One great part of being a grown-up is that you can, if you want, educate yourself on everything you didn’t learn in school. This year I’ve been reading my way through the For Harriet blog’s list of the 100 books by Black women they believe everyone should read. After spending so much time with powerful fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, I have to say, it’s the perfect syllabus for the best class I never had.
There’s a point of entry in the list for every reading type and temperament, and many of the works are thematically linked, so you can pretty much jump in anywhere and learn a lot no matter where you start. Here are a few suggestions to inspire you.
Daughter: A Novel, asha bandele. Aya, a college student, is shot by a white police officer while out jogging, in a hideous case of mistaken identity. Miriam, Aya’s mother, is left to cope not only with the current tragedy of losing her child, but the unhealed trauma of her past relationship with Aya’s father. As the story moves between present and past, we learn how carefree young women become cautious and hard, at the expense of their own ability to cherish the men they love and the children they bear. A timely, sobering pick that’s sure to spark spirited book club discussions. Available in print only.
32 Candles, Ernessa T. Carter. Davie’s favorite teen movie was Sixteen Candles, but unfortunately, she couldn’t get her own high school crush to give her the time of day. Years later, she runs into him again by chance, and sparks fly. Too bad she sort of forgets to tell him who she is, and that they already know each other, a decision that comes back to haunt her just when happiness is in her grasp. Solid chick lit about childhood dreams, adult deceptions, and — romance fans take note — hard-won happy endings. Available in print and as a digital audio book.
Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson. Ti-Jeanne lives with her grandmother, and has learned a wealth of healing lore from her. However, she’s going to have to learn some things she hadn’t counted on in order to face down the evil spirit that stalks Toronto. Heavy on Caribbean legend and lore, Hopkinson’s first novel is a gripping foray into dystopian speculative fiction (long before we started calling those things by those names) partially influenced by Derek Walcott’s play, Ti-Jean and his Brothers (which has been anthologized in various collections). A good beginning for teens and adults looking for heroines of color in their SF/F.* Available in print, digital audio, and — for you intrepid late adopters — book on cassette.
Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry. Of all the great non-fiction on this list, Harris-Perry’s stands out for its clear explanations of concepts that might be unfamiliar to you, as well of a history of images and events of which you might not be aware. Harris-Perry explains what obstacles have prevented Black women from fully participating in democracy, using statistics, stereotype analysis, political theory, anecdotes of women’s lived experience, and other tools to make her case. She also references some of the other non-fiction works mentioned in the For Harriet list, which may help you to decide where to go next in your learning journey. Available in print and as a digital audio book.
homegirls & handgrenades, Sonia Sanchez. You get the sense, reading this collection of poems, that what Sanchez really wants to do is take you by the hand and lead you through her universe, saying, “Look. Listen.” Her speakers often function as observer-outsiders in many of these poems, implying that the teacher often functions as the student, even when the teacher knows her subject very well. Poems like “Bubba” and “Traveling on an Amtrak Train Could Humanize You” are fine examples of this: Sanchez telling stories that have broadened her speakers’ minds, and, hopefully, our own. Poetry for people who think they aren’t ready for poetry, but are willing to give it a shot. Available in print only.
The list of 100 also contains the authors you’d expect to be there (Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, etc.), but I deliberately chose less familiar selections to demonstrate just how much depth and breadth we’re dealing with here. If you’re intrigued, I hope you’ll try one of these selections, or others from the list; maybe this is an area you’re familiar with already. If so, I hope you’ll suggest additional titles, and share your own reading experiences in the comments.
* This is a particular reading interest of mine so if you’re ever in the library, come find me and let’s talk about it. A great place to start your research is Bitch magazine’s series of blog posts on girls of color in dystopia, written by Victoria Law.