Give me what I’m owed.
That’s directed to America, to the exclusionary literary canon, to the boy in fifth grade who laughed when I couldn’t kick a kickball well, to the men who’ve broken my heart or at least bruised it, to countless presidents/governors/mayors who have made my oppression into law.
Reparations, right now, right now.
I think most people forget that at its root, reparations suggest repair. I’m a poet, so maybe I’ve always been in the business of reparations—Audre Lorde told us what poetry (in a cosmic, life-force, heartbeat off the page kind of way) could do in our lives: to liberate, to repair, to cultivate our light and make it shine for us and for others. Illumination by way of poems. Eradicating the shadows of the white terrorizing patriarchy by way of poems. Blowing a healing breath over the big and small pains of our lives by way of poetry.
Books have been, as long as I can remember, the light-giving forces which allow me to envision an expansive and abundant future for myself. Books affirm me. They tell me the truth about the world and they tell me that I can tell that truth, too. The books shared below have helped me on my personal journey to reparations, and on my journey to seeking reparations for my people. These books inform, inspire, and just plain tell it like it is.
But wait—what about that forty acres and a mule?
I want that, too, with all the inflation afforded its delayed delivery.
“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin
I have to start with this story. I know this is a list of books, and yes, I know this story comes from a book of the same name, but I’ve never been able to get past this story*. It is, without doubt, my most favorite story in the history of stories. Baldwin is, of course, the thinker of our time, and he has so many great books that do the work of a great liberator, a great reparations-demander, but this story… this… story! “Going to Meet the Man” is told from the perspective of a white lawman who finds himself unable to release (in all meanings of the word) the night before an important showdown with a Black revolutionary he has imprisoned. If you read this story and leave thinking Black liberation wouldn’t lead to the liberation of all people from the poison of white patriarchy, I don’t know what to tell you.
*I am a long-term reader, meaning it isn’t a race, and there’s as much (maybe more) to be gained by re-reading the same thing multiple times to re-experience and having new revelations each time than just speeding through things just to say you’ve “read” them. Yes, you read it, but did you experience it? I’ll digress…
Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith
When people asked me how I was feeling after the very public murder of George Floyd and the demonstrations that followed, I said that I’d felt like the fires I’d felt my whole life—the racism I’ve faced; the stories my dad told about integrating schools in Bessemer, Alabama; the history of white patriarchal terrorism—were finally burning outside of my body. It was—and is—hard to articulate the long and bloody history that bubbles up in me every time I see a Black person murdered at the hands of the State or at the hands of anyone who feels the need to extinguish our bright flame. Patricia Smith says it best, I think, in the title poem of this transcendent poetry collection—she describes “the wicks / [our] bodies be” in this place called America. She tells the stories of what’s been happening forever in this country—before George Floyd’s murder, before Trayvon Martin’s murder, before Tamir Rice’s murder. This is a book I return to so often, I’m sure my students are thoroughly tired of me teaching from it, but I’ll never stop. How can a poet be so brilliant that she can twirl all traditional form around her little finger and then make it new, and then make it metrically perfect, and then make it surprising, and then tell you about yourself, America-with-its-behind-out-and-showing-what-it-was-from-the-very-start?
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, edited by Michael Glaser and Kevin Young
Mrs. Lucille Clifton was a poet who taught me how to demand room for my full self, in life and on page. I still remember discovering her, toward the end of high school and all through college. I remember feeling invited into poetry in ways I never had before. I remember her showing me how language could do backflips and somersaults and roundhouse kicks in the most efficient, brilliant, wholly poetic and yet familiar ways. I remember her showing me how my hips were beautiful. How my womanhood was beautiful. How to honor myself by being Black out loud. It’s truly impossible to narrow down a single book by Mrs. Lucille to recommend, so here’s your big anthology to wade through—you will find all recipes for repair in its pages.
