I can read. It’s better than doing nothing.
If you’re like me, circumstances relating to mental health, practicality, and finances prohibit you from participating in protests in a meaningful way. I learned long ago that I dissolve in the face of injustice and high emotion, melting like sugar in hot tea. I am no use to anyone as a pile of molecules. But also, if you’re like me, this round of protests has left you feeling more helpless and fatalistic than ever. What can I do when I feel as if I can do nothing?
I can read. That is tiny and almost meaningless action compared to my friends who are in the streets and writing for the newspapers, but it isn’t nothing. I’ve been spending the past few weeks reading as many Black authors as possible, whether they write specifically about racial injustice or not. Here’s a list of new favorites and overlooked classics, in no particular order.
The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall
Publishing did a gross injustice to this book when it came out in 2001. It’s a scathing shadow narrative of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: the story of Gerald O’Hara’s daughter by his house slave, Mammy. And it’s a beautiful, lyric meditation on love, jealousy, family, and loss. But because it hewed so closely to Mitchell’s book, her estate sued Randall’s publishers. The result was the forced addition of a sticker and subtitle claiming The Wind Done Gone is “an unauthorized parody.” It’s an appalling word to apply to a book that seeks to overturn a pillar of Southern mythology—a deadly serious endeavor. This one works best if you’ve read Mitchell’s book, or at the very least seen the film, but it’s still a phenomenal piece of work even without its inspirations.
How to Exterminate the Black Woman, Monica Prince
This “choreopoem”—a series of poems arranged like a stage play—is one of those works of art that makes you want to jump out of your chair and shout with rage, or despair, or triumph, as those moods cycle through the work. I won’t summarize what Prince has done in this book, because it’s too good, and the book is too easy to acquire from PANK’s website. Just go buy it.
Riot Baby, Tochi Onyebuchi
To be blunt, there is no more relevant novel to read at this moment. Not one. See also Onyebuchi’s shattering essay at Tor.com from June 1.
Hot Comb, Ebony Flowers
Hair, like so many things tied up with Black lives, matters to Black women because it has to, in ways that for white women never require a second thought. Flowers examines the role of hair and hair products in Black women’s lives, from girlhood onward, in a series of stories and memoir snippets. Her art is affecting and dynamic, and her stories tell critical truths.
Ebony and I went to the same tiny Maryland high school, although we were just acquaintances and have never been in touch since. By a bizarre coincidence, we gave readings on back-to-back evenings at the same bookstore in Los Angeles this spring.
The Lesson, Cadwell Turnbull
I think this book is an allegory, but it’s one of the most successful, non-tiresome allegory novels I’ve ever heard of, much less read. It’s science fiction about aliens who land on a small Caribbean island. Their actions correspond roughly to white colonization, but the book is subtler than that, and lovelier. An important read for understanding the uneasy middles of subjugation, not just the extreme ends of it.
The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom
You don’t need to take my word on this book; it earned a ton of 2019 awards, including the National Book Award and the John Leonard Prize. What’s so good about it is the care and expertise with which Broom builds a Katrina story until it’s mostly a story about her family, and only somewhat a story about Katrina. If you saw this book getting noticed and handwaved it as something you’d get to later, pick it up today.
Passing, Nella Larsen
I think about the size and shape of this book a lot. It isn’t ambitious or allegorical like Invisible Man, or heart-cracking and intentional like Native Son. But it’s a quiet, careful, methodical look at code-switching and its consequences. Maybe it’s not more famous because it’s not as grand as other midcentury novels by Black authors, or maybe it’s because Larsen is a woman. Or maybe those two reasons are the same thing. In any case, it’s another side of an issue we need to understand from as many sides as possible.
MEM, Bethany C. Morrow
Morrow’s newest book came out this week, along with an incredible essay on revolution and The Hunger Games, but I urge you not to let this one pass by. It’s a gorgeous, thoughtful piece of work, a slim and deeply felt novel that uses fantasy and alternate history to parse out what our memories, good and bad, are for.
The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, Hanif Abdurraqib
Abdurraqib has gained fame in the years since this first collection of his poetry was published, but it’s this book I return to, not his more famous ones. His work is so vital, so dizzying, tied up fearlessly with music and the details of a lived life. I never tire of letting him sweep me up into his language.
We Can’t Breathe, Jabari Asim
I’m just going to quote myself, from Brevity: “We all have that friend. You know the one. He says he doesn’t understand what people are so upset about, that slavery’s been abolished for like 150 years, that everyone’s got the same rights and opportunities in this country as long as they work hard and behave properly. That all lives matter. If you’ve ever yearned for a single book to stuff in this person’s mouth in the hope that they might absorb some truth, We Can’t Breathe is the one.”
Some more books by Black authors I’m looking forward to reading in the next few weeks:
American Cocktail, Anita Reynolds
Magical Negro, Morgan Parker
Ruby, Cynthia Bond
We Want Our Bodies Back, jessica Care moore