February is Black History Month in the US and Canada, and this year I’m feeling motivated to do a little more reading on the subject. I’ve included both fiction and nonfiction, and these are books I’ve put on my list to read this month, and Chris Wickersham has also included a few books that he has read. It should come as no surprise that I think books and stories are one of the best ways to see life through somebody else’s eyes, and to help us understand experiences that are different from our own. The history of blacks in America is complicated: it’s full of conflict, but there are also stories of hope and inspiration, and I know I have a lot yet to learn.
Jonathan Liu’s Picks
I’ve already read the first two books in the March trilogy by Congressman John Lewis, and I picked up the third book recently. This autobiographical account of the civil rights movement is portrayed in comic book form, and it’s engaging and moving. Artist Nate Powell does not shy away from depicting very ugly moments, but we also see the strength and determination that earned blacks the right to vote. I look forward to reading the final volume in this trilogy, which won four awards this year from the American Library Association.
This graphic novel, also illustrated by Nate Powell, is semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical, and takes place in Texas in 1967 during a boycott of Texas Southern University. After an undercover officer is shot during a protest that turned into a riot, five students were charged with his murder. Mark Long’s father was a reporter covering the story, and the book is told from young Mark’s point of view. It’s another story linked to the civil rights movement and one that I’m not at all familiar with.
I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I don’t know much about this book other than what you can find out from the dust jacket, because I hadn’t read any of the many reactions to it. (Generally I avoid most reviews of books I haven’t read yet.) What I do know is that it’s an exploration of race in America, written to Coates’ son, and it won the National Book Award. So this month I’m going to give it a read and see for myself.
I already mentioned Hidden Figures in my Reading Resolutions for 2017 because I’m hoping to read some more books about space exploration this year, but what better time to do it than during Black History Month? This book, which inspired the film, is about the black women who served as human “computers,” doing the calculations needed to launch rockets into space.
Years ago I read Whitehead’s novel Apex Hides the Hurt, an intriguing story about a “nomenclature consultant” brought in to help rename a town with its own conflicted past. The novel touches on many topics, including race and language. His latest novel is The Underground Railroad, an alternate reality in which the underground railroad is literally an underground railroad, and slaves escape to freedom on this secret train. I don’t know much more than that, but I’m very curious. It was released near the same time as another book with a similar title, Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters (who also wrote The Last Policeman series), another alternate reality in which the modern day is pretty much the same as it is now, except the Civil War never happened and slavery has continued in America. It’s hard for me to know whether Winters—a white author—can or should write about an experience that is so rooted in being black, so I figured I would start with Whitehead’s novel, and save Underground Airlines for later.
I heard part of an interview on NPR with Paul Beatty on the way to the bookstore and learned that his novel, The Sellout, was the first book written by an American author to win the British Man Booker Prize. The book is a satire about race, and involves a black man who reinstates both slavery and segregation in his failing town. That’s about all I know, and I realize that this is not strictly Black History—but I was curious enough to add it to my list.
There are, of course, a whole host of other books I could add to my reading list, but I’m probably already overestimating the amount that I’ll get finished in a month. For instance, I did see several books about Obama’s presidency at the store and considered picking one of those up as well, but I think I’ll see if I can get through this stack first.
Chris Wickersham’s Picks
James Baldwin is an electrifying and engaging figure and the subject of the Academy Award nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. His first major work, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was included in Time Magazine‘s list of 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 and is considered by many to be something of an autobiographical sketch of Baldwin’s formative years in 1930s Harlem. The novel explores the complicated relationship Baldwin had with his family and the Pentecostal Church, offering at times a scathing critique of the Church’s repressive influence in the African-American community while at other times praising it as a source of inspiration and community building. As a close, personal friend of Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers, James Baldwin is an author whose observational style of writing lends itself to a study of Black History and this novel serves as a fantastic launching point for the interested reader.
There is not a book that has done more to inform my understanding of the current state of affairs for African-Americans in the United States than Michelle Alexander’s dizzying novel The New Jim Crow. I first learned about this book at a weekend seminar Ms. Alexander hosted while I was in graduate school. She presented a series of lectures and workshops discussing the ideas in her new book and I was humbled by my ignorance of the subject matter. “Mass incarceration,” Alexander asserts, “is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow.” Alexander tells a story of discrimination and segregation that, contrary to the majority opinion in the United States, was not done away with during the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. Instead, she details a chain of events that traces a line directly from slavery in the early days of the Republic to overflowing jails in the 21st century. Ms. Alexander is a litigator by trade and the flow of this book proves her skill. It can be a challenging read at times, both because of the subject matter and because of the complex nature of Alexander’s argument, but it is well worth the effort for anyone who is interested in understanding current events regarding race relations in the United States.
This is a book I bought simply because I was infatuated with the author. Thurston served as the Director of Digital at The Onion until 2015 and is also a semi-regular panelist on the podcast This Week in Tech. His dry wit and easy storytelling would make any book he authored a must-read for me and this one, with sections like, “How to Be the Black Friend” and “How to Speak for All Black People” had me from the start. It may be at its best, however, when Thurston peels himself bare and talks about his troubled childhood and the traumatic events surrounding the death of his father. The mix of satire and comedic stereotype with heartfelt autobiography allows Thurston to give the reader something powerful while all-the-while convincing them they’re simply on a light-hearted romp.