As Black History Month commences, here are a few must-have books from Black authors, spanning time periods, themes and genres. However, one thing they have in common is critical acclaim and a strong command of tackling the Black experience with grace, courage, originality, and historical context, making them essential reads during Black History Month and throughout the year.
1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel is frequently included on the list of must-read American books by one of the most prolific Black authors. The story follows an African American man whose color renders him invisible. It’s a groundbreaking take on a racially polarized society and the struggle to find oneself through it all.
2. Home by Toni Morrison
The 2012 novel by Morrison tells the story of a 20-something Korean War veteran and his journey home from an integrated army to a segregated society. The book was named one of the best novels of 2012 for its careful consideration of mental illness, race relations, family, history, and the concept of home.
3. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston
Baratunde Thurston, a longtime writer for The Onion, serves up laughs with this collection of comical essays, such as “How to Speak for All Black People” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.” Thurston covers social interactions and media portrayals with an insightful and satirical perspective.
4. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson, creator of the Black National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” first published God’s Trombones in 1927 as a book of poems. The poems take on the structure of a traditional sermon and tell several different parables and Bible stories, some of which specifically focus on the African American story. Dr. Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates have called this collection one of Johnson’s most notable works.
5. The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates
From the best-selling author comes a poignant tale of life and race in the inner city. Coates explains how his father worked for his sons to obtain a free education and escape Baltimore’s drug culture. This inspiring book tells a powerful narrative about community and honoring your history across generations.
6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Citizenis an award-winning collection of literature blurring the lines between poetry and criticism. Divided into seven chapters, it provides a powerful meditation on race that creates a lyrical portrait of our current social and political climate. Hailed as “a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of Black life in America,” according to the Washington Post. Citizen is said to feel like an “eavesdropping on America.”
7. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
You may think you know Malcolm X, but you’ve never read anything like Marable’s highly-regarded biography, which provides new perspectives and information on the controversial leader. Marable connects Malcolm’s life with other leaders, faith, and Black Nationalism in a masterful, historical context and call for social change.
8. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
In this novel, an African American teenager spends a summer with his brother in 1985 Sag Harbor. The work is more personal than most of Whitehead’s books and explores race, class, and commercial culture in light of a newer generation of Black Americans who are less marked by their color.
9. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
In a classic tale, Wilkerson chronicles the journey of three African Americans who took part in the massive movement from the South to the North, Midwest, and West that millions of Black families took in the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns is an acclaimed historical account that studies a definitive period in American history.
10. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes
This extensive collection of poems was hand-picked by Hughes, himself, prior to his death in 1967 and span his entire career. They offer a breathtaking look at being Black in America that is contemplative, celebratory, gut-wrenching and praiseworthy. From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Weary Blues,” to “Still Here” and “Refugee in America,” this collection directs us to fight, believe, dream, and claim our self-worth.
11. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals
In this riveting memoir, Beals recounts her time on the front lines of school desegregation as a member of the Little Rock Nine – the group of African-American students who famously integrated Arkansas’ Central High School. Her account of the harrowing experiences that forged her courage will stick with you long after the last page.
March is Reading Awareness Month and a fitting time to discuss literacy in the United States, particularly among urban and minority families.
The impacts of literacy begin at a very young age—reading to children increases their vocabulary skills and improves reading comprehension. Faltering literacy rates among youth have a dramatic impact on where we end up later in our lifetimes.
Statistics provided by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, say that two-thirds of kids who aren’t reading well in fourth grade will end up on welfare or in jail and have a 78% chance of not catching up to their reading benchmarks. Sixty percent of juvenile delinquents and 80% of adult inmates are illiterate.
The Value of Education
Although learning disabilities (such as Dyslexia and ADHD) can impair one’s ability to read fluently or at a higher grade level, Clark Atlanta University professor Torrance Stephens says poverty often leads to illiterate youth and adults. “[One of the] main misconceptions is that these people don’t value education,” says Stephens, who has worked in public health and education and with minority literacy in the US and Africa for 30 years.
