Book Reviews in Review Part II: Books that Center Blackness
Over the course of my time writing this blog I’ve reviewed a lot of books, many of which center blackness including books that discuss racism as a larger topic and thus also include marginalization on a wider scale. I thought that, seeing as how this is my last post during Black History Month, it would be appropriate to compile a list of all of the books that I have reviewed because even though Black History Month is ending, we’re still here, we will continue to be here, and our narratives are important. I’ve included excerpts from each review, and if you click on the titles it will take you to the review proper so that you can read in its entirety.
Recommended Reads, in Alphabetical Order:
A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney
With all the stress of life, I felt myself yearning for something that I could read as a kind of palate cleanser, and I was directed toward the YA fantasy of my dreams in the form of L.L. McKinney’s excellent debut novel A Blade So Black. As a present-day interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, A Blade So Black takes a fresh look at the characters and the mythos of the story. Alice’s travels to Wonderland are no accident — it is only after three months of intense training by her mentor Addison Hatta that he takes her there via a Gateway in the storage closet of his pub in Atlanta called The Looking Glass. And the training was very necessary because Wonderland is created by the dreams of humanity, and sometimes there are nightmares. Alice, as a human, is uniquely qualified over those native to Wonderland to destroy nightmares, because she contains what they call “Muchness”.
An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz
When I told a colleague of mine that I was reading An African American and Latinx History of the United States, they were surprised, because they assumed that an African American history is distinct from a Latinx history, and therefore they should each be afforded their own book. My explanation to this person was the same as is the foundational argument of this book — that in the United States, African American and Latinx histories are inextricably linked, something that author Paul Ortiz makes abundantly clear throughout every page of this text.
Throughout the body of this work, Ortiz emphasizes the mutual ties between African American and Latinx folx, tracing how the history of African Americans is not exclusive to the United States, but has roots in the Haitian Revolution, in the Mexican War of Independence, the Cuban Solidarity Movement, and is intimately tied with anti-imperialism in the Global South. Ortiz breaks down the periods within which he discusses African American and Latinx History chapter by chapter into time frames ranging from fifteen years to fifty, allowing for some overlap.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Toni Morrison said that this book was required reading, so I obliged and I have to say that she’s not wrong. Between the World and Me is a small book, and not particularly long, but it definitely packs a punch. The book is an extended letter to Coates’ son, Samori, and so has a personal and intimate feel to it that is not present in most of the nonfiction that I read (with the exception of some of the essays in a similar style that I wrote about in last week’s review of The Fire This Time). All the same, while the book has the tone of a personal letter, that doesn’t stop it from addressing some of the biggest and broadest issues that are faced by black folk in our country, including the continuous and rippling effects of slavery and the insidious nature of the concept of race and how it shapes our everyday existence.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa who currently hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is his autobiography which touches upon major and what may appear to be minor episodes of his child and young adulthood, including the crime of his own birth.
The book opens with a excerpt from the the South African Immorality Act of 1927, which existed “To prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto.” As the son of a black mother and a white father, Noah’s birth was inherent proof of his parents’ illegal actions. Throughout the text Noah describes his experience growing up as apartheid was crumbling and he himself did not fit in anywhere. This is something that Noah discusses at length, by describing how he does and does not fit in the categories that had been created for South Africans.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is a book that reminds me why I love reading. I was glued to my seat for all 523 pages, and while I’m glad that the sequel is already out and I can continue right along with the story, I’m also furious with myself for letting such a gem get so low on my TBR.
The premise of Children of Blood and Bone is that eleven years earlier, the kingdom of Orïsha was stripped of its magic. Without magic, the ten maji clans were powerless, and the King Saran conducted what the people of the country call “The Raid.” Our protagonist, Zélie has clear and haunting memories of her mother, a Reaper and a powerful maji of life and death, being taken away in chains and hung, like all of the maji, despite the loss of their powers. Only the divîners, who were children under 13 that had not yet come into their power, like the six-year-old Zélie, were spared.
Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi
I thought that Children of Blood and Bone was a fantastic book, but Children of Virtue and Vengeance takes things to a whole new level. Keep in mind, this is a review for a sequel, so there are some small spoilers for Children of Blood and Bone within.
How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
Seeing as how February is Black History Month, I thought that reviewing N.K. Jemisin’s fantastic collection of short stories How Long ‘til Black Future Month? would be an excellent way to start off this month’s reviews and posts. I loved all of these stories, each of them engaging and thrilling, so much so that I read the entire book in a single sitting, despite the stories together comprising almost 400 pages. While I was in college, my tastes veered more toward nonfiction and realistic/ literary fiction, so I’m really happy to be diving into the science fiction and fantasy realm — and what a great time it’s been, especially with How Long ‘til Black Future Month?
