As this month comes to a close, it is important to recognize the contributions of great black artists to society. It is important for not only we as black people to have our experiences cataloged and be able see ourselves and relate to characters and stories, but also for other people to have insight, should they choose, into what our experience as black people is.
There are many great African American writers who have created poetry and novels which not only express who we are and why we are that way, but have made bold and everlasting marks on society at large.
I have taken the time to create a list of writers and books which are important to read as a person of color and as a person who would like to step into the shoes of a person of color. This list is in no particular order.
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
This novel is a great indicator of what black men become because of how they are treated. They regarded Jefferson as little more than a hog and yet expected him to act as a man. This is a story of young black man thrown away for being inconvenient and the one man who finally comes to see him as someone of substance. “I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”
Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
This is the powerful autobiography of Mark Mathabane, a South African born and raised into apartheid. This novel shows the gory details of life under that disgusting regime.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
“You see he has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose, but he fails to understand the simple facts of life. Understand, Understand? It’s worse than that. He registers with his senses, but he doesn’t digest it. Already he is- well, bless my soul! Behold! A walking zombie! Already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions, but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, son! The mechanical man!” And there it is! The reason that as an African American you must read Invisible Man. It is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
This novel, this play, this film, all extremely important. It is a great example of what it is like for the lower middle class trying to find a way to move on up. It illustrates the frustration, feelings of powerlessness, and helpless grouping, for a way, ANY way, to have something of your own. “Well – I do – all right? – thank everybody! And forgive me for ever wanting to be anything at all!’
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I can’t even with a quote from this novel. There is too much. It’s incredible, moving, and one of those novels that you are in awe of the writer. Zora’s Janie is the personification of our struggle to find our place in life. A brilliant novel. If you never read anything else, read this.
The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, and Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is in my opinion one of the most phenomenal writers of all time. She is one of my favorite writers. I cannot emphasize enough how important her novels are. Her powerful method of storytelling not only confronts you with the nasty parts of history for black people in America, but it spotlights how we overcome and sometimes succumb to them. Read The Bluest Eye, it is such an incredibly important work. As a young black girl, I felt like this novel was written to and for me. I would say every black girl, perhaps even every black person, has felt like Pecola at least once in their life. Read at least one Toni Morrison novel and you will understand why it is so necessary.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I read this book and was so uncomfortable with how incredibly close it felt. It’s one of those Killing Me Softly moments where you feel your story being told by someone who you’ve never even met. Our experiences are not exactly the same, but our development as young girls was. Feeling like you’re a square peg surrounded by round holes can leave you feeling left out and alone. For anyone who has ever felt that way, you might want to find out why the caged bird sings.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
We know how important the movie is, but the novel is just as much, if not more important. This view of a black woman who has been made to feel like nothing her entire life is a testament to the voiceless people with no one. Reading the novel gives a different experience of the story and the true nature of the triumph of Celie’s life.
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor
The story of a group of women on a block in different positions of life and their struggle to survive. It can get dark, but as most portraits of black people, it is about survival and overcoming. It is an important view inside yet another string of individual African American lives.
Black Boy and Native Son by Richard Wright
I’ll be honest, I could barely read Native Son. It’s a bit too murky for me, but the message is absolutely pivotal. I’ll make no excuses for Bigger Thomas. I will suffice it to say, that his is a necessary representation. Richard Wright’s autobiography is also key to understanding the growing pains of the black male.
Mama and Waiting To Exhale by Terry McMillan
I think we take for granted the importance of Terry McMillan’s characters. They have depth. They make mistakes. These novels are important because the more we recognize the variety in black lives, the more ridiculous the stereotypes look. She speaks for black women, who people have constantly tried to tell to shut up.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois
Powerful work. I was struck from the first page by Dubois’ question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” That is the most accurate and incredible description of the black experience in America. Being a problem. And that’s just the beginning. Through this work, we get to see the missing years, the journey from slavery up through the Civil Rights Movement. It is a far more in-depth and detailed account of black history.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
This novel sticks out most to me because in it the white men who went into Africa claiming to be civilizing the savages, are shown as the people who brought the savagery. Their idea of civilization is in fact just organized brutality. Read it! It is an important insight into the truth behind imperialism, particularly in Africa.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
It sounds weird, but it is actually a state of being many black people can relate to. Having to choose between our culture and the more acceptable and respectable way of life. James Weldon Johnson speaks on that peculiar stance when you can feel that you’ll be able to be successful, but perhaps by having to sacrifice who you are.
The Fire Next Time, Notes of A Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin
James Baldwin is a very important figure in black history, though I fear he has been pushed somewhat in the background because he is gay. Baldwin is in there with all of our important figures. He offers a different perspective on life as a man who is not only black, but also gay. Growing up in a religious household made him an enemy not only outside his home, but within. His voice is definitely one that needs to be heard.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
One of my favorite poets. In whatever dialect he wrote it was beautiful. A Negro Love Song is one of his most recognized works, Jump back, honey, jump back, but my personal favorite is probably We Wear the Mask.
The Poet Laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Life for us ain’t been no crystal stair. One of the defining poets in our culture who gave a voice to the emotions that may have been lost in jazz. One of the poets who you just have to experience. I challenge you to not find at least one poem that you don’t feel.
Do I have to explain her significance? She’s Maya Angelou. Still I Rise