Black History Month Recs: ALL
Here it is! What you’ve all been waiting for! All 28 recs for Black History Month on Black authors whose work I love!
Seriously, that’s what it is.
I’ll start with American fiction writer Charles Himes. He’s best known for his Harlem detective series with Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. But I’d like to recommend his short stories, which you can find in the Collected Stories of Charles Himes. They portray the lives of Black Americans in an acutely racist time and do it with the most vivid stories imaginable.
Today, it’s Deesha Philyaw. You can read my review of SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES at the link. Each story in this collection is a jewel. Read one, you’ll flip back to the beginning to see how she did what she did. The epigraph tells you what you need to know:
Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.
Ansel Elkins, Autobiography of Eve
To experience the effect of Critical Race Theory, read Derrick Bell’s short stories in Faces at the Bottom of the Well. Yes, fiction. The stories appeared as law review notes, if you can believe it—I love to imagine people coming across the stories in typically dry law journals. The impact will vary by reader: give up or fight on? But, man, do they get the point across.
Jarvis DeBerry was the columnist at the Times-Pic for decades. His collection of columns is “I Feel to Believe.” I’m not sure I can recommend a better book for someone seeking a picture of New Orleans. Reading the columns one after another, their power comes through in the power of the personal. Each one, you’re learning something about New Orleans, DeBerry, and the human propensity. He’s perfect for my Black History Month recs.
Crystal Wilkinson is a Affrilachian poet and fiction writer from Kentucky. I was lucky enough to study under her at The Glen last summer. We arrived, she announced we would have written a new short story by week’s end. I didn’t believe her. I was wrong. Her teaching is as breathtaking as her fiction. She’s the winner of a 2022 NAACP Image Award. I can’t wait to read her forthcoming memoir.
That Angie Thomas could wind up on banned books lists is one of the worst indictments of America today. She’s a NYTimes Best-Selling YA author educated at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. She writes from her own experiences growing up, which include wanting to be a teen rapper and personal experiences of violence. Folks complain about the Black Lives Matter theme, but a friend whose son is a cop says every person in the country should read The Hate U Give. Read it, not ban it, ever.
Howard Thurman is a prophet, preacher, and writer. He’s a Christian mystic whose words shine with insight on the Spirit. He doesn’t speak to everyone–I’ve personally experienced studying him with folks who never got it. But if you do, he is an unimaginable light in the world. He’s a great Black History Month recs author to read if you don’t know his work.
I’ve read 3 biographies of Malcolm X, plus his autobiography with Alex Hailey. A professor friend told me it’s important to read lots of works on a Black figure who’s become popular because the most popular books will be whitened to suit white taste. So I’m recommending all 4:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
The Dead are Arising by Les Payne/Tamara Payne
The Sword and the Shield by Peniel E. Joseph
Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marabel
It takes great courage to buy back your early-sold novel so you can re-issue it the way you always wanted it to be. Kiese Laymon did this with Long Division, which if you’ve read the reissued version, you’re like, how could any publisher have refused to publish it exactly this way? It’s a charming, entertaining, provoking novel about time travel, racial survival, family, and using humor to conquer the world.
I started Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and never finished it. I thought, to be honest with her plot, Ward couldn’t let it turn out well. And I couldn’t take that, she had made me care so completely about her characters. But I read Sing, Unburied, Sing. And the Men We Reap. And her article on how racist DeLisle is with its public parks. I’ll read whatever she’s written. Even if I don’t finish it.
Once upon a time, New Orleans literature only lived in the iron-balconied French Quarter. Unless, from time to time, it ventured into the brick courtyards of Uptown where white-columned houses harbored vampires and panting ghosts. Enter Sarah Broom. The lens exploded. New Orleans East harbored Broom’s childhood home which was destroyed by the aftermath of Katrina. The Yellow House is a memoir of her time in New Orleans, a memoir of a city never so thoroughly seen, and a good one for the Black History Month recs.
Percival Everett’s The Trees is one of those books that once I read it, I couldn’t stop talking about it. It’s a satire about the lynching of Emmett Till—truly it is. The acidic treatment Everett gives the racists involved in that killing drains all the power from them. What a high-level talent that takes. What a gift that Everett decided to do it.
Walter Mosley fits my habit of discovering a writer then proceeding to read everything they’ve written. (Same goes with mystery writer Attica Clark—consider that lagniappe to my recs on Black authors during this month). You might not know that Mosely has written a writing instructional book too. Alas, it did not make me as wonderful a writer as he is, but that’s not his fault—hardly anyone is!
Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, is a children’s book, what today we would call middle-grade. Some folks don’t like the book because of the racism it portrays—written in the 1970s, it’s set in Jim Crow Mississippi. But the book’s world is not about white racists; it’s about the siblings of the Logan family. Read the opening page and feel how a master introduces all the basic elements of a story.
Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed is a travel-based exploration of the South. It’s so beautifully written, the sentences bleed into poetry on every page. I had to stop and re-read, just to savor it. It’s as full of wisdom as it is beautiful. You can read my review of it here, along with Imani Perry’s South to America. https://ellenmorrisprewitt.com/the-south-and-america/
I came to Octavia Butler so late in life it’s embarrassing. My only excuse is that I haven’t been much of a sci-fi reader as an adult. But several years ago I read Kindred and learned what I’ve been missing. Butler’s style is sparse. The focus is on the plot as told through identification with the characters (trust me: that isn’t always the case). At least that’s how this novel was—I’m loathe to generalize. But this one novel is enough to put her on my list of great Black History Month recs.
David Dennis Jr’s The Movement Made Us is the latest in a genre I have really fallen in love with: children of Civil Rights Movement activists combining the story of their parent’s activism with the story of their relationship with the parent. This book is told by both the son (the Jr) and the dad (the Sr.) The dad had a New Orleans connection, which made it even more appealing to me.
How can there be so many wonderful writers of which I am unaware? Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer for a play, and her love of voices is evident in her novel Getting Mother’s Body. It is endearing and deft in its use of many POV characters who are expertly drawn with a minimum of words. Plus, it’s hilarious, which always wins me over.
I wasn’t a Black Panther fan, but I couldn’t resist an anthology with Memphis writers in it, like Troy Wiggins and Sherree Renee Thomas. Tales of Wakanda features stories of imagination and plot, others with beautiful words. Some were set in Wakanda, others traveled to London, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta (yep.) And I learned so much Wakanda lore! Read a full review here.
I’ve read so much about America’s racist history, but I learned anew from She Took Justice by Gloria Marshall-Browne. The history of how Black women have shaped the legal course of this country is astounding and mainly untold. They say the winners write history, and I’m hoping that the publication of this book on my list of Black History Month recs indicates we are in the process of redefining who the winners are.
You think lynching was an aberration? The Commercial Appeal in Memphis paid to send a Black “leader” to England to counter Ida B. Wells’ tour denouncing lynching. The paper spent money for a representative to go overseas and defend the right of white Americans to lynch their Black neighbors. This is only one fact you’ll learn in Wells’ extensive, enlightening, essential, and horrifying collection of writings, which I’m happy to have on my list of Black History Month authors.
(I know, you’re thinking, what happened to February 21? Mardi Gras, y’all!)
Mississippi author Linda Jackson’s Middle Grade novel Midnight Without a Moon is a delight. I fell in love with the protagonist from the get-go. The descriptive scenes make you feel present in her world. And I love that it came at the Emmett Till tragedy from an oblique angle, informing the story but not being about the murder. That approach made the story that much more powerful.
‘Sippi by John Oliver Killens is set in Mississippi during the Civil Rights years. Published in 1967, it’s written in a different style from what I’m used to today, with a good bit of repetition. Still, the author made the characters so real. The story allows the young narrator to be confused initially about how to navigate the white world and takes us through his eye-opening experiences. And the author doesn’t succumb to giving us a happy ending to his stories but sticks with the truth of what Mississippi was.
Isabel Wilkinson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is a historical sociological study of the Great Migration told in novelistic form. The story of Black Southerners migrating to the North and West to escape the terrors of the Jim Crow South—not the least of which was unpredictable, vicious lynchings—is brought to the personal. The depth of research required and how it flows so easily into a riveting story—it’s amazing.
James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree pairs the cross with trees where white Americans routinely and viciously killed Black Americans. White Christians “separated Christian identity from the horrendous violence committed against Black people” so that “the violence of white supremacy invalidated the faith of white churches.” Those are strong truths Cone makes you feel in your heart. If white Christianity wants to re-claim its way of Jesus, it must come to grips with its racism.
OK, all you poets out there–my one poetry book on the Black History Month recs list (except for Crystal Wilkinson, who’s an outstanding poet as well as fiction writer): Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I’m not a regular poetry reader (understatement of the year). But I’m drawn to lyric poems and poems that create new forms like Rankine’s Citizen. From the evocative cover to the last page, it names racism both deftly and with cutting incision. It’s short but takes time to read, study the included images, absorb.
I’ve saved the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for last because, you know, white people quoting Dr. King. We white folks excise his quotes into nibbles, I think, because his larger message is too profound. The question of, “Why We Can’t Wait,” rocks our complacency today as it did in 1964. Yes, it’s been too long. Yes, change should happen now. But it doesn’t. Again. Maybe if we actually read Dr. King.
And that’s it! February done, recs over. I hope you enjoyed them and found something that piqued your interest.
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