(Plant-based replica of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. I’m sorry to say this is as close as I’ve gotten so far – I need to make it here for a visit one day soon!)
It’s Black History Month – and for a reader, it’s a perfect time to reflect on the contributions of African-American and African Diaspora writers to our literary landscape. Since I started trying to read more diversely a few years ago, I have encountered so many wonderful works, classic and modern, by black writers and my shelves are richer for it. And as I firmly believe that there is nothing like a book for a time machine, here are three books to take you back in time for Black History Month.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler – First of all, no Black History Month time travel post would be complete without the classic time travel novel by a black woman author. Octavia Butler is one of the most inimitable voices in science fiction and speculative writing, and while these are not my normal genres, Kindred is basically required reading. Dana, a modern (1970s) black woman in California, finds herself involuntarily wrenched back through time to antebellum Maryland. The first time, she saves the life of a young white boy, son of the plantation master – only later realizing that the boy is her own ancestor. Dana’s connection to the boy she saves is inexplicable, and every time he finds himself in trouble, Dana finds herself dragged back through time to save him. As she goes back and forth between her own time and her ancestors’ lives, the trips become more and more dangerous – for Dana, and for everyone around her. Kindred is intense, gripping, and heart-wrenching – required reading indeed.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston – Another required reading; everyone should meet the inimitable Janie Crawford. When the reader meets her, it is in the shadow of a blossoming tree – a fitting setting for Janie, who is herself just beginning to bloom when her grandmother catches her kissing a young man and insists that she get married. Assuming that love will follow marriage, Janie complies. But it doesn’t, and Janie is ambitious and hungry, and she wants more than a quiet country life. So when a stranger pauses by the side of the road, Janie walks off with him. Joe Starks is as ambitious as Janie, and charismatic. Together, Janie and Joe stride into Eatonville and bend the town to their will. Joe quickly rises to become the Mayor and a successful businessman, with Janie by his side. But again, love doesn’t follow marriage – and when Janie meets Tea Cake, a much younger man, she struggles to understand her suddenly turbulent feelings.
Jam on the Vine, by LaShonda Katrice Barnett – I read this one years ago, but it stayed with me. Ivoe Williams, precocious daughter of a Muslim cook, steals a newspaper and immediately falls in love with journalism. Jam on the Vine is the story of Ivoe’s coming of age, from eager young girl to founder of the first black female-owned newspaper, along with her former teacher – turned lover – Ona. Ivoe and Ona struggle to survive in a brutal world that has no tolerance for black women with powerful voices and the will to use them. Nurtured by their love for one another, they create a home and life together that sustains them against the buffeting they have to endure from bigoted and hateful people, who want nothing more than to grind them down. At times, the story can be quite disturbing – Ivoe survives a horrific arrest and attack – but this is ultimately a hopeful story of love and bravery.
I had a hard time choosing just three novels to feature here! Honorable mentions go to Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan – for something even more fantastical than Kindred – and to Half of a Yellow Sun, by the totally brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m sure I’ll pick up even more recommendations shortly, because I have my Black History Month read – Well Read Black Girl – sitting atop my library stack.
Are you reading anything special to commemorate Black History Month?