Five favorites from African-American literature:
1. Native Son by Richard Wright
Native Son was the first bestseller written by an African American author, and tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an unconventional (and, at least from my perspective, a somewhat unlikeable) protagonist. Bigger, a product of oppressive racism and poverty in 1930s Chicago, kills two women, but despite the fact that he has to pay for his crimes, he experiences a kind of redemption. The genius of Native Son is that it is narrated in a limited third person from Bigger’s point of view, forcing readers to confront the world though his eyes, which are eyes from which many readers might not want to see. It’s not the easiest novel to sit down and fall in love with, but absolutely a worthwhile one.
2. Passing by Nella Larsen
The last of Nella Larsen’s two novels, Passing is the story of Irene and Clare, two light-skinned black women who were childhood friends. While Irene lives in Harlem and is married to a black doctor, Clare passes as white and marries a racist white man who refers to her as “Nig” because he thinks her skin has gotten darker. It has a great ending that is wonderfully ambiguous. The book is short (I am a definite fan of short books), but it packs a lot into under 200 pages. It’s so amazingly written and it makes me wish that Larsen wrote more.
3. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley
What to say? I’ve read this book twice, and I’ve written a lot about it in the past (not here on LitKicks, however) and I definitely wanted to mention it on this list, but yeah, what to say? The Autobiography of Malcolm X. American history from the perspective of one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. There you go.
4. Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones
Despite what anybody thinks about Amiri Baraka these days, a few years after the post-9/11/Poet Laureate of New Jersey flap, he has written some wonderful poetry over the course of his career, and I’ve read a lot of it. This collection was written during his so-called “Beat Period” when he was hanging with and publishing writing by fellow Beat writers. This collection isn’t about racial issues — he was quoted during this period as saying, “I’m fully conscious all the time that I am an American Negro, because it’s part of my life. But I know also that if I want to say, ‘I see a bus full of people,’ I don’t have to say, ‘I am a Negro seeing a bus full of people,'” (this view changed for him quite a lot later on) — but it’s hard for me not to prefer it over some of his later work. Even though I can appreciate political literature and its importance, it’s sometimes pretty hard not to make it, well, preachy, and Baraka’s later poetry really skates along the edge of that. But the title piece of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note is easily one of my favorite poems. It’s lovely.
5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I read The Bluest Eye when I was a junior in high school and it was at that point the most incredible thing I had ever read in my entire life. Though I haven’t read it since (it’s one of the things I mean to do, but then, there are so many books I haven’t even read once that it makes it hard for me to go back and read other things multiple times) and I sometimes wonder if it would still punch me in the gut like it did back then, the fact that I still think about it (and often) makes me believe it probably would, and that it deserves a place on this list of five. I’ve read quite a few Toni Morrison books since The Bluest Eye, and from the opening (which tells you everything you’re going to read, even though you don’t yet know that’s what it’s telling you) to the heartbreaking ending, it’s an incredible book, about a girl named Pecola Breedlove who believes being beautiful will help her be something special in the world, and that she would be beautiful if only she had blue eyes.