From Ferguson to the Charleston shooting, much of today’s national conversation fixates on the current state of the country’s race issues. But racial discourse has always found a home in literature.
It’s an outlet in which African American authors are free to detail the struggle and oppression they faced, most of which still resonates in modern-day America. So it’s no surprise Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was widely received by the public and literary world. In a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates followed the footsteps of his predecessors, exposing the truth behind post-racial America, and in turn, redefined what the American Dream means for a black man.
Fifty-three years earlier, in a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation, James Baldwin wrote, “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”
Let’s continue that dialogue. The following list of books bravely and unapologetically tackles the black experience, and perhaps provides a better framework in understanding how we deal with race in America moving forward.
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The Color Purple,
by Alice Walker
A powerful story that takes place in rural Georgia, The Color Purple follows Celie, a young woman with an abusive, tragic past, as she struggles to overcome the oppression and poverty of the South. Told through correspondence with her sister that spans more 20 years, it’s an inspiring novel about empowerment, letting go of the past, and learning to love again. Celie puts it best:”I may be black, I may be poor, I may be a woman, and I may even be ugly! But thank God I’m here.”
The Souls of Black Folk,
by W. E. B. Du Bois
A groundbreaking sociological work in African-American history, W. E. B. Du Bois’s novel explores the black experience in America following emancipation, while breaking down the ideas of racism and racial bigotry through precise scientific explanation and brilliant prose. Consider The Souls of Black Folk required reading when it comes to the struggle for equality and the moral and intellectual issues surrounding it.
The Fire Next Time,
by James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s national best seller drove the discussion on race relations to the forefront of the American public conscience and gave voice to the burgeoning civil rights movement when it was first published in 1963. The book is comprised of two essays, the first of which is written as a letter to Baldwin’s 14-year-old nephew and focuses on the central role that race plays in American history. The second essay takes on the relationship between race and religion with rich anecdotes of his time as a child minister to meeting the leader of the Nation of Islam. Unfortunately, Baldwin’s deduction on the state of America’s systemic racial oppression still rings true 50 years on.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,
by Michelle Alexander
Hailed by Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president and CEO of the NAACP as a “call to action,” this book by legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that racial caste in America is very alive and well, and have been merely redesigned through the U.S. criminal justice system. More specifically, Alexander shows how mass incarceration of black men, as a result of racial targeting through the War on Drugs, functions as a contemporary system of racial control that relegates African Americans to a permanent second-class status.
Men We Reaped,
by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward grew up in the small town of DeLisle, Mississippi. In the span of four years, five young men dear to her, including her brother, lost their lives—all of them a product of a social condition embedded in a history of racism and economic struggle that leaves little room for a better future. This 2013 memoir is a somber reminder of much of our national conversation concerning the perilousness of the lives of young black men in today’s America.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,
by Isabel Wilkerson
From 1915 to 1970, around 6 million African Americans fled the South to northern and western cities in search of a better life. The mass migration, in effect, realized a new America with the reimagining of urban cities, culture, and its citizens. Pulitzer Prize author Isabel Wilkerson focused this experience on three different individuals: a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi, an orange picker from Central Florida, and an aspiring doctor from Louisiana. Through the real accounts of these fascinating subjects, readers are taken on a historical exploration that delves deep into the struggle, failure, and success in the face of oppression and prejudice of the Jim Crow era and life thereafter.
Song of Solomon,
by Toni Morrison
Drawing from elements of mythology and real-life events, Toni Morrison takes the readers on a journey led by a young man named Milkman Dead who dives head-first into issues around race, gender, power, and identity. Behind Morrison’s novelistic jazz tone and vibrant imagery lies the real story of an oppressed minority dealing with the weight of the past, the struggle of the present, and the definition of the future, as well as the shifting gender relations of the South during the sixties.
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In a story involving a pair of star-crossed lovers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores the non-American black experience and African diasporic life through the eyes of two Nigerian immigrants living in the U.S. and UK. The result is a powerful take on the intricacies of race and identity. The female protagonist, Ifemelu, perfectly captures the book’s sentiment when she declares: “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think myself as black, and I only became black when I came to America.”
by Richard Wright
This story of a young black man trapped in a downward spiral after murdering a white woman in 1930s Chicago has stirred debate since its publication in 1940. James Baldwin denounced it as a protest novel, while others hailed it as a literary canon of its time. Though the book remains controversial in the depiction of its protagonist, it is an important work that explores racism’s societal manifestations through the experience of a low-income black man in inner-city America.
Black Looks: Race and Representation,
by Bell Hooks
In this collection of essays, feminist icon and activist Bell Hooks examines the African American experience on topics ranging from black femininity to the commodification of black culture and history in popular narratives displayed in literature, fashion, popular culture, and more. She focuses on spectatorship and draws on personal experience in developing new ways to look at blackness, black subjectivity, and whiteness.