“What I have found is that from the elderly black and white women I worked with in my earlier years, to the women of child-bearing age I worked with in Nigeria, to the ex-felons, they all valued education and knew its importance. But in each case, economic factors led them to leave their formal education.”
Stephens, who has published several books including The Legacy of the Bush-Obama Keynesian Dialect and Income Inequality in America, remembers an elderly African American woman explaining how she left school in fourth grade to sharecrop and help her family. Her story is similar to that of many ex-convicts he has worked with who indicate, “they had to assist in providing for their families, thus school would have to be a loss and they hit the streets hustling.”
The National Commission on Adult Literacy says that reading from a young age is one way to keep our society from losing the important skill of reading. A report published in March 2015 by the Pew Research Center on Hispanic Trends showed that 80% of blacks had visited a library or bookmobile in their lifetime compared to 83% of whites. But with high school graduation rates topping out at roughly 50% in urban areas, it’s clear that frequency among racial and economic groups are not the same.
College graduates and those with household incomes over $100,000 are most likely to frequent a public library. Children who don’t have examples of avid readers in their life are less likely to become literate on their own.
It may appear strange that literacy is still inaccessible to some Americans in an age where the Internet has brought so much content to our fingertips—content which usually must be read. The vast majority of Americans from the poorest urban areas to high-scale suburbs have cell phones, granting them access to a gold mine of information, but Stephens suggests that real-world examples are still missing.
“In this instant culture dominated by emoji’s and 140-character thought spaces, reading—real reading—that requires thinking and comprehension takes a back seat. The challenge of getting people to read in an increasingly television-dominated culture is a major difficulty,” he says.
“I saw everybody around me reading daily; everyone had a library card and we were in the library weekly. I know parents tell their kids to read, but I don’t know if we as African Americans really encourage our kids to read, or even set the example. I suspect if you tell your kids to read, and watch the NBA or some music awards show, they will replicate your behavior and learn by example, especially if they never see you pick up a book.”
Making a Difference
The Read Aloud campaign challenges parents to read to their kids for 15 minutes every night before bed, something that 13 million children won’t experience on a daily basis. The 10-year campaign challenges families to “Read Aloud for 15 Minutes. Every Child. Every Parent. Every day.”
It’s an important task that sounds simple but can be incredibly difficult in an urban home where one or both parents may not be present and problems in the surrounding area can negatively affect the learning environment. There are also countless programs geared toward reading awareness and combating illiteracy, including AmeriCorps, Literacy Partners, The Wallace Foundation, and local programs run by state and city governments.
Over 2 million New Yorkers alone cannot read, which limits employment opportunities, quality of life, and makes it virtually impossible to pass good reading habits to children. Stephens says that many people believe literacy programs are daunting, but taking classes at a local program is a great way to overcome the challenge of illiteracy. Many programs are volunteer-run, and always in need of more hands.
This March, contact your local library or government and ask about ways to get involved with your community’s literacy efforts. Help promote a literacy campaign, give to a reading organization, or become a tutor. The Literacy Information and Communication System has an online directory that lists reading advocacy programs in your area.
Why is reading awareness so important? “A country’s wealth is almost directly related to a country’s literacy rate,” Stephens explains. “Literacy is the ability to read and write, which are strong predictors of individual monetary worth and future lifelong earning potential. Two, literacy is a very strong protective factor against getting arrested and/or involved with the criminal justice system. On an individual level, greater literacy is positively associated with increased cognitive development such as better problem-solving ability which means the more reading exposure the longer brainactivity will remain robust.”
It’s no secret that Sunday morning is often referred to as the most segregated day of the week, when Christians of all races come together to worship among their ethnic peers. However, do most Christians prefer to fellowship this way, even in the most segregated areas in America?
A few weeks ago, 24/7 Wall Street released a list of the most segregated cities in America. Detroit topped the list, which included locales such as Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis, DC, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Birmingham.
For many churchgoers, segregated congregations in these areas aren’t ideal, but are simply a matter of comfort.
