Not very often I commit to a single theme for a whole month of reading, and I’m not going to pretend like books written by and featuring stories about black people is a niche play. But this month I asked friends for recommendations, and I have a wonderful list of black authors (many new to me) to continue to explore long after this month is done.
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham. Based on the cover art, cover blurbs (“Sensational… You will devour this book”) and my own wildly inaccurate preconceptions, I thought I was going to be reading a completely different kind of a novel. I was prepared for some kind of multi-generational family drama where the foods they join together to eat symbolize the love, dysfunction, and shared stories that bind them. Delicious Foods is not that book. Hoo, boy! It actually took me a couple of chapters to let go of the novel I was in the mood for, which is entirely ridiculous and entirely on me. This novel, on the other hand, is told through the experiences of three main characters: Darlene, who becomes a young widow and mother to Eddie, whose teenage and young adulthood experiences are chronicled, and Scotty, which is actually the name that the drug crack prefers to go by when referring to itself. Yep, crack is one of the narrators, and his voice is a delight (addictive, even).
I’ve definitely not read a book like this one before. It’s a BIG MESSAGE allegory around modern slavery [(white) people with systemic power (capitalism, racism, lack of opportunity) + coercive power (crack, fear) take extreme advantage (virtually enslave) the vulnerable (any black person who has lost the encircling protective shield of black community)]. But it reads with so more pleasure than that might imply because Mr. Hannaham has some serious storytelling chops and because Darlene is written with much depth and compassion, neither “crack whore” or “fallen angel.” I just reread these paragraphs and fully realize that based on these paragraphs you still have no clue what story the novel actually tells. Good. Read it for your own self! Just know, you’re not in for, like, The Joy Luck Club or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama. Yes, I just finished reading this memoir for the first time in 2019. Don’t judge; there are a lot of books in the world. The reason I finally read it now is that it was a part of a juicy stack of books my wonderful aunt brought me at Christmas. (January’s The Reckoning was also part of this stack – more to come over the following months. I’m a lucky girl!) Reading this book almost a quarter century after its first publication, and more than a decade after its author was elected President of the United States, gave a lens of hindsight that informed my reading throughout.
Raised by his white mom and grandparents in Hawaii, with his Kenyan dad a shadowy memory, young Barry seeks to discover self by learning about his father and his father’s homeland. The memoir is so deeply personal, and so irrevocably centred on race and racism, and so intent on peeling back the hypocrisy that lives deep within himself and each of us – and settles comfortably like a blanket over “peaceful” society. It’s painful and beautiful.
I mean, it kind of blows my mind that that this guy, this complex, nuanced thinker so local in his focus was able to, in a relatively short period of time, so get his act together to mount such a forceful and effective political career. There’s no sense, at least to me, that he’s thinking of politics at this early stage in his life; unless, perhaps, making a larger mark as a truly “big man” is one of the dreams from his father that he holds in his heart from his first trip of discovery to Kenya. (Also, I get the swing in political parties but what still utterly, utterly baffles me: How did the US go from Barack Obama to Id in a skinbag as their leader in a single election? That question is rhetorical, by the way.)
Monster by Walter Dean Myers. I listened to this one on an audiobook with a full cast dramatization of the various parts, which was the version I accidentally downloaded from the library. (Turns out the new Libby app I have for my library makes it easy to read or to listen on my tablet.) I need to disclose that upfront as it may have changed how I experienced the narrative and maybe even how I understood the plot and characters. Monster’s 16 year-old protagonist, Steve Harmon, is on trial for murder, based on his alleged participation as lookout in a drugstore robbery where the store owner is killed. The book is structured as a screenplay written by Steve, telling of the trial, his experience in jail, events surrounding the robbery – all through his own point of view. To the reader (intended viewer), it seems apparent that Steve himself is struggling to come to grips with what has happened, and that he doesn’t fully understand how he has become so immersed in these events. Or is it that he does understands, but doesn’t take ownership of his own participation? Or that he has agency, but doesn’t care? Is he the monster that the prosecutor paints him to be? Or the very real, deeply sympathetic teenage boy that comes across on the surface of his script? Riveting.
I can just imagine how a really great high school English teacher could use this novel to engage motivated students in passionate classroom discussions. (I’m going to try to get my high school-aged kids to read it themselves. However, while they are both voracious readers, mom is not really their go-to for recos, so we’ll see if it takes.) I might let this one settle for a few months, then reread it for myself and see how my experience changes. Let me know what you think.
The Illegal by Lawrence Hill. I’m not quite done this novel, but since it is so hard to put down I will be done within a day or two anyway and deem it close enough. Unless Mr. Hill royally messes up the last 20% or so of the story––which I’m confident won’t happen, given that it won Canada Reads in 2016, championed by Olympic Gold medalist and inspirational human Clara Hughes––I’m going to commit to recommending it. This novel takes place in the present day and focuses on a marathoner named Keita Ali, from the fictional poor island nation Zantoroland, who flees to the nearby island nation of Freedom State. Unfortunately, Freedom State only means freedom for those born there, well-documented, with money and of the right colour and ethnicity. There is no legal path to citizenship for anyone else. For refugees, illegals, like Keita capture means deportation and almost certainly death. Like Delicious Foods, The Illegal zooms in on one human being’s story to shine the searchlights on broader evils, using the most human of appeals (love, humour, compassion) to bring readers along for the journey.
On the Pod:
The Thrive Global Podcast with Arianna Huffington series features interviews between Ms. Huffington and various well-known people – Neil deGrasse Tyson, Malcolm Gladwell, Jennifer Aniston, to name a few; lady’s got serious access – about how they have made the decision to make their own health and well-being a priority and how they actually make it happen in their lives.
Recently I listened to the episode featuring Mellody Hobson, whom I admit I had not heard of but whose blurb described her as “president of Ariel Investments, vice-chair of the board at Starbucks, and one of the most successful women in business” – plus the wife of George Lucas. I didn’t know he was married, let alone to a for-real businesswoman. At any rate, I was intrigued and was rewarded.
Ms. Hobson, an African-American woman in her late forties, spoke openly of how the financial scarcity of her upbringing drives her motivation to succeed in finance and her need for stability and independence, and continues to influence the anxiety that she lives with and manages. Ms. Hobson was also very candid about how she and her husband are trying to responsibly raise a privileged child who will grow up realistically wanting for nothing, but whom they hope will also grow up with gratitude and grace and a sense of responsibility in turn. And finally, she shared her philosophy about being “colour brave” as opposed to colour blind. We should see and appreciate and value colour. If we don’t see colour, we don’t notice the absence of colour either. An all-white board looks just fine in a colour-blind world. Great listening and learning.