Black Literature Matters

Reflecting on my rather poor performance when it came to reading authors who weren’t straight white men in January, I decided to dedicate February to reading more black authors in honor of Black History Month. As I was browsing offerings online and from my local library, I tried to think of famous black authors – maybe ones I had read in the past – and was shocked to realize I hardly knew any. The only name that came to mind was Toni Morrison, but trying to think of more black authors and black classics just resulted in a blank.

I must have read some literature by black authors in high school, though, right? Some that address black history, culture, or politics? At least one or two. But the two texts I remember reading that were concerned with the black experience were The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin – written by a white man and a white woman respectively. Even in college, the only black literature I remember coming across was maybe a short story or two and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In a total of 17 years of education, I had one memorable black voice in my past. One. The more I thought, the more I realized just how much my education had failed both black literature and myself.

This month, I finally indulged in works like Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Fledgling by Octavia Butler. They gave me an understanding of slavery, racism, and prejudice that my faux-black literary experience or history classes never did. 12 Years illustrated to me the horrors of slavery the sanitized and clinical passages I read in textbooks glanced over, trying to hurry readers along to cover up that ugly part of American history. Souls showed how the disadvantage of black Americans continued long after slavery ended, looking into how that hate and violence affected the spirit of newly free blacks three decades after emancipation. Beloved and Fledgling made the history of Northup and Du Bois personal, taking it to a level that made me uncomfortable, but rightfully and necessarily so.

Even as an educated adult who is aware of events like slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and current racial prejudice, I’d never examined them on an emotional level prior to this month. I’d read about them historically, analyzed them as fact, and thought my work was done. It wasn’t until this month that I was able to feel that history, to understand it beyond fact and begin to reflect on what it must have been like, what it must still be like to be black in America. As a white woman, I will never be able to truly empathize with the black experience, but at least now I have an understanding, a place at which I can begin to sympathize with both past and current struggle when I listen to black stories.

These works were brilliant, beautifully and emotionally written pieces of literature.. These authors speak of their experiences with eloquence and make them accessible, allowing an outsider to explore their stories while still maintaining them as their own. As 

However, we live in a country that silences these voices. A country filled with racial hate and violence where black men and women are killed, dehumanized, and disenfranchised. Where something as seemingly obvious as “Black Lives Matter” has to be campaigned for and is actively fought against by not a few radicals, but by many. Where these issues are put onto the shoulders of blacks – still struggling with the aftereffects of centuries of slavery – who are told fixing them is their responsibility even as they continue to be driven further into poverty and deprived of the resources they need to feed, shelter, and educate themselves, much less excel politically, economically, or socially. Most white Americans watch these injustices at best with casual disinterest and at worst with gleeful malice. They don’t see it as involving them, as being part of their experience – issues like gang violence or police brutality are just too foreign to a middle-class white person, so they marginalize these stories to keep themselves from feeling uncomfortable or guilty.

I think this failure to listen to black stories and foster empathy is where my education failed me, where education everywhere continues to fail its students. Literature has the ability to take these situations, these injustices, and these sufferings and make them tangible, real. A 30-second clip of a black man being shot by a police officer on the news is easy to disregard, to forget about in the course of a day – he becomes a footnote, a statistic. A novel that shows us that same black man’s past, shows us his thoughts and feelings, and shows us the multifaceted political, economic, and social reasons why he ended up in front of the officer’s gun that day is not so easy to ignore or brush off. It gets into our minds, our emotions and sits there, not letting us turn away from the ugliness that we as a country need to face but refuse to.

As Du Bois says, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.” This sentence was written in 1903, but is still true over a hundred years later where the divide between white and black is still as apparent as ever. To ignore the incredible power of literature to create empathy, to give someone the ability to look at another person and say, “I want to understand,” is negligent, almost criminally so – it perpetuates a culture that continues to ignore and minimize the victimization of black Americans. No child should make it through 17 years of schooling only having heard one black voice when the power to make these individuals into adults with a nuanced and sympathetic view of race, racism, and prejudice is so easily attainable – simply opening a book.


February 2016 Round-Up


Best of February: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

I didn’t want to be this person. For some reason, I lump the people who go around saying Walt Whitman is one of their favorite poets with the kind of people who wear nice hats, smoke pipes, and have patches on the elbows of their jackets. Professor types who aren’t actually professors and who berate you for liking your low brow literature because, ugh, who will truly be as great as the authors of the past? Also you’re in your twenties, stop smoking a pipe ffs. Who do you think you are?! But after 600 pages of poetry, some of which made me drool as I disassociated to avoid more poems about boats, I ended this volume with a deep passion and respect for Whitman. It was one of those books you have to call ‘transformative’ about your life even if you shudder a little and you have to resist rolling your eyes back into your head. (Nothing kills a book recommendation like the promise that it will CHANGEYOURLIFE, because let’s face it, we’re all in different points of life and books affect us differently). But I have to say it (shudder), Leaves of Grass changed my life.

Worst Weirdest of February: Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay

Out of the 12 books I read this month, shockingly none were that awful. I mean, I can’t say they were all GOOD, but none of them induced me far enough into a rage to make a blog post about them, which is surprising. A lot of the YA fic I read this month could only be called mediocre. They weren’t down-right offensive when they strayed into moments I disapproved of and there weren’t even that many moments.For that reason, I’m addressing the weirdest book I read this month instead. I’m one of those people who loves Shakespeare, so whenever there’s a YA book involving Shakespeare, I get a little titillated. This one time I read a book where a girl goes back in time to seduce the playwright, as if someone had flipped through my wishes and penned a book just for me (this is real. Incredible). Juliet Immortal is a story involving Shakespeare that is perplexing from start to finish. First of all, why even involve the name and the play Romeo and Juliet? I’m not sure this story, which held onto the association with about as much conviction as a distracted toddler, even needed to be related to Shakespeare. It probably would have been just of fine of a story if it was completely unrelated. Second of all, What the Darn Diggly??? This book is wild, and I’m still unsure if it is in a good way. I love Stacey Jay’s other work but ??? I don’t even know what else to say.


Best of February: The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois

After crunching some numbers and realizing I hadn’t read a single POC author in January, I vowed to read at least 50% black authors in February in honor of Black  History Month. – The Souls of  Black Folk, Beloved, and works by Octavia Butler. While I may not have enjoyed reading Souls the most – it was published in 1903 and reads like it was published in 1903 – I think it was the most important book I read. It gave me a historical understanding that made the emotional aspects Morrison and Butler brought to their works even more poignant, making their themes of race and racism sink in in a way they couldn’t have if I wasn’t aware of the political, social, and cultural history they were steeped in. Also, on a more day-to-day level, Souls gave me awesome ammo whenever I have the misfortune of conversing with a racist who rightfully deserve to get shot down.

Worst of February: Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

It’s almost too painful to talk about this book so soon after reading it, but I’ll try. Have you ever been kicked in the teeth by your best friend? Or kidney punched by your grandmother? Did they then take all your valuables and spit on your dog? That’s kind of how reading Mostly Harmless felt. I have never been more disappointed and dissatisfied with a series arc, especially the ending. Adams took everything that was good in his first two or three books and tore it apart in the finally two, laughing knowingly while he did. The Hitchhiker’s series was only supposed to be a trilogy originally, so I have a theory that Adams was forced by an editor or by the need for some quick cash to write the other two. He must of resented it because he became almost actively hostile to the reader, acknowledging the degrading quality of his stories in little quips throughout the last two books. It was maddening as a reader to watch what started so strongly crash and burn. I don’t think I’ll ever quite trust a series again. Thanks, Douglas Adams.