloo Bridge, between Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist in town to delivery a speech on trauma, and Jean, an American who studies the behavior of city-dwelling foxes. The story that unfolds involves the search for a missing person, the organization of London’s rubbish men into a squad of fox-spotters, ratcheting happenstance, kindness and cruelty, togetherness and separation, and, indeed, happiness. Calling it “arresting,” the Washington Post writes, “Happiness is a meditation on grand themes: Love and death, man and nature, cruelty and mercy. But Forna folds this weighty matter into her buoyant creation with a sublimely delicate touch.”

 

The Wretched of the Earth / Frantz Fanon / translated by Richard Philcox

It is difficult to imagine today’s world without the singular, anti-colonial genius of the Martinican psychiatrist, social critic, and revolutionary Frantz Fanon. His consideration of the brutal realities of colonial oppression — unprecedented when it was new, and unsurpassed more than half a century later — forever changed the world, setting a benchmark for all future thought on violence, nationhood, exploitation, and rebellion. Today, Fanon is revered around the world as an irreplaceable figure of the historic left, an inspiration to all who fight for justice, and a legend who, at just 36 years old, was claimed by illness far before his time.

 

Man Gone Down / Michael Thomas

In his gorgeous, acclaimed, and brutal debut novel, Michael Thomas tells the story of a black man whose marriage to a white Boston Brahmin woman is fast unraveling. As he works to come up with the money he needs to keep his three children in private school, we learn, through flashbacks, of his childhood, beset by poverty and abuse, and the magnitude of the expectations he is in danger of failing. In the tradition of Ralph Ellison, Man Gone Down is a novel the New York Times Book Review called “powerful and moving” and “an impressive success,” adding that Thomas “knows how little but also—fortunately—how much it can take to bring a man down.”

 

Ayiti / Roxane Gay

What is there left to say about Roxane Gay? One of the most ferocious, admired, and imitated writers on the planet, Gay brings the full force of her leonine intellect and deft, resonant prose to bear in her debut collection, portraying the Haitian diaspora in its many shades and subtleties. From a married couple preparing to leave their country by boat for America, to a woman boarding—and ultimately bedding—a foreign soldier, to a girl conceived in the shadow of a massacre whose later life, in America, is perpetually haunted by the mysterious scent of blood, Ayiti is whip-smart, as rugged and various as the homeland it hearkens back to.

 

John WomanWalter Mosley

For decades, Walter Mosley has been a premier name in black fiction, and John Woman, while written with Mosley’s signature wit and earthy pungency, also offers something new: a novel of ideas, premised on the realization that whoever controls the understanding of history controls the past itself, and, thus, the present. It’s a proposition that becomes central to the life of young, Cornelius, whose black father dies and whose white mother disappears, leaving him to reinvent himself — as Professor John Woman, a man who will spread his realizations about history into the classrooms of his unorthodox southwestern university, and beyond.

 

Searching for ZionEmily Raboteau

An epic work of nonfiction from a biracial American woman that spans the years of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Searching for Zion documents one writer’s pursuit of that most fundamental human necessity: a safe place to call home. From Ethiopian Jews to Rastafarians, African Hebrew Israelites to members of her own family displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Raboteau finds fascinating interlocutors, has subtle, probing conversations with them, and then uses these as the basis for a narrative that overturns our ideas of place and patriotism, displacement and dispossession, citizenship and country.

 

Jam on the VineLaShonda Barnett

Set in early-twentieth-century Texas, Jam on the Vine gives us an American narrative in the tradition of Toni Morrison. When young Ivoe Williams first steals a newspaper from her mother’s boss, she’s immediately hooked. After attending college on a scholarship, and enduring several years’ underemployment thereafter, she leaves the Jim Crow south for Kansas City, where she and her lover (and former teacher) found the first female-run black newspaper (from which the novel takes its title), just in time to face the profound moral crises of keeping alive, afloat, and accountable through the notorious Red Summer of 1919 — a horrific outbreak of lynchings, riots, and repression across the Midwest. Tayari Jones called Jam on the Vine “an ode to activism,” written with “a scholar’s eye and a poet’s soul.”