This is my second year (officially) recommending books for Black History Month. Last year, I felt excited when the Grand Rapids Chapter of #BlackLivesMatter asked me for my list of reads. I also had a work colleague inquire about my list of books. From my youth, my parents instilled in me a sense of pride by celebrating Black History Month (that is not to say that I only wait until February, we read African-American books throughout the year), and I figured I could give back by attempting to recommend a small culmination of what I read focusing on my favorite African-American reads in celebration of this month. I avidly read and seek out books that reflect, uplift, or provide context to my heritage.
More information on this poem can be found here.
I self-identify as black and while the teens (that I work with) still ask me, “Are you sure you’re just black...? I can grin and say, "Why, YES. I’m sure." Or use sarcasm and respond with something like, "No. Please educate me on how to be the epitome of black."
I know my family has been intermixed and my features can be identified as a lot of things, but to me---I’m black. My parents grew up fearing that if we were fluent in another language we would not want to be black anymore. We would want to “pass.” [personal interjection: PARENTS THINK OF HOW MARKETABLE I COULD’VE BEEN!!! Also, FYI, their thoughts have evolved since that time, too].
My journey with adolescence and race was a struggle (THANK YOU technology! It's a struggle that I know now was familiar to many). Eighth grade was my worst year with not fitting in and figuring out what my blackness looked like and how I would present that to the world. I would say it was an important year in finding comfort in my own skin. Some knowledge I’ve gained is knowing that I'll always be asked by both white and black people, "Is that your real hair?" Figuring out that the way I talk is: "It's quite alright", and I wasn't being inauthentic. I realized that I can like whatever I want to like, and that this does not mean that I would want to identify as "anything but black.”
What I'm saying is that if I had not have read, I'm pretty sure I'd be dealing with some serious mental health issues. Because my K-12 American history was so racist---the THREE BLACK WOMEN we learned about: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, & Rosa Parks. There were "so many more black men" that were showcased in history: Nat Turner [who was portrayed as EVIL], George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. One of those people isn’t even black. My mom made sure to instill me with a strong female pride and made sure any report I did in school was about a black woman. Reports I remember doing: Elizabeth Keckley, Madame C.J. Walker, Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge, Phillis Wheatley, Bessie Coleman, Marian Anderson, Maya Angelou, Ella Baker, and that was just the TIP of the iceberg.
Don’t even get me started on world history. I remember finding Shaka Zulu in my parent's basement asking my dad if I could read it and thinking, "We never learned that in school." I later learned that it was a totally biased view and was encouraged to read Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Intervention. It's on my list to read. My biggest worry in high school was getting through school without constantly getting kicked out of history class especially when kids mocked the African natives featured in the history book and said the only accomplishments Africans achieved were being "civilized" by colonization.
My point is that so much rich history gets "left out" growing up as a child and it's the responsibility of minority parents (and of college courses) to instill in their children a different education. Growing up, Black History month was used as an opportunity to strengthen ties to historical roots and showcase where we come from. Over this month, I will continue this tradition by recommending titles to show where we’re going as well.
How do I decide what books I recommend? I have a loosely-based criteria. You’ll notice throughout the month I highlight:
Varying Publication Dates.
All the books recommended over the course of this month, I have read. I will not be posting anything that I have not read or did not thoroughly enjoy. I try to read out of my comfort zone as much as possible. In doing so, I read for a variety of ages and my list ranges from graphic novels to nonfiction. I know I’ll never read everything, but I try to read a balance of recent material and older publications. African-American themed books encompass a wide and diverse representation of cultures (i.e. Afro-Caribbean). Not all my books are historical or pinpoint specific historical topics. Authors of color who are publishing books in a variety of genres (i.e. speculative fiction) which lacks African-American representations are part of change and that, to me, is part of celebrating history.
Let me know (during the month of February) if you’ve read and enjoyed any titles mentioned, or if any of them pique your interest. Tweet at me: @whimsylibrarian