— from Maurine Barnett, MaurineTalksBooks.com —
Growing up in a small, WASPy town, I had no idea of what slavery was, and what black lives were like until I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in sixth grade. It had a profound impact on me, and I began to support the civil rights movement in the 1960s. There are so many amazing writers of the black experience; I feel I have only begun to scratch the surface. I have already reviewed three titles in this blog that were the most resonant for me: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Much of the best American literature and art has been born out of America’s agonizing legacy of racism. Here are some of my recent favorites that deliver a variety of perspectives about being black in America.
Ward wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, Salvage the Bones; this was her first non-fiction, equally poignant and remarkable. Five young black men who were close to her died within a four year period, and her reactions to those losses are skillfully woven into this memoir of her growing up in the bayou country of Louisiana. This narrative is not for the faint of heart–but for those who want to read an exceptionally well-written story and also learn the reality of the fate of so many black men in America (one in ten is the statistic she quotes). She reveals the complexities of gender in this story–the black women are protective, angry and disappointed in both their men and the poverty and racism that continues to spawn these astounding losses. Her mood is melancholy, yet deeply compassionate. An important and top rated memoir.
Here is a take on being black in America that I hadn’t thought about before–the trials of becoming a doctor, then encountering and understanding the unique needs of black patients. Tweedy describes his medical schooling with a unique blend of humility and intelligence (after all, he had to be exceptionally bright to even be accepted into medical school). There were enough challenges in that, but even more when he became a practicing physician, encountering diseases and high mortality rates unique to the rural, mostly black impoverished communities he often served. That blacks suffer more hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and many other severe conditions at earlier ages than whites should not surprise, but Tweedy’s encounters with the epidemic proportions of those conditions does. He illustrates this with personal stories that shock more than a battery of statistics would, yet he has a grace and humanity about him that made me believe everything he wrote was no exaggeration. And he made me wish he were able to be my doctor.
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
I have loved Baldwin since an English teacher in college introduced his work and built a whole semester exploring his writings. Reading Baldwin taught me how to compose an essay, and he is still considered a master of the form. But I have trouble picking my favorite–Giovanni’s Room, a haunting love story, Another Country, a novel of tortured relationships and alienation, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, among others. But this book, originally published as a two-part essay in the New Yorker, was the one that catapulted Baldwin into America’s public eye as an early spokesperson for the civil rights movement. The long essay also explores the tenuous and uneasy relationship between the Black Muslim movement in America and Christianity. Baldwin had lived in France for a number of years by this time, and his distance from the US seemed to give him a perspective and credibility in his writing and speaking that helped him become such a well-known figure. I reread this book after Between the World and Me, to compare and contrast. I highly recommend doing the same, as they are a stunning pair.
The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride
Though I knew the old hymn “….John Brown’s body lies…” and had read about the Civil War in school, I knew very little about Brown’s work and the raid on Harper’s Ferry that ultimately led to the start of that war. This imaginative book is hilarious and true to the history of abolitionist John Brown, who in 1859 led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown charged clumsily into slave territory, armed with his personal edict from God and an unusual assortment of slaves who were motivated to follow him for various reasons. The story is told by a naive yet witty young male slave, Henry, who passes for “Henrietta” with his own story to tell about gender issues and a unique perspective on Brown and other famous black abolitionists that are portrayed along the way. This disarming and vivid novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013–more than well-deserved.
When Robert Peace, who was raised by a single mother in a poverty and crime-ridden neighborhood outside Newark, won a full scholarship to Yale, the hope and ambition that accompanied him was profound. Peace was extremely bright and had worked hard to realize the dream of a way out of his upbringing. Many a sociologist has pointed to education as the way out of “the life”, yet the prescription is not so simple, as evidenced in this fascinating and tragic story. Peace’s college roommate wrote this to try to make sense of what went wrong: how Peace graduated from Yale and returned home to teach at the high school he had attended in New Jersey. He was known as an involved, hands-on teacher. Yet underneath Peace’s life of seeming accomplishment was the pull of the streets and dealing drugs. First quietly selling to fellow students at Yale, then back in his old neighborhood. Peace was dead by age 30. The emotional and spiritual complexities of dividing his life between two worlds took a toll that was devastating. There are no easy answers here, but it does not mean there are no answers. Hobbs has rendered a remarkable portrait of this unforgettable life.
Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball
Ball’s book, the National Book Award Winner for non-fiction in 1998, still stands out in my mind as an extremely brave and important look at slavery and its aftermath. Ball’s family several generations back were owners of one of the largest rice plantations in the South (South Carolina), owning thousands of acres and thousands of slaves between the 1700’s until after the Civil War. When Ball’s father died, Edward started investigating one of the family “secrets” his father had alluded to–the fact that the family had owned slaves. Ball’s impeccable research and determination to meet and interview families who had descended from those slaves could not be more gripping. This is American history at its core–a powerful story, seldom told, and needing to be told more often. Feelings about the legacy of slavery in the families Ball encountered during his research were varied and complex, and Ball’s own feelings of guilt and shame took unexpected turns. Unforgettable!