Journey to Juneteenth: New Black Literature
By Liam Jamieson and Toyloy Brown III
Speaking to the moment. Elevating awareness. Amplifying and educating. Throughout history, Black writers have strived to share the Black experience through their own powerful voices. Today’s Daily Dose highlights some remarkable reads from Black authors that speak to a broad range of audiences. From uplifting children’s books to thought-provoking anthologies, and from gripping political thrillers to descriptive nonfiction, these books crystallize what it means to be Black in a world grappling with issues of racial justice and equality.
children’s/young adult fiction
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas: This prequel to Thomas’s bestselling debut and subsequent feature film, The Hate U Give, focuses on the turbulent life of 17-year-old father-of-two Maverick Carter. Concrete Rose, released earlier this year, is peppered with themes of drug use, gangs and teenage sex –– the kind of mature topics that resulted in its predecessor being banned from Texas schools. However, these are real challenges facing young Black men, and Thomas works to illuminate them in her prose. Hoping to reach the real-life Mavericks with her book, the author says, “I want to make sure that they walk away feeling hopeful and inspired and with more love for themselves.”
The Bench by Meghan Markle: Inspired by a poem Markle wrote for her famous royal husband on his first Father’s Day as a dad, The Bench is a warm and vibrant children’s picture book that explores “the special relationship between father and son, as seen through a mother’s eyes.” The Duchess’ book is illustrated with rich watercolor paintings by Christian Robinson, who started drawing as a child to cope with his mother’s mental health struggles. Markle says she hopes the book will resonate “with every family, no matter the makeup” as much as it does with her own.
C Is for Country by Lil Nas X: Markle isn’t the only A-lister recently debuting as a children’s book author. Country/hip-hop sensation Lil Nas X can now add “bestselling writer” to his resume with his country-themed alphabet picture book, C Is for Country. The book’s format isn’t new (A is for adventure, B is for boots, etc.), but the message is unique. The artist says he never felt like the children’s books he read growing up really enforced the mantra “be yourself,” and he hopes his will resonate with kids from all walks of life.
Roman and Jewel by Dana Davis: The title might look suspiciously Shakespearean, and that’s for good reason. This young adult romance centers on a stage interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and also includes star-crossed lovers. In this third novel by author and actor Davis, protagonist Jerzie Jhames thinks she will finally get the chance to realize her dream of starring in a Broadway play, namely Roman and Jewel, a hip-hopera rendition of the Shakespeare classic. However, the teen (with skin “the same tone as Lupita Nyong’o . . . dark brown and incredibly beautiful”) winds up as the understudy to superstar singer Cinny. And of course, both Jerzie and Cinny fall for co-star Zeppelin. A dramatic classic in the making.
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman: We witnessed the inspiring young wordsmith make history with her poetry and performance during the presidential inauguration in January. Now, 2017 OZY Genius Award recipient Amanda Gorman is speaking to the next generation of writers, poets and thinkers with her children’s book Change Sings, featuring illustrations from Loren Long. The lyrical picture book, described as a “musical journey of hope and inspiration that will remind us all that change is good and necessary,” will be released this September alongside Gorman’s The Hill We Climb and Other Poems.
new books on the social justice front
Abolition for the People: The Movement for a Future Without Policing & Prisons by Kaepernick Publishing: You already know NFL star Colin Kaepernick as a catalyst for the protest movement against racial injustice in American professional sports. Kaepernick is now expanding his activism beyond the end zone by starting his own publishing company, which is set to release its first book this fall. The anthology, Abolition for the People: The Movement for a Future Without Policing & Prisons, is a collection of 30 essays, edited by Kaepernick, that will introduce readers to “abolitionist concepts, theories and practices.”
The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs: Great leaders are often molded, influenced or created by those closest to them. Like their moms. Tubbs shares compelling portraits of Louise Little, Alberta King and Berdis Baldwin, mothers to three of America’s most important civil rights activists. The book, highly recommended by OZY editor-at-large Christina Greer, not only digs into how these influential matriarchs helped to shape their sons into great revolutionary leaders, but also looks to remedy a historical wrong: the erasure of Black women in American history. Tubbs, a new mother herself, opens the book with an inclusive dedication: “This is for all the mamas.”
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain: Events of the past year have called into question the history of the foundation of America –– more specifically, whether it was founded on freedom or oppression. To author and respected intellectual Ibram X. Kendi, it’s both. In this extraordinary anthology, Kendi and co-editor Keisha N. Blain have assembled 90 unique voices. Each writer tackles a five-year period in history, writing in essay, short story and personal narrative about topics like America’s earliest slave voyages, the Black Lives Matter movement and many events in between.