Sister, Outsider by Audre Lorde
I don’t know how I survived so long without Audre Lorde, but I’m eternally grateful for Dr. Donna Aza Weir-Soley, who introduced me to Sister Audre on page in the Lorde seminar I took while I was in the MFA program at Florida International University. Sister Audre’s essays, as they unfolded before me that semester, showed me the way to fully embody the spirit of feminism, which is, as we know, a remedy to so much of what ails us in this country. I learned how my poetry was a tool for the revolution. I learned how to call in my allies and also tell them very plainly that ally is not a synonym for “same.” Our differences, and the celebration of them, will save us—our silence will not. I’ll never forget, years after that seminar, standing in Aza’s dining room before devouring her homemade curry chicken (wow, that was a poem in itself), that Aza brought out one of Sister Audre’s (Lorde was Aza’s mentor) awards, which she said had been falling down inexplicably in the days leading up to my visit. Audre wanted to meet you, she said. And I felt it, as I held that award which had been in Sister Audre’s hands decades before—she said a warm hello, and I felt an electrifying freedom and illuminating sense of great responsibility simultaneously. I’m not saying you’ll have that exact same experience reading her essays, but you just might. At the very least, you’ll understand just how to join in the liberation fight.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob
I hope, by now, that it goes without saying that Mira Jacob is an important voice in our generation. I hope, by now, that we all can join in the great swell of gratitude for her honesty and for her commitment to telling the truth, however hard. I met Mira the human before I met Mira’s writing, but I have to say that the almost indescribable warmth and care I found in her as a new friend at our Hedgebrook residency was also waiting for me in her book, Good Talk. This book, which I was lucky to get to experience as she finished it on Whidbey Island, illustrates (pun fully intended, especially for my very funny friend, Mira) the difficulty, joy, pain, confusion, and exhilarating blessing it is to be a person of color in America. The conversations, internal and external, in this graphic memoir, were a welcome breath in the age of forty-five.
March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, so I thought I knew my civil rights history like I knew my times tables. Here, we learn about the Children’s March, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the Freedom Riders, the inequities of public schooling, etc. We’re living on the very soil where it all happened. But there’s so much to that history—so much of it is still unfolding. John Lewis’ graphic memoir, March, is such a gem in its ability to educate, to humanize, and to stir readers to action. When I taught this book to my students at the Alabama School of Fine Arts last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, in the midst of the pandemic’s frightening beginning, in the midst of their own questions about equity, inclusion, identity, and their own place in a dizzying political moment, they expressed their gratitude for the way this story was told and for the education it gave them. I felt the very same way when I first read March. Lewis tells the story of his life, which, we know, was a life filled with history-making, fighting for civil rights, and witnessing some of the most horrific acts of terror in the American South. I was blessed to be able to meet Congressman Lewis once at the Miami Book Fair, and he was so kind, so genuine, and so clearly still that little boy who preached to his chickens and just wanted the world to make sense for everyone, not just for some.
Collected Poems by Sonia Sanchez
You might think I’m cheating here again by listing another collected works, but I’m not! The truth is, there’s just too much lost if I don’t include all of Sister Sonia Sanchez’s work. Just like Mrs. Lucille, Sister Sonia is a poet to encounter repeatedly, in full. Sister Sonia is a pioneer of Black literature and Black Studies, but also of the liberatory spirit all of us should embody. I first encountered Sister Sonia’s work while I studied under Dr. Jacqueline Wood, who is Sister Sonia’s friend and who is one of the foremost Sanchez scholars in our nation. I worked as Dr. Wood’s research assistant the summer of my junior year in college, and in collecting over a thousand articles for use as primary sources, I started to see just what an incredible impact Sister Sonia had on the world. And, in Dr. Wood’s class, we read Sister Sonia’s plays and discussed their liberatory work, but it wasn’t until I met Sister Sonia in person that I truly realized what a guiding light she had been and will continue to be in my life. I was fortunate to spend a whole day with Sister Sonia in 2019 at St. Mary’s College of Maryland as she awarded me the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award, and more than her unreal talent with words and her fearless attitude toward fighting the powers that bind us, I was so touched by the abundant love she showed me and everyone we met that day. She calls everyone she meets “my dear sister” or “my dear brother,” and I’ll never forget how she made me a cup of chamomile tea so I could sleep well, and how we walked the whole first floor of our house on campus to make sure all the lights were out, or how I heard her singing the next morning as we got ready to leave for our respective homes. One of her plays is called I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t, and I think I know what that means now. Her work, her spirit, her life, all serving the same goal—to sing its brilliant Blackness and to allow us all to sing our songs, too.
