What to Read When You Want to Celebrate Black History
It’s Black History Month, and while The Rumpus celebrates writing by black artists year-round, we thought it was especially important to share a list of work written exclusively by black writers this month. We asked our editors for their favorite writing that speaks to black history, past and present. Black artists have been creating art for centuries across a broad spectrum of mediums and styles—the below list highlights just a fraction of that work.
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins
Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.
So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo
In So You Want to Talk About Race, Oluo offers a contemporary, accessible take on the racial landscape in America, addressing head-on such issues as privilege, police brutality, intersectionality, micro-aggressions, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the “N” word. Oluo answers the questions readers don’t dare ask, and explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans.
the black maria by Aracelis Girmay
Taking its name from the moon’s dark plains, misidentified as seas by early astronomers, thee black maria investigates African diasporic histories, the consequences of racism within American culture, and the question of human identity. Central to this project is a desire to recognize the lives of Eritrean refugees who have been made invisible by years of immigration crisis, refugee status, exile, and resulting statelessness. The recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award for Poetry, Girmay’s collection elegizes and celebrates life, while wrestling with the humanistic notion of seeing beyond: seeing violence, seeing grace, and seeing each other better
Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks
Stitching together girlhood memories with the finest threads of innocence, feminist intellectual bell hooks presents a powerfully intimate account of growing up in the South. A memoir of ideas and perceptions, Bone Black shows the unfolding of female creativity and one strong-spirited child’s journey toward becoming a writer. She learns early on the roles women and men play in society, as well as the emotional vulnerability of children. She sheds new light on a society that beholds the joys of marriage for men and condemns anything more than silence for women. In this world, too, black is a woman’s color―worn when earned―daughters and daddies are strangers under the same roof, and crying children are often given something to cry about. hooks finds good company in solitude, good company in books. She also discovers, in the motionless body of misunderstanding, that writing is her most vital breath.
Blessing the Boats by Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton, one of America’s most important and distinguished poets, employs brilliantly honed language, stunning images, and sharp rhythms to address the whole of human experience. Hers is a poetry that is passionate and wise, not afraid to confront our most salient issues.
Native Son by Richard Wright
Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.
Erasure by Percival Everett
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison’s writing career has bottomed out: his latest manuscript has been rejected by seventeen publishers, which stings all the more because his previous novels have been “critically acclaimed.” He seethes on the sidelines of the literary establishment as he watches the meteoric success of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, a first novel by a woman who once visited “some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days.” Meanwhile, Monk struggles with real family tragedies―his aged mother is fast succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and he still grapples with the reverberations of his father’s suicide seven years before. In his rage and despair, Monk dashes off a novel meant to be an indictment of Juanita Mae Jenkins’s bestseller. He doesn’t intend for My Pafology to be published, let alone taken seriously, but it is―under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh―and soon it becomes the Next Big Thing. How Monk deals with the personal and professional fallout galvanizes this audacious, hysterical, and quietly devastating novel.
Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey
The ranging scope of inquiry undertaken in Ordinary Beast—at times philosophical, emotional, and experiential—is evident in each thrilling twist of image by the poet. In brilliant, often ironic lines that move from meditation to matter of fact in a single beat, Sealey’s voice is always awake to the natural world, to the pain and punishment of existence, to the origins and demises of humanity. Exploring notions of race, sexuality, gender, myth, history, and embodiment with profound understanding, Sealey’s is a poetry that refuses to turn a blind eye or deny. It is a poetry of daunting knowledge.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis
Robin Coste Lewis’s electrifying collection is a triptych that begins and ends with lyric poems meditating on the roles desire and race play in the construction of the self. In the center of the collection is the title poem, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” an amazing narrative made up entirely of titles of artworks from ancient times to the present—titles that feature or in some way comment on the black female figure in Western art. Bracketed by Lewis’s own autobiographical poems, “Voyage” is a tender and shocking meditation on the fragmentary mysteries of stereotype, juxtaposing our names for things with what we actually see and know. A new understanding of biography and the self, this collection questions just where, historically, do ideas about the black female figure truly begin—five hundred years ago, five thousand, or even longer? And what role did art play in this ancient, often heinous story?
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
This isn’t technically a dystopia, but the social experiment at the heart of Greenidge’s novel calls the horrifying Tuskegee Institute to mind—and this smart book asks us to look honestly at how sneaky and pervasive racism in our country can be.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Nicole Dennis-Benn pens a tender hymn to a world hidden among pristine beaches and the wide expanse of turquoise seas. At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman―fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves―must confront long-hidden scars.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Ward’s memoir shines a light on the community she comes from, in the small town of DeLisle, Mississippi, a place of quiet beauty and fierce attachment. Here, in the space of four years, she lost five young men dear to her, including her beloved brother—lost to drugs, accidents, murder, and suicide. Their deaths were seemingly unconnected, yet their lives had been connected, by identity and place, and as Ward dealt with these losses, she came to a staggering truth: These young men died because of who they were and the place they were from, because certain disadvantages breed a certain kind of bad luck. Because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle. Men We Reaped opens up a parallel universe, yet it points to problems whose roots are woven into the soil under all our feet.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. That is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
The Book of Night Women is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they—and she—will come to both revere and fear. The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings, desires, and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link.
Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis
“Another Anti-Pastoral,” the opening poem of Forest Primeval, confesses that sometimes “words fail.” With a “bleat in [her] throat,” the poet identifies with the voiceless and wild things in the composed, imposed peace of the Romantic poets with whom she is in dialogue. Vievee Francis’s poems engage many of the same concerns as her poetic predecessors—faith in a secular age, the city and nature, aging, and beauty. Words certainly do not fail as Francis sets off into the wild world promised in the title.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward—with hope and pain—into the future. Through February 28, purchase a yearly Letters in the Mail subscription or a 6-month Rumpus Book Club subscription and we’ll send you your own signed, hardcover copy of An American Marriage!
