Reading to Honor Black History Month

This is the first year of my adult life in which I’ve set the intention to be more deliberate about my reading goals. These goals have already evolved since January 1, when I decided I would read at least 42 books this year, and that I would make it through at least 70% of the unread books I have on my shelf. (My shelf is smaller than those of many bookish people, but it’s certainly daunting enough). It doesn’t help that I’m a slow reader, but I’ve stepped back from my intense podcast listening and replaced a good chunk of that time with listening to audiobooks from the library (thanks Libby! – not sponsored).

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All this is to say that not only have I been exceeding my own expectations for 2018 reading so far, but I’ve added in some more goals. And this month, I decided to focus entirely on reading Black authors in honor of Black History Month.

Relegating the history of a certain group of people to a single month is inherently problematic, of course. Black history is history. And while I have somewhat dubious feelings about the tokenism that arises from labeling February as Black History Month, just as I am dubious about, for example, June being Pride Month, since Black people and queer people exist and make art and are important all year long forever, I decided to be a little more deliberate about my reading choices this month, and to sharpen my consciousness around Black history and the Black experience in America.

Setting this intention refreshed my anger and disappointment at having been assigned very few Black authors in school. I wasn’t even assigned the most prominent works in Black literary canon, yet I had to read The Odyssey twice, a lot of Shakespeare, and too much Salinger. Nothing against those works, which certainly have value, but they are not everything. That said, I also didn’t take it upon myself to seek out the works of Black writers. My high school gifted me a copy of Sula by Toni Morrison as part of my Community Service Award in my senior year, and I read it that summer. I was utterly taken by the writing, which was unlike anything I’d read before. But shortly after graduation, my life spiraled out of control for several reasons and literature fell by the wayside as I slowly rebuilt myself over the next several years. It’s a shame, in hindsight; reading more maybe would have helped.

But regardless, the past couple of years have found me reading more and more, and this year is my most ambitious reading year yet. So since I’m reading so much, why not add a little thematic structure to the months?

Voices of history

The most important decision I’ve made in this month of reading only Black writers has turned out to be borrowing as many Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison audiobooks as I can from the library. I’m still waitlisted for a bunch of titles, but I’ll wait. Listening to these women read their stories in their own voices has been the greatest joy of this dull, cold month.

I listened to both Mom & Me & Mom and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in that order, by Maya Angelou. I am ashamed to say I had never read any Maya Angelou before, and now I want not only to listen to every audiobook she’s done, but get my hands on my own copies of her print books so I can read them that way, too.

I found it extremely interesting to listen to these two memoirs back to back. Mom & Me & Mom is a short memoir, which elaborates on Angelou’s relationships with her grandmother, Annie Henderson, who raised her and her brother for a good chunk of their childhoods; and her mother, Vivian Baxter, who she moved back in with at age 14. Both Annie and Vivian are loving, powerful, extremely smart and complex women whose financial and social standings were unusual for Black women at the time. Of course, they were still Black women, and racism and white supremacy shaped their lives as it still shapes all of ours. Angelou herself puts it eloquently:
“The plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstreams.” While Angelou’s deep bond with her grandmother, forged in a crucial period of youth, was full of admiration and devotion, her relationship with her mother was more fraught. She felt abandoned by Vivian, and there was a rift of misunderstanding between them when they reunited. But the relationship blossomed over time as their complicated bond grew unbreakable. Many times during this book, I admired how unfazed Vivian was about most taboos and tricky corners of parenthood and life, and Angelou seemed as thankful for Vivian’s presence in her life as I was for having glimpsed her character.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou details her childhood up to age 17, when she gave birth to her son Guy. Her accounts of the rape she experienced as a young girl, the subsequent trial and murder of the rapist, and her journey forward were at turns harrowing, bone-shattering, beautiful, funny, and somehow magical. Angelou’s own character and internal voice comes across even more strongly in this book than in Mom & Me & Mom, and I found her love of language, her curiosity about herself and the world, and her enormous heart and capacity for empathy to be nothing short of inspiring, both as a writer and as a human being.

One thing that snagged me a little was her musing on lesbianism toward the end of the book. This book was published in 1969, and Angelou was describing her thoughts in the 1940s, so I suppose her remarks are about as progressive as they possibly could have been. But her use of the word “pervert” grated, despite the fact that the language of the time was limited to such words. Her empathy toward “perverts” came across as pity, especially when she described her terror that she might in fact have been a lesbian herself because of her “less feminine” body and having  been moved by seeing another woman’s breasts. This fear is certainly something any closeted queer can relate to, even today- the fear of rejection by loved ones and society because of a cultural narrative that persists in labeling queerness as “perversion.” I find it heartbreaking that Angelou decided she needed to seek out sex with a man in order to prove to herself that she was straight, an encounter she didn’t enjoy, and ended up pregnant because of it. While her love for her child comes across beautifully, I wonder if her exploration of her sexual identity would have been broader had she grown up more recently, and if she would have felt more free in that respect.

