(One day, the world will understand my love of lists and the people will thank me.)
February is Black History Month in the U.S. and though I’m a little late in getting this post up, I have a handful of favorite novels, non-fiction books and poems that were written by prominent African-Americans (although I have to admit, one author is actually Jamaican / British).
- Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama – I know, it’s probably very cliché to include Obama on the list (considering he’s the president and all), but this is still one of the best books I’ve ever read, hands down. As he’s said himself many times, only in America could his story even be possible and the richness and depth of his writing makes you feel like you’re taking the journey with him. I also like the fact that this book was written before he became “Barack Obama,” 2004 convention keynote speaker and politician extraordinaire. That he was writing like this before any cared about who he was speaks to the greatest of this book.
- Having Our Say by the Delany Sisters – I confess: before I ever read this book, I actually saw the television movie, based on the play, based on the book. (I know, I know.) But I was inspired to read the actual book, so I did and I wasn’t disappointed. Sadie and Bessie Delany were two of the funniest, sharpest, smartest women of the 20th century. It’s incredible to think of how much they saw and experienced over the years. But the moment I knew I loved them? When Bessie made fun of Dan Quayle, of course: “If you’re average and white, honey, you can go far. Just look at Dan Quayle. If that boy was colored he’d be washing dishes somewhere.” Make fun of a Republican and I’m yours for life.
- “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou – Though known more so for her autobiographies, I was always drawn to Angelou’s poetry and particularly “Phenomenal Woman.” It’s a poem that transcends race to embrace the ideal of the “everywoman,” the woman who holds her head high and declares “I’m a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That’s me.”
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison – again, I seem to choose the path less taken with this choice. When most people think of Morrison, they think of Beloved and rightly so. But after reading Song of Solomon in college, it quickly became my personal favorite Morrison. It doesn’t follow a traditional, linear narration and explores the idea of discovering our identity by considering how those who surround us – and those who came before us – help shape and determine the kind of person we become.
- The Wedding by Dorothy West – whatever you do, do not (I repeat, DO NOT) watch the Oprah-endorsed television movie adaptation of this novel. If you do, you’ll be missing out on so much. Read the far superior book, published when West was 85 years old, more than 45 years after the publication of her first novel. With characters that challenge pre-conceived notions and a plot that deftly and delicately explores the tension of race relations in the 1950’s, this book was worth the 40+ year wait.
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith – okay, I offer a mea culpa here: Smith is not American, which therefore technically disqualifies her work as African-American literature. But I love this book too much to exclude it (and in all fairness to me, the U.K. does celebrate Black History Month too, albeit in October). Her debut novel covers an impressive landscape, following the lives of two friends and their families in post-World War II Britain. This novel shines especially bright when considering the balancing act of immigrants trying to assimilate to their new home while maintaining ties to their culture. And for bonus points, the BBC made a television mini-series out of it, starring a young, pre-fame James MacAvoy.