Anisha Howlett, a sales professional who lives in Farmington HiIls (a predominantly white suburb of Detroit), attends The River-New Wine Glory Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Southfield, Michigan. “As of right now, my church is predominantly black; however, our vision is growing and we encourage and welcome people from all walks of life to join our church,” Howlett says.
“We desire having diversity in the church because it reflects the kingdom and culture of heaven. We’ve had speakers from all over the world visit us [from countries] such as India and Italy. We also have a group of Hispanics who began attending our church last year, and we have integrated a sound system for them to listen during services as their interpreter translates to them in Spanish.”
Howlett says that it’s human nature to feel more comfortable around your own race, but notes that it’s not Biblical to confine our religious activity to ethnic groups. She also explains that the Christian church must make an effort to reflect the true body of Christ. She enjoys connecting with people from other races and encourages the greater community to do the same.
“We should want to worship with other Christians who are a different race, Howlett says. “We are spirit beings with a natural body but not bound to our own skin color. To bring heaven on earth, we must begin to integrate races in the church. Worship besides your white friend. Worship besides your black friend. The church won’t be as effective to the world (salt & light) until churches become multi-cultural which resembles the kingdom of God.”
Linda Madison, a media relations strategist in the DMV area prefers multicultural churches that focus on Christian fellowship and true reflection of Christ’s outgoing and boundless love. Her love experiences living on the west and east coasts have allowed her to experience very different communities.
“I live in a predominately African-American community in Prince George’s County, Maryland, yet I work, in a very diverse office,” Madison says. “When I lived in Los Angeles some 20 years ago, I attended Church on the Way, pastored by Jack Hayford who is white and the church was multi-racial.”
Madison is not a fan of racially segregated churches, calling them “not okay.”
“The racial makeup of a church is important to me as long as we are all there for a common goal, which is to serve the Lord,” she says.
Madison believes race shouldn’t matter for Believers who are coming to serve God. “In Jesus’ eyes there were only two factions: Jews and Gentiles. Even so, His charge to us, His people, was to love each other as we love ourselves.”
Ultimately, many Christians follow the example of their leadership when welcoming believers of all races and ethnicities to worship together. However, with today’s influx of digital platforms, it’s easy to find Christians of various races listening to the same sermon on their phone or computers, but sharing a pew makes a more powerful statement of coming together as a Church.
“I think it begins with the Pastors to make sure they’re encouraging diversity in their church,” Howlett suggests. “They must be loving on all walks of life. They must preach against sin such as racism. Preach the unadulterated Word of God — the words of Jesus — and it’ll draw all men to your church.”
Here are a few verses to reflect on concerning unity within the Church:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17: 20-21
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” I Corinthians 1: 10
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Galatians 3:25-28
“All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name.” Psalms 86:9 KJV
On July 23, 1967, Detroit, Michigan, became the scene of a five-day riot that remains one of the deadliest civil disturbances in the United States. The intensity and relentlessness of the riot forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to call on the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to restore peace in the city. By the end of the week, over 2,000 buildings were destroyed, over 1,000 injuries and nearly 50 civilians, military and police officers were killed.
What happened in the Motor City was one of 159 “race riots” that occurred during the long, hot summer of ’67, but it’s the most memorable and influential; for many living in Detroit, the city has never fully recovered.
Despite the national media attention the riots garnered, the story of the Detroit Riot is often skipped over in schools (as most race riots are), so when the trailer for Detroit, an upcoming film that chronicles part of the 1967 riots, was released, many viewers took to social media to vent their frustration about never learning this important piece of American history in school.
So crazy to me that a lot of schools in MI don’t teach or even speak of the Detroit riots
Historians dispute whether the 12th Street Riot, as it’s called, was actually a race riot because of the multicultural demographic of the rioters. However, race was certainly the catalyst. In the early morning hours of July 23, Detroit police officers raided a local unlicensed drinking club with the expectation of catching a few random occupants. They were instead met by 82 African Americans welcoming two GIs home from Vietnam, and decided to arrest the entire party. While officers waited for transportation, a crowd of onlookers gathered and Walter Scott III threw a bottle at the police, initiating the riot.
