Venerated British author Malorie Blackman once said, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes.” A lifelong reader, I have always treasured the immersive environments that spring from the page and been grateful for the ways that, by sharing their stories, Black writers have granted me insight and understanding of a lived experience I will never have. Lifelong readers are lifelong learners, and I remain a steadfast student.
Each February, my IRL book club celebrates Black History Month with a discussion of Black fiction or memoir. We’ve had powerful conversations about books like Beloved, An American Marriage, and The Underground Railroad. This year, building on that tradition, I’ve compiled a TBR stack of recently published works from my own home library to share with you.
My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
This collection of five short stories and eponymous novella written by a Charlottesville, Virginia native and veteran public school art teacher was my pick for my February IRL book club this year. A powerhouse debut that Colson Whitehead calls “badass… by any measure – nimble, knowing, and electrifying,” this is Johnson's first book, published at the age of 50 (I love this so very much) – and Netflix has already optioned it for a film adaptation. Reading this book was like roaming through a multi-media art installation. The story "Virginia Is Not Your Home" stopped my heart with its double meaning, vivid imagery, and tense emotional build-up. A true book nerd, I always read the acknowledgements for a deeper glimpse at the author’s inner world, one final layer of meaning. Here, Johnson delivers a final gut-punch after expressing gratitude to her son: “I want to leave you a better world, but I’m afraid I may only leave you stories of longing for it.” The world is a better place by virtue of writing like Johnson's alone.
Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman
The first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate, who so dazzled and inspired at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, has penned a poetry collection as deep and devastating as the oceanic allusions within. The nautical metaphors carry through to the end credits, underlying a thematic approach to capturing our pandemic times in verse while holding up a mirror to the moments of reckoning we’ve witnessed and transcendence yet to come. In a volume filled with remarkable work, the standout for me (that I’ll re-read time and again and secretly hope will someday be available to purchase as a piece of visual art) is "America," its words laid against the graphic representation of an American flag. This is the kind of poetry that makes your heart ache with its resonance and depth. For anyone purchasing your own copy, print is a must – the graphic symbolism here is often as powerful as the literary.
Three Girls from Bronzeville by Dawn Turner
In this moving memoir, award-winning journalist and novelist Dawn Turner takes us back to the 1970s in the South Side of Chicago to tell the story of three young girls – her sister, her best friend, and herself. She intertwines a narrative of their dreams, the dangers of their environment, and ultimately their destinies to explore race and class and how the outcomes for three close-knit girls from the same place and time can be so grievously different.
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott
This novel is the literary equivalent of an Olympic athlete dripping with gold medals. A bestseller, multiple award-winner, and recipient of the 2021 National Book Award for fiction, Hell of a Book is a titular self-fulfilling prophecy. In his meta plot, Mott takes the reader on a hell of a journey with “America’s hottest new author” traveling across the country to promote his bestselling book. Along the way, he interacts with The Kid, a mysterious figure whose presence enables an inner dialogue to process all that’s happening in the world and in the author’s environments. We’re also introduced to Soot, a young Black boy growing up in the rural South, whose coming of age is marred by the pain of racism, self-doubt, and violence. At once a family story, cultural commentary on America’s reckoning with injustice, and exploration of what it means to be a Black man in this country, the author reminds us that what he has written here is ultimately a love story.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
A Good Morning America Book Club pick, The Other Black Girl opens with the quote, “Black History is Black Horror.” Set in the publishing world and told from the POV of a young editorial assistant hoping to climb the corporate ladder, this novel has been described as a subversive, disturbing thriller with hints of sci-fi and Stepford. This one is next on my TBR stack and I can’t wait to dive in.
You Don’t Know Us Negroes by Zora Neale Hurston
I first became acquainted with the writing of Zora Neale Hurston many years ago through my fascination with the mysticism of Voodoo. A contemporary of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was a sharp cultural observer and commentator of the times and her environments. This collection of her essays published just last month spans more than three decades of her work and features an introduction by Henry Louis Gates and Genevieve West. The entries are grouped thematically into sections titled On the Folk, On Art and Such, On Race and Gender, and On Politics. The fifth and final section is dedicated to Hurston’s journalistic writing on the tragic story of Ruby McCollum, a Black woman convicted and sentenced to death (by an all-white jury) for killing a White doctor, who had raped and impregnated her and continued to stalk and assault her. Hurston’s writing is at once nuanced and overt, her opinions complex and often, on face value, contradictory. This edition, with its introductory analysis, is a welcome addition to the recent revival of her work.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Ta-Nehisi Coates called this book, “one of the most immersive novels I’ve ever read.” The second book on this list to explore 1970s culture, Opal & Nev fictionalizes New York City’s punk scene from the perspective of a Black female punk musician. As a rising star, Opal speaks out when another band on her label unfurls a Confederate flag at promo show. The ripple effect of courageously speaking her truth impacts Opal and others in the aftermath for years to come. While perusing the shelves of my local Barnes & Noble during their recent 50% off hardcovers sale, this book caught my eye first for its Hatch Show Print-style cover, typeface, and imagery with a silhouette of Opal’s face in the body of an electric guitar. The artistry within is even more bold and resonant.
Better Not Bitter by Yusef Salaam
First, watch the wrenching Ava DuVernay limited series When They See Us. Then steel yourself for Oprah’s follow-up conversation with the real-life Exonerated Five. And finally, settle in for the healing journey that is this book, at once a memoir of purpose, destiny, and faith; a commanding call to action; and what the author himself calls a ‘love offering.’ This is reading as an exercise in empathy at its most emotionally effectual. Salaam embodies the beauty of transcendence and fierceness of an unbreakable spirit.
The 1619 Project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine
A compilation of 19 essays and 36 works of short fiction and poetry, this book takes readers chronologically from 1619 to present day America through the lens of the Black experience – first as trafficked humans brought as slaves to the shores of the state I call home to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman, through four centuries of the ongoing struggle for rights, equality, and justice. Contributing writers include Jesmyn Ward, Terry McMillan, Bryan Stevenson, and Ibram X. Kendi. A monumental undertaking of artistry, outrage, and heartbreak, The 1619 Project leaves the next chapter in our hands. What stories are our actions writing?