7 Books That Put the Fierce into Black Queer History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these excellent reads are by, and about, those too often silenced.
On September 18, 2018, Danez Smith became the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Forward prize, as well as the first winner to identify as gender neutral, with Don’t Call Us Dead earning the best poetry collection award.
Some moments are so powerful that they become historic. As an Afro-German woman, I am used to raising my voice to insert myself into a history that wanted to erase my existence. The following books mark such moments by defying a silencing. They show things we have not seen, or not quite seen anything like it. And all of them are outstanding in what they do — and especially how they do it.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde (1982)
Lorde’s memoir announced its own genre: biomythography. It is a multifaceted book — a young queer Black woman in the making in 1930s–’40s Harlem, addressing her Caribbean heritage, a working-class background and the struggles to find a place where her identity can be all that it is. As a Black teenager in Germany, without much visible representation of myself, the loneliness that comes through in this book hit home so instantly and directly I can still feel the recognition from that first reading.
Brother to Brother: New Writings by Gay Black Men, Edited by Essex Hemphill (1991)
I became aware of Hemphill’s work through the filmmaker Marlon Riggs’ documentary Tongues Untied, which explores Black gay identity and the silence(s) around it. Hemphill has written his own books, but I name Brother to Brother here because of its collectivity. Written in 1991, it charted so much new ground as a chorus of voices by gay Black men uncovering issues of race and sexuality against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic.
Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta (2015)
There are quiet voices that sneak up on you and don’t announce that they will open not just the door, but go on to rebuild the house in the meantime. Under the Udala Trees is such a book — beautifully written, with precise and clean prose. Quiet-voiced narrator Ijeoma comes of age during and after the Biafra war, struggling with her sexual awakening, religion and the expectations of her mother (and society). Okparanta unsilences lesbian love in a historical Nigerian time period, giving space to the stories we know are there but hardly ever see.
The poetry is visceral and tender, current and so relevant that it hurts.
Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith (2016)
Smith’s words get under the skin straight away. This is one of the most exciting poetry books I have read in a long while. The poetry is visceral and tender, current and so relevant that it hurts. Chronicling the voices of Black men (shot by police, living with HIV), Don’t Call Us Dead is also a vision, carving out a place where Black boys are undead and speak their own names. It is fierce and commanding, and I have to take time to allow the immensity of the voice to arrive and stay with me, to be heartbroken, but to savor the beauty that Smith conjures so defiantly.
Lives of Great Men, by Chike Frankie Edozien (2017)
This book charts new ground: It is the first memoir by a gay man from Nigeria. Edozien, a journalist, journeys between Nigeria and the U.S., Ghana and France, uncovering the pain that gay men face, constantly in fear of being exposed and punished for their sexuality in a country that criminalizes same-sex love (Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act of 2014). But the Nigerian sections also show Nigerian men who love and enjoy each other’s bodies — stories previously hidden. This is outspoken work, utterly important, that couldn’t be more on the pulse of time.
Burnt Men, by Oluwasegun Romeo Oriogun (2017)
Oluwasegun Romeo Oriogun’s debut collection, with its focus on the lives of queer men in Nigeria, is filled with personal, collective and historic heartache, written with the lightest of touch, drawing the reader in close. Burnt Men manages to bring complex images and context into accessible but surprising lines, many of which are so beautiful you want to quote each line as a masterpiece in its own right and then put them back together to sing the whole song.
And, coming in April 2018 …
She Called Me Woman, Edited by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, and Rafeeat Aliyu.
This collection of nonfiction narratives by queer women in Nigeria is groundbreaking, giving a much-needed voice to queer Nigerian women. The stories are not only women from big metropolitan areas, but also women from the north, women who live without access to many of the queer debates and gender-conforming and trans women.
Olúmìdé Pópóọlá is a Nigerian-German writer based in London. Her latest novel, When We Speak of Nothing,is about a young Black trans man from London and his turbulent journey to the Niger Delta to meet his father.