As looters tore through the streets of Detroit, city police stood by waiting for the melee to diffuse, which it never did. The arrival of the Michigan National Guard the following day did little to stop the riot as crowds continued to vandalize white- and black-owned business, sparing no one in the process. The riot grew almost effortlessly, fueled by a suppressed rage that seemed to have no end. An overwhelmed police force was found guilty of abusing civilians in their custody, including the tragic shooting deaths of three black men during the Algiers Motel Incident.
Sid. E. Taylor, the founder of Detroit-based SET Enterprises, U.S. Marine, and Vietnam combat veteran, was just 18 years old in 1967 and vividly remembers riding a convertible straight into the middle of the riots with his older brother and a friend.
“A friend of ours was driving the car, I had a video camera and I sat on the back of the car and we were driving around acting silly like we were news reporters filming what was going on,” Taylor recalls. “The National Guard was out there and we drove by an apartment building and somebody pointed a gun at the car and said, ‘You n——- better get out of here before we blow your head off.’ And you know what we did? We lifted the roof and got ourselves outta there.”
Taylor admits that in hindsight it was a bad decision to drive into the riots considering the scale of violence, but he says they were “curiously nervous” because Detroit “had made the news. Every time you turned on the television they were showing the streets and we knew all these places.”
Much of the city was destroyed during the riots, leaving thousands without a place to work or live, and businesses that were unharmed shut down for safety purposes. Taylor and his brother worked for General Motors at the time and were told not to go into work because of the hostile atmosphere throughout the city, which included curfew violations, fights, and multiple fires.
Looters continued to steal millions of dollars of merchandise, including a few of Taylor’s friends who stole TV sets from a local business. “It got so bad that they canceled our work because it was too dangerous to move. Black people were mad and white people were scared and everyone was kinda scared to go anywhere.”
The presence of mainly white military worsened the violence initially, but within 48 hours the riot had been contained and dissipated. In the span of a week, Detroit went from being a leader in race relations for its time to a city reeling from the pain of a tragic and violent race riot. Many of the themes and concerns that arose from the 1967 riot, such as police brutality, racial unrest, and discrimination have emerged in urban centers across the country since: in Los Angeles in 1992, and cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
Famed baseball outfielder Willie Horton drew a comparison between Detroit and Baltimore following the 2015 riots in response to Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Horton, who now lives in Baltimore, called the recent events “flashbacks” to the moment he left his Tigers game July 23, 1967, and drove into the riots, standing on the hood of his car pleading with the city he loved to restore peace.
Police brutality and the ethics of rioting are far from resolved, but in preparation for the 50th anniversary, Kathryn Bigelow (the only female Oscar winner for best director) hopes her story of the Detroit riots will honor those lost during the incident and incite discussion about these issues. While the film focuses on the harrowing Algiers motel incident, it comes at a prime time in our country and joins many commemorative events like the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67: Perspectivesexhibit, which runs through 2019.
The camera Taylor was carrying that day didn’t have any film in it, but the images from his personal memories are just as strong. When asked if he’s excited to see Detroit, he said, “Absolutely. I’m probably going to see it more than once.”
Detroit will open in theaters nationwide Friday, August 4.
Last year, after nominations were announced for the Academy Awards and all 20 acting nominees were Caucasian in the lead and supporting acting categories, Magazine Editor April Reign (@ReignofApril on Twitter) started the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
The flurry of criticism about the Academy’s whitewashed membership and honors swept social media and water coolers the world over. Not only were the lead and supporting acting nominees all white, but all of the best picture nominees featured a less-than-diverse cast and no women were among the major directing and producing honorees.
A lot has changed since then. This year, there are a record six nominations for actors of color:
Denzel Washington and Ruth Negga are up for leading roles in Fences and Loving while the supporting categories feature Dev Patel for Lion, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris for Moonlight, Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures, and Viola Davis for Fences. The last three films are also best picture nominees and frequent winners this awards season. In the documentary category, films like 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and OJ: Made in America have Oscar nods.