American Happiness by Jacqueline Allen Trimble
“Everybody in America Hate the South” stopped me in my tracks when I heard it in 2018 at the very first Magic City Poetry Festival in Birmingham, Alabama. Here was this poem saying what I had always known—the South is a scapegoat, and folks think their neck of the woods isn’t dripping in the same Black blood that fertilized the crops whose harvest fed the whole United States of America. At the time I didn’t really know Dr. Jacqueline Allen Trimble (or, Jackie, as I call her now), but that poem alone was enough to tell me that she and I were on the same team. Both Southern, both Black women, both full of love for this place and full of poems which call this place out where it needs to be called. This book, Jackie’s first (and PLEASE look forward to Jackie’s forthcoming How to Survive the Apocalypse in 2022), is such a master class in how to celebrate the South and one’s own Blackness while also instructing readers in the true meaning of “love.” That is, to love a place means to recognize where it has failed you, where it has hurt you, where it has given you joy, and where we belong in the continued struggle to make this world an inhabitable place for all.
Mend by Kwoya Fagin Maples
We need reparations for every part of us that has been touched without our permission. Black people have been pillaged by this country in unimaginable ways, and Mend by Kwoya Fagin Maples shows us one of those ways. In this poetry collection, Maples chronicles the lives of the enslaved women who were the test subjects of Dr. James Marion Sims, who is the father of modern gynecology. In poems of all styles, Maples gives voice to these women who were, contrary to what the “good” doctor thought, complete humans deserving of respect, consent, tenderness, privacy, care, and liberation. Maples, who I’ve had the great pleasure to know personally as a force of liberation and kindness, weaves love into each of these poems, giving these women just a little of what they were owed while they lived through this terror.
The Book of Awesome Black Americans: Scientific Pioneers, Trailblazing Entrepreneurs, Barrier-Breaking Activists and Afro-Futurists by Monique L. Jones
Maybe you’ve read through this list and you’re thinking, but I still don’t know why anyone owes anything to Black people. I truly don’t know who is thinking that, but hey, anything is possible. If you’re looking for the cold hard facts, the ways in which Black people have built everything since forever, look no further than The Book of Awesome Black Americans, which chronicles all kinds of history-making Black Americans across all fields of influence. Black people have created so much in America and beyond, and it’s really incredible to think of how much we’ve made while being actively robbed of so much. We contain, as Whitman famously said, multitudes. And, it doesn’t hurt that this awesome book was written by my older sister, entertainment journalist Monique L. Jones.
Bonus: Honey I Love by Eloise Greenfield
This was the first book that made me really imagine myself becoming a poet. It was the first book that made me think of my voice as powerful. Reciting “Harriet Tubman” in the second grade, dressed up as Mrs. Tubman herself, I heard myself moving into a power I had only dreamed of—I heard myself speaking myself free. This book of poems is for children, but I guarantee you there’s magic in it for all ages.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Ashley’s new poetry collection, Reparations Now!, forthcoming on September 7 from Hub City Press! – Ed.
Reparations Now! by Ashley M. Jones
In formal and non-traditional poems, award-winning poet Ashley M. Jones calls for long-overdue reparations to the Black descendants of enslaved people in the United States of America. In this, her third collection, Jones deftly takes on the worst of today—state-sanctioned violence, pandemic-induced crises, and white silence—all while uplifting Black joy. These poems explore trauma past and present, cultural and personal: the lynching of young, pregnant Mary Turner in 1918; the current white nationalist political movement; a case of infidelity. These poems, too, are a celebration of Black life and art: a beloved grandmother in rural Alabama, the music of James Brown and Al Green, and the soil where okra, pole beans, and collards thrive thanks to her father’s hands. By exploring the history of a nation where “Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s the law,” Jones links past harm to modern heartache and prays for a peaceful world where one finds paradise in the garden in the afternoon with her family, together, safe, and worry-free. While exploring the ways we navigate our relationships with ourselves and others, Jones holds us all accountable, asking us to see the truth, to make amends, to honor one another.