On the heels of the two Angelou books, I listened to Toni Morrison read The Bluest Eye and spent most of that time enraptured, my heart cracking and my breath catching. It’s so beautifully written, and it’s saturated with pain and tragedy. Pecola is a character I won’t ever forget. The violence and sexual assault in this book travel like fault lines underneath every word, sometimes erupting up in lava bubbles before subsiding just below the surface again. Claudia and Pecola are both innocent and naïve in many ways, but their reality is harsh, especially Pecola’s. The looming specter- or promise, as Pecola sees it- of blue eyes, of whiteness, of freedom, taunt her as well as the reader. The blue eyes seem to embody hope and hopelessness at the same time. They are certainly a symbol of the white supremacy that does its best to oppress and break people. And in the end, Pecola is broken.

Listening to these two pillars of Black literary canon read their works in their own voices is something I wish I’d begun doing a long time ago, but I’m glad I’m doing it now. And while I’m kind of obsessed with both Angelou and Morrison after this introduction to their writing, I won’t stop with them. Next on my list of historically important Black writers to read are Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Alice Walker and James Baldwin; if you have any recommendations from these or other authors, please let me know! I will of course continue to do my own research and seek others out. But suggestions are always welcome.

The present is also history

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Two of the other two books I’ve read so far this month are new releases: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins. I read both of these in print. Both are nonfiction, and written by women who have very incisive and important things to say about identity and racism.

So You Want to Talk About Race is absolutely one of the most significant and well-written books I’ve ever read. I’ve been reading Ijeoma Oluo’s work at The Establishment, where she is an editor-at-large, for years, and really value her words and her insight on race and feminism. She brings so much of her writing talent and expertise into this volume, which I dog-eared and marked up on nearly every page. One of the things she does is drive home the point that racism does not get its oxygen from disparate individuals with malicious intent, i.e. Nazis or KKK members. It lives and breathes fire in the entire construction of American society. “The impotent hatred of the violent racist was built and nurtured by a system that has much more insidiously woven a quieter, yet no less violent, version of those same oppressive beliefs into the fabric of our society,” she writes. “So much of what we think and feel about people of other races is dictated by our system, and not our hearts.” This is a simple concept but so crucial.

Oluo goes on to detail, in a very straightforward way, the ways in which we- especially white people- let the machine of racism be, let it whir on, all the while claiming to love Black people and people of color. This machine doesn’t just fail to hurt us, but in many ways we directly benefit from it. We are therefore responsible for everything the racism machine produces: children getting funneled from schools to jails, Black people being murdered by police, and all of the pinpricks of microaggressions and exploitation and appropriation that bruise Black people and people of color day in and day out. This book has helped me gather more useful language to use when I say to my fellow white people: We are hurting people. We need to pay attention, listen, vote in local elections, and perhaps most importantly, stop taking offense. Racism, and being called out on racism, is not a personal attack. It’s an opportunity to do better. Taking offense to the idea that you, as a white person, are racist is itself a perfect illustration of how much we’ve been conditioned to believe the world should be comfortable for us.

This Will Be My Undoing is more of a memoir than So You Want to Talk About Race, but it is not short on analysis of Blackness, especially Black womanhood. Morgan Jerkins is very young- still in her mid-twenties- and I can’t wait to read what she will write as she ages, because she already has so much of value to say. She weaves personal narrative into a broader picture about being a Black woman in America. She tells fearless stories about her sexual journey with her own body, her experiences as an exchange student in Japan and as a Black woman at Princeton, mental health in the wake of grief, faith, and her deep desire to be a white cheerleader as a child. I found these stories to be engrossing in and of themselves, but Jerkins deftly used them as entry points into cultural exploration and critique. Oluo did something similar in terms of structure, leading her chapters with personal anecdotes in order to illustrate a broader point. Both writers were extremely effective.

Lastly, I read Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. Like every author I read this month, I wish I'd read her sooner. Her language is sparse, and this novel is quite short, but every word packs so much meaning and depth that even though I read it in two days, I won't stop thinking about it any time soon. The story centers around a character named August and the group of girls she made a family with as a child and teenager. Jacqueline Woodson is a master at conveying the devotion and intimacy of girl friendships. Relationships between girls are explored a lot in literature, but Woodson writes them with care and insight I haven't seen before, and I connected really deeply with it. 

All of the books I read this month were different from each other in style, approach, content, scope and setting, and yet there were threads between them. The insidious white supremacy Oluo and Angelou wrote about was clearly illustrated in Morgan Jerkins’ desire to be a white cheerleader and Pecola’s obsession with blue eyes- the longings of small children in a society that does not value them as they are. The talons of poverty and incarceration built into America’s societal and governmental structure in order to oppress and dehumanize as many Black people as possible in a post-slavery era touched every one of the writers and characters in these books in some way. And each of these authors writes about how sneaking and subtle racism is, which is how it gets most of its power.

At the same time, there is clearly so much richness in Black culture that I can only ever see from a distance, and that’s ok. I am grateful for the writers, past and present, who share their stories and experiences, and I will continue to read and listen. Happy Black History Month, and happy reading.