Black Peculiar by Khadijah Queen
Black Peculiar sketches out power dynamics and faulty assumptions in terms of race and history, media and culture, and sex and gender in highly original lines of verse. An extraordinary mixture of wit and profundity, the three long works in the collection weave the personal and the political in both ruthless and tender ways. A fiction, a chorus, a leap into chaos, an unflinching love letter and a fierce indictment—Black Peculiar collages observation and lived experience through a many-voiced “I” as flawed and complex and unusual as the mind of the artist in the world.
Big Machine by Victor LaValle
Ricky Rice is a middling hustler with a lingering junk habit, a bum knee, and a haunted mind. A survivor of a suicide cult, he scrapes by as a porter at a bus depot in Utica, New York, until one day a mysterious letter arrives, summoning him to enlist in a band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard what may have been the voice of God. Infused with the wonder of a disquieting dream and laced with Victor LaValle’s fiendish comic sensibility, Big Machine is a mind-rattling mystery about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us.
Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing
Electric Arches is an imaginative exploration of black girlhood and womanhood through poetry, visual art, and narrative prose. Blending stark realism with the fantastical, Ewing takes us from the streets of Chicago to an alien arrival in an unspecified future, deftly navigating boundaries of space, time, and reality with delight and flexibility.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans
Striking in their emotional immediacy, the stories in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are based in a world where inequality is reality but where the insecurities of adolescence and young adulthood, and the tensions within family and the community, are sometimes the biggest complicating forces in one’s sense of identity and the choices one makes.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker stands at the intersections of vulnerability and performance, of desire and disgust, of tragedy and excellence. Unrelentingly feminist, tender, ruthless, and sequined, these poems are an altar to the complexities of black American womanhood in an age of non-indictments and déjà vu, and a time of wars over bodies and power.
Ayiti by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay’s debut collection is a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all interwoven to represent the Haitian diaspora experience. Originally published in 2011 by Artistically Declined Press, Ayiti will be re-released in June 2018 by Grove Atlantic, making it widely available for the first time. The new edition will also contain several never-before-published stories.
Incognegro by Mat Johnson, illustrated by Warren Pleece
Zane Pinchback, a reporter for the New York-based New Holland Herald, is sent to investigate the arrest of his own brother, charged with the brutal murder of a white woman in Mississippi. With a lynch mob already swarming, Zane must stay “incognegro” long enough to uncover the truth behind the murder in order to save his brother—and himself. Suspenseful, unsettling and relevant, Incognegro is a tense graphic novel of shifting identities, forbidden passions, and secrets that run far deeper than skin color.
Starshine & Clay by Kamilah Aisha Moon
Starshine & Clay, which derives its title from Lucille Clifton’s collection Book of Light, weaves together iconic images of the US with the lives of those too often left unnoticed. Yet amid the tragic events on which Moon’s poems look, these lines offer, if not solace, then a reason for hope.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Running into a long-ago friend sets memory from the 1970s in motion for August, transporting her to a time and a place where friendship was everything—until it wasn’t. For August and her girls, sharing confidences as they ambled through neighborhood streets, Brooklyn was a place where they believed that they were beautiful, talented, brilliant—a part of a future that belonged to them. But beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion. Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn heartbreakingly illuminates the formative time when childhood gives way to adulthood—the promise and peril of growing up—and exquisitely renders a powerful, indelible, and fleeting friendship that united four young lives.
Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith
One of the most magnetic and esteemed poets in today’s literary landscape, Patricia Smith fearlessly confronts the tyranny against the black male body and the tenacious grief of mothers in Incendiary Art. She writes an exhaustive lament for mothers of the “dark magicians,” and revisits the devastating murder of Emmett Till. These dynamic sequences serve as a backdrop for present-day racial calamities and calls for resistance. Smith envisions, re-envisions, and ultimately reinvents the role of witness with an incendiary fusion of forms. With poems impossible to turn away from, Smith reveals what is frightening, and what is revelatory, about history.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document. It consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.
The Mothers by Britt Bennett
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.
Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews
Matthews’s superb collection explores the topic of want and desire with power, insight, and intense emotion. Her poems cross historical boundaries and speak emphatically from a racialized America, where the trajectories of joy and exploitation, striving and thwarting, violence and celebration are constrained by differentials of privilege and contemporary modes of communication. This is poetry that breaks new literary ground, inspiring readers to think differently about what poems can and should do in a new media society where imaginations are laid bare and there is no thought too provocative to send out into the world.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, swept up by the tides of the Great Migration, flees Georgia and heads north. Full of hope, she settles in Philadelphia to build a better life. Instead she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment, and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins are lost to an illness that a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children, whom she raises with grit, mettle, and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them to meet a world that will not be kind. Their lives, captured here in twelve luminous threads, tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage—and a nation’s tumultuous journey.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Rankine recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.
Phillis Wheatley, Complete Works by Phillis Wheatley
In 1761, a young girl arrived in Boston on a slave ship, sold to the Wheatley family, and given the name Phillis Wheatley. Struck by Phillis’s extraordinary precociousness, the Wheatleys provided her with an education that was unusual for a woman of the time and astonishing for a slave. After studying English and classical literature, geography, the Bible, and Latin, Phillis published her first poem in 1767 at the age of fourteen. This volume collects both Wheatley’s letters and her poetry: hymns, elegies, translations, philosophical poems, tales, and epyllions—including a poignant plea to the Earl of Dartmouth urging freedom for America and comparing the country’s condition to her own. With her contemplative elegies and her use of the poetic imagination to escape an unsatisfactory world, Wheatley anticipated the Romantic Movement of the following century.