Black History Month is a period of great critical and cultural significance. With great ease, we could recommend movies, music, and other forms of artistic expression which acknowledge or augment Black History Month. Yet, this is a book blog, and we have plenty to offer. It’s best to break this down by genre.
Let’s begin with fiction:
Charles Chesnutt was the the chronicler of Southern life after the Civil War. His short stories are extraordinary, and his most famous novel, The Marrow of Tradition, is vastly underappreciated. This book should be your first stop.
Zora Neale Hurston revolutionized African-American fiction by applying techniques of oral narrative and folklore to fiction. To consume as much of her work as possible is a worthy and very rewarding endeavor. Start with Their Eyes Were Watching God, her masterpiece. And, at all costs, avoid the Halle Berry mini-series.
Richard Wright branded every page of Native Son with the struggles,concerns,anxieties, and brutalities of inner-city life. The truth and intensity radiate off the page.
Ann Petry’s The Street is one of the greatest American novels detailing city life. It is simultaneously unyielding and beautifully written. It’s protagonist, Lutie Johnson is deftly rendered. Her city is monstrous but all she knows.
There’s a good reason that, no wait– There are MANY good reasons Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for Invisible Man. Like Moby-Dick, nearly 100 years before it, Invisible Man weaves a tapestry of diverse influences and results into a narrative which is completely sui generis and unrelentingly affecting. Read, and then re-read at least twice so you can hope to take in every last bit.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is an excellent novel in its own right, and bridges the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Don’t let the cover fool you. This is a difficult book to read, but a rewarding one.
Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. In 2006, the New York Times, after a long survey of authors and other literary figures,deemed her novel Beloved the best work of American fiction in the previous 25 years. There’s good reason for that. It’s a powerful, disturbing, bold, forceful, and moving piece of work from an unmatched chronicler of African-American experience. At all costs, avoid the movie version.
Do you know who Colson Whitehead is? if not, pick up The Intuitionist. If you do, pick up the Intuitionist. I promise you that it is unlike anything else you have read. This is the masterful, controlled, vivid type of debut novel that prevents other people from throwing their hat in the ring.
A Couple brief dramatic mentions:
Is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun one of the greatest American plays ever produced? Yeah, it is. Read it. oh, and guess what? You SHOULD watch the movie. But, only after you’ve read it.
Ntozake Shange’s For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf is play, prose-poem,monologue, oral history, and several other things all at once. Above all, its’s challenging and human and very worth reading.
You ought to read all of August Wilson’s extraordinary Century Cycle. In ten plays, he chronicles the changing extraordinary lives and times of ordinary people in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The wonderful, transporting and poetic, Gem of the Ocean is the first in the series. I think you should read them all, and can guarantee that starting with this one, you will.
Just one guy:
Langston Hughes. His Collected Poems are lean, powerful, full of incredible imagery and truthful. Every truth a hard one.
And here’s some non-fiction:
W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk is a foundational work, a complex work, and a challenging work. Even today, it continues to raise questions and create dialogues in ways only the words of a sharp mind could.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a steady, fascinating and in-depth look into a period of chaos, uncertainty, violence and sociopolitical shifts. The words and mind of one of the 20th Century’s most charismatic figures pour freely from the page. A must-read.
UConn Professor Jeffrey Ogbar takes a look at the music and culture of Hip Hop in Hip-Hop Revolution. It’s a dynamic and unique look into a musical genre which plays a large part in today’s cultural conversation.
Rebecca Skloot has applied her flawless narrative skills to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book which is too good to be believed. The story is very real and still playing out in hospitals across the country.
Finally, The Warmth of Other Suns. A look into the 50+ year period where nearly six million people left the South and migrated west or north and built cities,lives,cultures, and histories for themselves. Wilkerson’s oral-narrative/historical style allows for the few remaining participants of this history to enlighten us all.