A Black History Month Reading List, Part 2

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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.

New York Public Library Melrose Branch Visit, February 24th

In case you’re curious how my 2020 is going, this is the kind of story that sums it up nicely.

Last month, a Bronx librarian found I Can Write the World. She loved it so much she wrote a really lovely blog about it. And then she asked if I could come to her library and that’s what I’m doing on February 24th in the afternoon: Letting young people interview me about the somehow adult Bronx girl who now writes things that some people read who only dreamed of this life.

 

Flyer_ Author Visit with Joshunda SandersWhat Lauren did not know, I don’t think, is how deeply I love the New York Public Library.

I have several distinct memories of growing up and surviving my childhood because of the sanctuaries that are New York Public Library branches. Thank God things were never so hard that our homelessness led us to try to sleep in them, like so many homeless people do. But my mother loved books and paper and knowledge, and libraries, of course, are perfect if you love all of those things. So I viewed them as sacred spaces, just like church and school.

That’s why there’s a big chunk of my short story, “Fly,” that includes a semi-autobiographical chase scene that leads Kelly to safety because the bully who wants to beat her up doesn’t have a library card. I distinctly remember losing library books in multiple evictions, back when the library card was maroon and white, and feeling this overwhelming sense of shame for messing up the whole flow of things. Information and self-edifying knowledge and escape to another world were these free escape hatches and I devoured them as if they were food; a different kind of nurture.

During a class trip when I was in sixth grade, right before the last of a long string of upheavals at home, I’ll never forget my relief when at the end of our visit to the West Farms branch, the librarian looked up at me when I shared my name and she saw the amount of fines. I felt bad because whatever the significant amount was, I definitely would not be able to pay. Those were books, too, that could have helped some else. “Miss, I was homeless, so I couldn’t bring those books back, I’m so sorry,” I said, tearing up. Seeing that I was anxious and afraid, she just smiled this really gentle smile at me and deleted the fines and gave me a brand new library card. I feel like it happened all in one movement like that. Such a small kindness had such a gigantic impact that I still tear up all these years later. And that was in the 1980s!

Often when people say something is an honor, it feels like the right thing to say and the most gracious. But I mean it deeply when I say I’m honored that I’ll get to engage with kids from my hometown in a couple of weeks. It’s a sweet moment and one that is deeply meaningful. And really, truly, an honor.

Also: Next time you see a librarian, thank them for their quiet heroism. They rock.

A Black History Month Reading List, Part 1

Some of you have been kind enough to follow my musings about individual books on my new YouTube channel, Black Book Stacks. This is a natural endeavor for me, to find, devour and support books by and about Black people, who I define as people from throughout the African Diaspora. This is an evolving definition, I guess; I was reading David Yoon’s Frankly In Love, which is an addictive YA book that delves into interracial dating and intraracial friendship, including with his Black friend Q. Frankly In Love is a good, recent example of the kind of book that blends a lot of different kinds of diversity and that was part of what thrilled me about it.

I forget who I was talking to who said this, but it stuck with me: Black people in this country do not have the luxury of having as long a literary tradition as any other group in America because of the legacy of slavery. Because of being forbidden to read or write. To me, that makes it that much more important to lift up books that recover and restore us to ourselves; that expand what we know of ourselves and our lineage, real and imagined. Anyway, here is the beginning of a list of some essentials of Black history, to me, anyway, that can be a good resource and are some of my favorite books that filled in important gaps for me along my reading journey:

  1. (New) Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent, edited by Margaret Busby | I have the great fortune of having both a copy of the original Daughters of Africa, and the newest addition, which just expands the important, vast collection of significant work to include 200 writers. A classic.
  2. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde | “Poetry is Not A Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” and many other seminal works by Audre Lorde were first written or delivered as lectures in the 1970s. Like the Combahee River Collective as a whole, she was integral to giving us language to describe and express the interlocking oppressions we know now as an intersectionality framework.
  3. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keanga Yamahtta-Taylor | I was not familiar with Dr. Yamahtta-Taylor’s work until I taught it at the New School, and hearing first hand from the likes of Barbara Smith, Barbara Ransby and Alicia Garza helped contextualize not only a lot of what we’re seeing now in terms of how Black women are dismissed or lifted up, depending on the community, but also how much has happened behind the scenes along the way.
  4. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire | No disrespect to Rosa Parks, but I did not know the name of Claudette Colvin until I read McGuire’s book, of my own volition, long after undergrad, where I had Africana Studies as a minor and learned a good deal, just not enough.
  5. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson | It’s hard to believe that 2020 is the 10th anniversary of this book’s publication (!) but what an incredible work of scholarship, recovery and re-membering from Wilkerson, who, if memory serves, interviewed thousands for this book, including a young pre-presidential hopeful named Barack Obama. No list of important Black historical texts is complete without this one.

Words of Fire is another underrated anthology of Black Feminist thought; Black Skin, White Masks has always haunted me, and Sisters of the Yam, by bell hooks, was the beginning of my understanding of wellness and self-care.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on these books if you’ve read them, or what books you consider essential to learning about Black history are.