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“When we send our children to school they learn nothing about us other than that we used to be cotton pickers. Why, your grandfather was Nat Turner; your grandfather was Toussaint L'Ouverture; your grandfather was Hannibal. It was your grandfather's hands who forged civilization and it was your grandmother's hands who rocked the cradle of civilization. But the textbooks tell our children nothing.”—Malcolm X, June 28 1964 from Malcolm X on Afro-American History.
“For the dim regions whence my fathers came My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs. Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame; My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs. I would go back to darkness and to peace, But the great western world holds me in fee, And I may never hope for full release While to its alien gods I bend my knee. Something in me is lost, forever lost, Some vital thing has gone out of my heart, And I must walk the way of life a ghost Among the sons of earth, a thing apart; For I was born, far from my native clime, Under the white man's menace, out of time. ”—Outcast by Claude McKay
10 Black Novels Every Literate Person Should Read
Like music, the novel has been one of the primary ways through which the African Diaspora has captured and transmitted its cultural, spiritual and political history. More than just stories of individuals, the works listed below capture the zeitgeist of the times chronicled, while elevating the lives of Black men and women all over the globe into works of art.
- Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe — This novel follows Okonkwo and his people as they wrestle with, accommodate and resist the forces of British colonialism in West Africa during the 1880s. It has been widely praised as one of the top 100 books of the twentieth century by many writers, academics and magazines including Newsweek and Time.
- Another Country by James Baldwin – In his most ambitious and difficult novel, James Baldwin tackles issues of race, gender, sexuality and class in the United States through the lens of an interracial group of friends living in postwar New York. This novel, more than any other of his fiction works, places him in the company of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Earnest Hemmingway and F. Scotts Fitzgerald as one ofAmerica’s greatest writers.
- Segu by Maryse Conde - This epic work tells the story of four families from a noble west African family caught between the invading forces of slavery and Islam in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The New York Times Book Review declared it a wonderful novel about a period of African history few other writers have addressed.”
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison — Often cast with Melville’s Moby Dick and Delany’s Dalghren as the greatest book ever written in the English language, Invisible Man explores the competing ideologies and tacticsAfrican-American employed to survive and sometimes thrive in Jim Crow America during the first half of the 20th century. When it was first published in 1952, it stayed on the bestsellers’ list for 16 weeks and won the National Book Award for Fiction.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – Written by one of the greats of the Harlem Renaissance who also conducted anthropological studies in the American south and Haiti, Their Eyes Were Watching God depicts African-American life in the posr-Reconstruction American south through the eyes of Janin Crawford. Since its rediscover in the late 1960s it has become a much appreciate part of the American canon of literature.
- Home to Harlem by Claude Mckay – This Jazz Age novel follows the exploit of a returning soldier and a disgruntled ex-student in 1920s Harlem, then in the midst of its renaissance. Claude Mckay’s precise prose brings life to the characters, bars, gambling dens and brothels he describes.
- Jazz byToni Morrison – Quite possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, Jazz charts the move of southern African-Americans toNew York City during the Great Migration. With skill rarely seen, she crafts sentences that play in the mind like musical riffs from the masters.
- The Seven League Boots by Albert Murray — Another novel set in the 1920s written by one of America’s least known but most insightful intellectuals. In The Seven League Boots, the third book of a trilogy, Schoolboy travels throughout the country and Europe as a Jazz musician, highlighting the contradictions of ‘race’ in the twentieth century.
- Matigari by Nugugi wa Thiong’o – This satirical tale by the dean of east African letters exposes the corruption, suffering and broken promises of post-independence Africa through the eyes of a man looking for his family now that independence has come.
- The Wedding by Dorothy West – This novel depicts life in Martha’s Vinyard during the 1950s as the elite east coast African-American families grapple with changing mores. The final book written by a surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, it also has the distinction of being the last novel edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and being the basis for a movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Halle Berry.
“A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.
Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone’s
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air.
We are beautiful people
With African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms
tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.
We have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new
Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy,and create. What will be
Written by Amiri Baraka
the sacred word?