Read these six novels and call us in March.
February is Black History Month, which for a lot of my fellow white people means platitudes about how Martin Luther King “marched for equality,” Lincoln ended slavery, and Obama’s election means that racism is over. Of course, any cursory glance at current events suggests that, as a society, the United States has a long way to go. Being a once-and-future English major, I can’t help but think that literature can help increase empathy and understanding. So I think you might want to consider giving a few books a try to increase your understanding of what the history of Black America has to say about the present and future.
In case you’re sitting around wondering what to read with regards to Black History, you can go with some obvious classics (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Their Eyes Were Watching God). But I would suggest, in addition to those, the following six works; evenly divided between male and female authors, they capture aspects of African-American life that might provide illumination.
A Mercy (Toni Morrison)
Beloved might be the more famous Toni Morrison work dealing with slavery, but this novel (one of her latter works) resonates because it chronicles a time when American hadn’t yet codified along racial lines or confined it to the South. Set in colonial New York, the book traces the journey of Florens to seek a home remedy for smallpox for her ailing slave-master, which gives her the opportunity to ponder why her mother strove to place Florens on a different plantation than the one on which she was born.
Slavery corrupted even the most well-intentioned slave-masters. After all, they were still slave-masters, owning and selling human beings at their leisure. The shadow of what is to come in the nation’s march to Civil War hangs over the novel, especially as Florens’ journey nears its end. Florens writes her life story on the walls the ruined plantation mansion, never to be erased. It’s a reminder that slaves like her mattered, at a time when black bodies mattered more than black souls.
John Henry Days (Colson Whitehead)
America has always been a land of myths, and often we use these myths to paper over obvious contradictions inherent in the words “all men are created equal.” Colson Whitehead weaves several myths through his narrative about the titular steel-driving man, whose legend inspires a West Virginia town to inaugurate a holiday in order to cash in on his fame. The disconnect between the majority-white town and Whitehead’s protagonist, a black journalist who usually does celebrity gossip, provides much of the comic and dramatic tension of the novel. We tell ourselves stories to celebrate our shared humanity, but often the stories have little foundation in reality. Our best and worst instincts lie in that clash between fiction and non-fiction.
Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)
Authors have often understandably treated the story of the slave trade in epic terms (think Alex Haley’s “Roots”), focusing on the American side of the coin. But often the people enslaved in Africa left behind families who continued on, always wondering what became of their missing kin. In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi manages to capture in miniature the divergent paths taken by two half-sisters (one sold into slavery, another wed to a white slave-trader in Africa) and how several generations of descendants dealt with the realities of life not just in America but also in the motherland.
Each chapter feels like a separate short story that could easily be expanded into greater length; Gyasi shows restraint in letting each section end before it threatens to take over the narrative. It culminates in a reunion between both sides of the family in Ghana, centuries after the two half-sisters parted ways. In its own way, Homegoing helps illuminate the lives left behind and the choices we make to either remember or forget.
Black No More (George S. Schuyler)
A vicious satire of the white fears about “race-mixing” at the turn of the last century, Black No More posits a Frankenstein-like scientist who seeks to render black people in an unnatural shade of white, as a way to combat the race prejudice of that time. What he creates, in effect, is a panic in the nation at the start of the Great Depression, where questions of racial “purity” have taken on a new relevance in the wake of the rise of Hitler to power in Germany. Schuyler is an equal-opportunity offender; he sees race-baiters at the head of both the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP.
Whether you agree with him or not, you have to admire his willingness to take on what he sees as hypocrisy about race and American life. Nothing can stop the progress that turns blacks into whites, and it turns out that the most virulent white bigots in the novel have black ancestry. In a world where being “white” is just a simple procedure that any poor black can afford, what does being “white” even mean anymore?
Half-Blood Blues (Esi Edugyan)
In the aftermath of the First World War, many African-Americans who had served overseas in France came back to experience a climate in which they experienced more freedom than in their supposed homeland. Jazz boomed across both sides of the Atlantic, and the irony of artists finding more acclaim in a continent where they were arguably “exotic” to the natives is not to be taken lightly. In her second novel, Esi Edugyan showcases the story of black musicians finding themselves in Nazi Germany just before the outbreak of World War II; they came during the Weimar Era and simply stayed through the rise of Hitler.
A talented half-black, half-German musician infiltrates the book’s main jazz combo, and jealousy causes one of the musicians to eventually betray him to the Gestapo in Occupied Paris. It reads like “Amadeus for jazz,” but it’s a haunting story of guilt, envy, love, and consequences, the problems of a few small people played out against the backdrop of the most destructive war in history. As it turns out, those problems do amount to more than a hill of beans.
The Sellout (Paul Beatty)
Can a city be wiped off the map? As the twentieth century showed, this is no longer a fantastical notion in the age of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But suppose the wiping-out took place at a much more basic level and the only violence needed was to use the eraser at City Hall? Red-lining to keep blacks out of certain neighborhoods was effective in the post-Jim Crow era to help perpetuate another era of segregation after the official end of the more notorious period; self-segregation continues to this day in many areas of the country. In his novel, Paul Beatty focuses on a man whose childhood city within the Greater Los Angeles Metro Area disappears off the map, with no word of warning for its inhabitants. They simply no longer matter.
Beatty’s protagonist decides to go all the way, not just trying to put his city back on the map but to reintroduce slavery (after all, if we’re going to have segregation again, why not America’s original sin?). This book won Beatty a rare honor for an American writer; the Brits gave him the Man Booker Prize for the best novel of 2016.
Cover image from the Penguin Classics Edition of Black No More by George Schuyler.