So you may have already seen my other list of recommendations, but if not, here’s Part I. Part 2 is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive, because there are many lists of books about Black history and culture that you can check out for even more recommendations, including the Zora Canon of 100 best books here, this Penguin Random House list of 25 contemporary fiction and nonfiction or this Electric Literature list of 10 books about Black Appalachia and then there’s Goodreads and Twitter and a dozen other places.
I realized when I was thinking about some of my favorite works of history or of historical significance about Blackness that they were across genres.
For instance, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange was actually the second or third book of hers I read. Before that, I was in love with Liliane, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, her poetry collection, The Love Space Demands. But what I loved most about for colored girls — which was recently a sold out production in all of its glory at The Public Theater — was that it showed Black women in our multicultural context. As being in relationship to Latinx, Caribbean and African spiritualities, dreams and aspirations. It showed our love and joy and pain as being Diasporic like a lot of Ms. Shange’s work.
In this way she was definitely a part of the literary tradition of recovering the wholeness of Black womanhood in the way that Zora Neale Hurston did in Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of my favorite novels of all time.
Much has been said about the beauty and timelessness of Their Eyes Were Watching God; to understand more about the life of Zora, however, an essential text is Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows. It is a classic example of the ways Black women’s lives are cherished in unique ways when we have Black women biographers to attend to the beautiful and brutal details of our lives.
Speaking of the unique beauty of having a Black woman author reflecting the details of Black women writers, bell hooks’ work has been foundational in helping me decode and externalize internalized biases that get in the way of my work. This includes everything from Sisters of the Yam, Writing About Race (a book in which I was surprised to find myself cited!!) to one of her most important books to me, Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. I often talk about this book because it was the first time I read a respected black woman author say that no Black woman could write too much; that we are always writing against time because of the illnesses that take us out, because our ancestors were silenced and we don’t have to be and much more.
I have not mentioned one of the most important writers in my development and understanding of the myriad possibilities for Black writers and intellectuals on a global scale yet, James Baldwin, in part because the book by which I was introduced to him is no longer in print. I had the great fortune to pick up a thick book, The Price of the Ticket, a collection of Baldwin’s essays in the early 1990s. Published in 1985, it represents some of his most powerful writing from 1948 to 1985. I read it in seventh grade and kept the book with me, somehow, across a lot of moves to a lot of different places. It reads to me like sacred text, and its beautiful cadences and nuances, the confidence and fear, the anger and disappointment, all elegant and alive, helped me really see America for the country that it is instead of the country I believe most of us want it to be.