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar: Many celebrities write books about their personal journeys and paths to success. Not Amber Ruffin, comedian, writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers and host of The Amber Ruffin Show. Her book is about her 47-year-old sister (and co-author), Lacey Lamar, and her everyday encounters with racism –– like while shopping at J.C. Penney and working as retirement community director in Omaha. And it’s hilarious –– “like a delicious (and horrifying) group chat you can’t stop checking in on.” The duo deftly tackles uncomfortable truths in a balanced dialogue that is funny, horrifying and eye-opening all at the same time.
just for fun
Reading books that chronicle the hardships of being Black in the world can be educational and liberating, but also quite weighty. Here are some less heavy but equally engaging options.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Author Harris knows this scenario all too well: A Black woman navigating a predominantly white workplace. The 28-year-old author lived it herself. Harris’s debut novel follows ambitious editorial assistant Nella Rogers, who happens to be the only Black employee at her publishing company. No sooner has Nella started to bond with Hazel, a new Black woman hired in a similar position, when the story takes a sinister turn, reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s thriller Get Out. The initial manuscript, an instant hit with publishers, sold for over $1 million after a bidding war. Harris is now writing a pilot for a Hulu television series with Rashida Jones.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour: Can a novel about racism in corporate America be funny? Yes, when it’s in the hands of Brooklynite writer Askaripour. His debut work, a New York Times bestseller, tells the story of a young and smart, but somewhat unmotivated barista who lands a corporate job at a startup and is the only Black person on staff. Drawing on his very similar personal experience, Askaripour weaves satirical tropes and astute observations about racism and startup culture into a “hilarious, razor-sharp skewering of America’s workforce.” Wired calls it a “doozy.”
Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson: This young adult novel is about so much more than falling in love –– it’s about falling in love with yourself. Best-selling author Watson tells the story of 17-year-old Nala Robertson, a plus-sized, dark-skinned girl, who’s crushing on a young activist. In order to impress him, Nala tells a few lies, which become increasingly more challenging to maintain. However, while navigating that path of deceit, she discovers her own truth and “all the ways love is hard, and how self-love is revolutionary.” It’s an intimate, funny love letter about self-love and Black joy.
Sure, I’ll Be Your Black Friend: Notes from the Other Side of the Fist Bump by Ben Philippe: How much Beyoncé is too much Beyoncé? If you embrace Ben Phillipe as your Black friend, he’ll tell you. Because he “takes his role as your new Black friend seriously” –– as long as it’s equally reciprocated. In this candid and sometimes hilarious memoir, Philippe shares his experiences of being the BBFF (Best Black Friend Forever) and all the complexities that these relationships and his own Black identity involve. The first page begins: “The Blackness that follows is purely Ben shaped.”
While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams: This bestselling political thriller is actually Stacy Abrams’ ninth novel (the previous eight are romances published under her pen name, Selena Montgomery). The tension-filled tale focuses on a young law clerk, Avery Keene, who unexpectedly becomes the legal guardian of her boss, a Supreme Court justice, who has fallen into a coma. But that’s just the start of this “sophisticated novel, layered with myriad twists and a vibrant cast of characters.”
some all-time favorites
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Fans of the acclaimed poet will already be familiar with Angelou’s debut memoir (1969) chronicling her coming of age as a Black girl in the South in the 1930s and later in California in the 1940s. Among the stories, she tells of how she lived with a group of homeless teenagers for a month and later defied racist hiring policies to become the first Black streetcar conductor in San Francisco at 16. Fellow author and activist James Baldwin praised the book, saying, “Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X: Based on multiple interviews conducted by Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X paints a vivid picture of one of America’s most influential human rights activists. It covers all aspects of X’s life — from a childhood rife with racist encounters to his years spent as a drug dealer and his subsequent transformation into a militant activist. It provides insight into the events that pushed X to turn his life around, starting with his arrest for a home burglary, after which point he stopped using drugs and eventually joined the Nation of Islam.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander: This book by legal scholar and civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander has been described as “the bible of a social movement.” It powerfully and convincingly takes on the implicit racism in the American criminal justice system that has resulted in the incarceration of millions of African Americans. It also debunks the notion that the United States has become “colorblind” after reaching the milestone of electing the first Black president.
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde: Much of the potent, “thorny” prose in this book is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1984. Across the collection of 15 essays and speeches, Lorde, a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” examines how exploring differences in race, sexual preference, age, gender and class can lead to action and change. In this hard-hitting yet lyrical read, the author reminds us that “revolution is not a one-time event.”
Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis: Gloria Steinem calls it “a small book that will be a huge help in daily life and action.” This collection of thought-provoking essays, interviews and speeches deftly draws connections between liberation struggles of past and present. Davis, a world-renowned activist and scholar, dives deep into topics like police brutality, systemic racism, and international solidarity with Palestine, pushing the reader to “imagine and build the movement for human liberation.”
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois: Originally published in 1903, the theories presented by Du Bois in this work set the foundation for subsequent Black protest movements in the U.S. In the book, Du Bois proposes that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” For more than a century, this collection of essays has fueled key conversations about race in America and it remains a touchstone for African American literature.
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