February is Black History month. No kidding. You already knew that. The month is almost over so I know that for the past few weeks, you’ve probably been reading or listening to stories that feature prominent black figures in our past or present. In the latest episode of A Closer Book, the series on my YouTube channel where I discuss books I’ve read 3 at a time, in this most recent video, I share my thoughts about 3 books that are pretty famous for depicting the black experience. I think it’s great that we celebrate books by African American authors, because for a long time, there weren’t the same publishing opportunities for minorities and a book had to truly be excellent to be considered for mass production and sale. Alice Walker was the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer prize and she did so in 1983. Ten years later, Toni Morrison won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature, the first woman of color to receive the award.
We need to see characters who represent the disenfranchised among us – children who are victims of a world they don’t yet understand, enduring abuse because of situations they didn’t create and have no control to change. It is refreshing to read about characters whose experiences are similar to yours, and see how they triumph. For a long time, there weren’t many novels with black characters because the consensus was that those books didn’t have widespread appeal so why publish books that no one will buy? It’s good to see that some novels with these tragic plot lines made it to the shelves.
The downside is that in representing these poor victims of racial injustice, the downtrodden among us who are victims of incest because centuries of enslavement has eroded the ideals and boundaries of family structure and responsibility, in reading all these books that show blacks as unfortunate victims of race related crimes and ignorance borne out of the experience of slavery, the tendency is to think that this, this depiction IS the black experience. And it’s not. I grew up in a rural community in the West Indies with family members and neighbors who were also descendants of slaves and we didn’t live like Celie and Nettie in Alice Walker’sThe Color Purple. True, we had confused ideals of beauty like Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye but other than pressing and relaxing our curly hair into submission, we didn’t develop the same kind of self hatred. I grew up in a community where some men took care of their children (let’s be real, no ethnic group can claim full compliance on this one either) but the novelized version of these “poor black men” reinforces an incomplete idea of men of African descent.
The books I discussed are all an important part of the African American narrative. They show the reality that some blacks lived. They represent a past that some of us would prefer to forget or deny that it ever happened. But there are others of us, thank God, who read the horrors on these pages with just the same naïveté as a reader from any other cultural group. In choosing to read these books during Black History month, I am in no way saying that this is the limit of black history. Many of us started in adverse circumstances and succeeded but everyone’s definition of adverse isn’t the same.
Click to buy the books on Amazon (affiliate links included)
- The Color Purple /Alice Walker
- The Bluest Eye /Toni Morrison
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave /Frederick Douglass
and click to watch the video where I discuss these 3 greats.
What are your thoughts? What books have you read recently that portray African Americans in a positive light?