There was also history made behind the scenes: Joi McMillon is the first black woman nominated in film editing (Moonlight) and Bradford Young is the first African American nominated in cinematography (Arrival).
Many moviegoers were excited to see these films excel at the box office and obtain acknowledgment from prestigious institutions. Reign tweeted on Jan. 24: “I see y’all and I appreciate the support so much. Things are changing because our voices are strongest together.”
Brittany Hendricks, a post-production coordinator who’s worked primarily in television on shows like CW’s The Messengers and FOX’s PITCH, says her earliest Oscars memory was Halle Berry’s 2002 win for Monster’s Ball — the first time a Black woman received the honor for best actress.
“This year is such a big year for black films [and] movies like Lion are opening the doors of diversity as well,” Hendricks said. “It’s showing young kids that people like them with stories like theirs have a worldwide impact in a way that I didn’t see when I was a kid.”
Many people attribute the nominations to changes within the Academy, thanks to altered membership requirements from its president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. The organization is currently 46 percent female and 41 percent minority as opposed to its mostly white male composition just a year ago.
However, it may actually take more time to see whether the membership changes and increased social pressure have actually changed the Oscars, given that all of these films were in production or near completion during last year’s protests.
Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer recently told Entertainment Weekly: “When you know how movies are made, the explosion of films with people of color is not a reaction to #OscarsSoWhite. The tide has changed, but we still have a ways to go, because they still aren’t inclined to greenlight a movie that’s starring a person of color, without a long list of white box-office people.”
A prime example was last year’s Birth of a Nation, a Nat Turner biopic that broke records at the Sundance Film Festival and was early talk for awards season after having barely secured funding. After past sexual assault allegations arose about its writer-director-star Nate Parker, all buzz around the film died, a stark contrast to Casey Affleck, whose film Manchester by the Sea is up for several awards despite his own very recent sexual assault allegations.
So, are the recent nominations somewhat misleading? Last year, only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers, 17 percent of editors, and 5 percent of cinematographers were women based on a recent Celluloid Ceiling study. Despite the influx of minorities this year, they are all African American except for Patel. Although Black activists led the call for change, Reign explicitly used the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite” because she was appalled by the lack of diversity for all ethnicities.
“One year of films reflecting the Black experience doesn’t make up for 80 yrs of underrepresentation of ALL groups,” she tweeted in January. Spencer seconded this by saying our biggest voice is heard by supporting movies whose casts reflect diversity.
“If I look down a list of characters on a film, and it doesn’t have gay, African-American or Latin characters, I’m probably not going to spend my money on the ticket,” Spencer said. “When we stop supporting things with our dollars that don’t represent all of us, then you’ll see an explosion of diversity.”
Television consistently proves that shows spotlighting artists of color can appeal to the mainstream in large numbers. Empire, whose viewers are mostly Black, has earned Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The most recent Nielsen TV viewership analysis shows that predominantly non-Black audiences watch hit shows like This Is Us, Black-ish, PITCH, How to Get Away with Murder, Atlanta, and Insecure, one of Hendricks’ favorites.
“I’m so incredibly inspired by Issa Rae! She started out with “Awkward Black Girl” on YouTube and now she’s the creator and star of “Insecure” on HBO. I just love how she didn’t wait for someone to give her a platform to tell our stories,” Hendricks said. “She created one of her own until people took notice, and now she’s helping other young storytellers like herself do the same thing.”
It appears that Hollywood may finally be taking notice of something TV networks are taking full advantage of, and the result will hopefully be storylines that are more inclusive. This year’s awards will have more color, and that means a lot to the people watching at home and the filmmakers working in studios. Last year, Will Smith said he was worried about all the kids who might be watching the Oscars and “not see themselves represented there.” One thing’s for certain: That won’t be such an issue on Sunday.
The Oscars will air Sunday, Feb. 26, at 8:30 p.m. EST on ABC.
Who will you be rooting for at the 2017 Academy Awards? Share your thoughts below.