While a couple stories take place in the same universe, each story is unique — some taking place in the present, some in the past, and some in worlds not quite our own. The stories vary wildly in time, place, and topic — for a few examples, consider that The Effluent Engine follows the narrative of a Haitian spy in 1800s New Orleans, who happens to fall in love with the woman who is the key to succeeding in her mission; in The Brides of Heaven a woman is caught sabotaging the water supply of a distant future colony wherein all the adult men died in coldsleep; and a personal favorite of mine, The Storyteller’s Replacement, uses a frame story with a rather dubious narrator to recount the tale of a king who ate a dragon’s heart in order that his wife and concubines might bear children, and got far more than he bargained for once his rather vicious daughters grew up.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Whenever I review a nonfiction book like How to Be an Antiracist I always feel as though I’m in at least a small part also writing an informational and educational essay about the subject of the book, rather than simply reviewing the book itself as a book. In large part that’s because when reviewing a nonfiction book, I’m not just evaluating the quality of a fictional narrative, but I’m evaluating the quality of dissemination of knowledge, and in the case of books like How to Be an Antiracist, the knowledge that is being disseminated is not only powerful and important, but also at times high-context. Since the knowledge is high-context, that means that I feel that I have a duty to my readers to make sure that everything I talk about in the review is as accessible as possible.
The need to meet people where they are at is something that Kendi actually talks about at various points within the text, particularly with regard to how he oftentimes makes a point to use terminology that he knows people will understand, even if it is not the preferred, more academic term he would use when speaking freely. How to Be an Antiracist is a book wherein Kendi embraces his own failures and the places where he has made mistakes throughout his life. I have rarely read a book wherein someone was so unflinchingly brutal in their characterization of a past self and their foolish and harmful actions done out of self-righteous ignorance, and yet so generous with that past self’s capacity for growth.
Pride by Ibi Zoboi
Pride and Prejudice has been adapted over and over again, but I think I have found my new favorite in Ibi Zoboi’s Pride. The book is narrated in the first person by Zuri Benitez, a seventeen year old girl living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The story starts at the beginning of summer vacation, when two important occurrences kick the events of the book into high gear: Zuri’s older sister, Janae, returns from her first year of college, and a new, incredibly rich, family moves in across the street.
There were a great deal of adaptational choices that I loved about this book, but one that I especially appreciated was the most obvious shift, that of the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the main characters. Since we read from Zuri’s perspective, we get to see the great pride that she has in her Afro-Latinx roots, not only through her internal narration, but also through her actions and in her in interactions with other characters.
So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo
The world is fraught with racial tension, and has been for a long time now. Having meaningful discussions about race is important because they are the first step towards creating real and positive change. Unfortunately, many people struggle with finding the language needed to communicate with one another, which is why I consider So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo to be such an important text. Written by a queer woman of color after my own heart, So you want to talk about race should (in my opinion) be mandatory reading for anyone and everyone, whether or not they think that they have all the answers already or find themselves lost in the minefield that is discussing the need for racial justice.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
I think that Stamped from the Beginning is one of the heaviest and one of the most informative books that I have read this year. Often, I speed through texts, even nonfiction, but with a project this large I took my time digesting the material, as there was only so much I could read at once. This book calls itself the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and in its 511 pages (not including notes — that’s up to 561) I certainly had many things defined as I consumed the wealth of information offered.
Stamped from the Beginning was an emotional book. Alternating feelings of surprise, disgust, anger, fear, shame, despair, resignation, but also hope, determination, and resolve arose within me as I read through and followed the journey that was laid out for me as I read, from the foundations of racism in the United States to 2015, when I suspect the writing of this text was more or less completed, given that it was published in 2016. These heavy emotions were not prompted by any sort of direct emotional manipulation. That was more or less unnecessary on the part of the author, because the raw facts of what black people have had to face in this country is damning and provoking enough that it doesn’t need any extra sheen to make it more tragic or devastating. This book holds no one up as a hero, but instead shows the ways in which people have been, to varying degrees, directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly, contributing to racism and its effects in the United States and elsewhere. Stamped from the Beginning uses the five figures of Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis as lenses through which to view the progression of conceptions and actions regarding race and racism within the United States in the time periods within which their lives and actions had strong impact on those relations. There are deviations of course, and overlaps. At times some of the connections seemed like they were stretches, but for the most part the framework functioned quite well.
Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter
Talking Back, Talking Black is a systematic and impassioned celebration of and commentary on Black English that elucidates and informs without ever feeling as though there is more of an agenda than that of increased understanding. Aside from the introduction, the book only contains five chapters, but each of them packs a punch as they explore different aspects of Black English, each of them split up into subsections with clearly focused headings. Throughout the text McWhorter examines the myths and realities behind what Black English is, in particular the disconnect between the academic community of linguists who see Black English as a legitimate dialect and form of English, and the general American public who often see Black English as simply a broken version of Standard English.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race edited by Jesmyn Ward
Until I started reading it, I had no idea how much I needed this book. The Fire This Time is a collection of poems and essays dedicated to the topic of race the United States. I think that the editor, Jesmyn Ward, put it best in her introduction when she outlined what kind of book she was seeking to create by “call[ing] upon some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of [her] generation” (7) and why this book is so needed:
“A book that would reckon with the fire and rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In the pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair through threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.” (8)
I’ve been feeling so tense for what feels like forever, and while I often veer toward escapism when reading on vacation I cannot deny that it felt really good to instead submerge myself into literature that deals with complex issues in beautiful ways. The topics addressed throughout the poetry and prose of The Fire This Time are heavy, but there is a power to them that I found inspiring and comforting.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I have been wanting to read The Hate U Give for over a year now, and I am so glad that I finally got around to doing so. My hesitancy in reading this book was not insignificant. I was assured of its quality, and of that I had no doubt, but I knew that this book contained heavy emotions – emotions that quite frankly I knew myself to not be capable of processing at that time. All the same, being in the slightly better emotional space that I am in now, I found The Hate U Give to be an incredibly worthwhile read.
The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr, a sixteen year old girl who witnesses the murder of one of her best friends at the hands of a police officer. While this catastrophic event is the catalyst for the text, and is treated with the depth and respect it deserves, there is so much more to Starr’s story. Yes, the death of Khalil permeates into almost every moment of this text, but The Hate U Give is also a story about a girl who is dating her first serious boyfriend, who is struggling to connect with her friends, and who just wants to live her teenaged life. That is the most beautiful part of the story, because while we hear about the deaths we hardly ever hear about the lives of young black and brown folk, and that is what The Hate U Give brings into focus.
This is Kind of an Epic Love Story by Kacen Callender
I’ve been on a bit of a nonfiction kick lately but This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story brought me right back in to remembering why I love YA fiction just as much. There are many epic love stories that are threaded throughout this book, which is representative of so many kinds of love. The main epic love story is that of protagonist Nathan Bird, and the ways that he experiences love with the people in his life. A major focus of the book is the tense but loving relationship between Nate and his mother, a single parent after his father’s death seven years earlier, intertwined with the care and affection between Nate and his sister, Becca, who has just started her first semester at college out of state. Then there is the complicated history that Nate has with his best friend/ex-girlfriend Florence, who ended their romance but not their friendship after kissing her co-worker and current girlfriend, Lydia. And, of course, there is Oliver James Hernández, Nate’s former best friend who has just moved back to Seattle from Sante Fe and is just as cute as ever.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves
I’ve been casually following the Well-Read Black Girl Instagram account for a while, but my financially conscious brain was winning when the book first came out, so I didn’t buy it right away. That said, when I saw that this anthology was on display at my local bookstore on the Black History Month table I couldn’t resist. Part of the reason I was so interested in this text (and the Instagram account in the first place) is that I haven’t always considered myself to be that much of a well-read black girl, at least not when it comes to black literature.
Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey
Like many black girls in 2012, I loved the video Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls, posted on the channel Chesaleigh. It was funny and on point, and to be honest I forgot about it within a year or so, too busy living my own life to pay much attention to the internet. Meanwhile Franchesca Ramsey was living her life, which I had the pleasure of reading about in her new memoir Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist. This memoir chronicles the rise to fame that Ramsey underwent after her video went viral and the many ramifications of becoming, as she says, an accidental activist.
What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison by Camille T. Dungy
“Lady, my one regret / is that we don’t have appetite enough / to make you break every damned plate inside this room.” As a person of color, I am undeniably drawn to works that discuss race in a way that does not skim over the harsh realities that we face every day. As someone who appreciates a little dark humor, I also appreciate a joke thrown in the face of a racist white person and I like imagining the sour looks on their faces. “The Preachers Eat Out” is the first poem I ever read by Camille Dungy, and it exemplifies what I like most about her style. Dungy manages to tie in racial themes, and tell stories not her own while still giving us true impressions of the people within the tales. Almost none of the people that she paints pictures of within her poems have names outside of the notes at the top of the poem, and she still gives us rich impressions of the characters within them.
I say final thoughts, but really, there is a WHOLE WIDE WORLD of literature out there written by and about black and brown folx and I have barely scratched the surface. Moreover these books vary widely in genre and topic. The common thread here is that the center Black voices and the heart of what I’m trying to get at is that Black voices vary widely in tone and rhythm. You can’t put us all in a box because we are not a monolith. I’ve chosen to read broadly because I want to read stories unlike my own and unlike each other. You can bet that there will be plenty more reviews of these differing stories coming, so stay tuned. In the meantime, happy reading!