Why You Need to Read: These Essential Reads for Black History Month

Black History Month can be a repetitive; this is because we honor the accomplishments of black people in the United States, and the rest of the world. And yet, we tend to recognize the same people: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, and we glance at Alex Haley, Madam CJ Walker, and Matthew Henson. I have nothing against honoring the same people every year, but we should honor the “hidden gems” as well. A few of those figures are still alive. 

            At most, schools assign students to read Frederick’s Douglass’ biography and Maya Angelou’s memoir, and memorize the speeches by both Sojourner Truth and Dr. King. The Civil Rights Movement is glanced over to the point where many people do not know what influenced Rosa Parks’ actions and why. Now, I’m not saying that U.S. Citizens should know every black person in history, but they should attempt to broaden their historical knowledge. Who else can we learn about? How can it be done?

            The books mentioned below are biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of a few obscure figures that influenced many lives in the United States and in the rest of the world. Some you may have heard of, some you have not, and one “controversial” selection (with good reason). These are recommendations, which I have read, or started reading. A few of these selections are denser than others, but that means that there is more to read and more to know.

Older Releases

            These selections include a couple of familiar names, a narrative from a runaway slave, a figure from the Reconstruction Era, and a white man in black face on a mission to expose the harsh reality of Black Americans right up to the Civil Rights Movement. These books will give you insight into how Black Americans were treated from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X(1965) as told to Alex Haley

            Everyone has heard of this book and its biopic adaptation by Spike Lee, but how many of you have taken the time to read it? Malcolm X’s autobiography not only looks into the treatment and the struggles of poor African-Americans—and he does a great job distinguishing the various ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses of African-Americans throughout the U.S.—but also, points out how easy it is to corrupt religion. Yes, Malcolm X became a Muslim, but his journey of knowledge through self-education is one that can inspire everyone who reads his life story.

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(1986) by David J. Garrow

            This Pulitzer Prize winning biography is the most informative and in-depth look at Dr. King’s life and participation in the Civil Rights Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. This biography of Dr. King stands out because it includes Dr. King’s personal papers, FBI documents, and interviews with Dr. King’s (then) surviving associates giving readers one of the most comprehensive looks into Dr. King’s career as an activist. 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs

            Many of us have heard of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup. Harriet Jacobs’ memoir—which was published in serials—tells us what slavery is like for females. Her slave master not only sexually harass Harriet to the point where she had to go into hiding, but also those experiences left Harriet feeling paranoid and insecure even after she escaped to the Free States. 

From Superman to Man(1917) by J.A. Rogers

            Written and published over a hundred years ago by this Jamaican-American writer, Rogers’ method of discussing race relations, prejudice, and misconceptions of history in America versus the rest of the world will have readers recalling the essays written by James Baldwin. Only, Rogers’ books were published before Baldwin’s. This book is written as a conversation between an educated black man named Dixon, and a few white males he ends up traveling with. This book contains information on how all races and all ethnicities of all socioeconomic statues are victims of misconceptions and falsehoods spread by political leaders and propaganda in order to keep “everyone in their place” and to “justify their beliefs” on how they think the world should operate. The historical and the revelations will leave readers with knowledge of what is made ubiquitous and what is limited to everyone. 

Black Like Me(1960) by John Howard Griffin

            The first time I heard of this book was on an episode of Boy Meets World. A journalist decided he was going to go undercover and document what is was like to be an African-American male in the Southern United States during the 1950s. What this Caucasian male witnessed and experienced made him both a best-selling author, and a target to those who opposed the Civil Rights Movement and integration. This book was a wakeup call into how segregationist and racists were able to get away with their violent actions for as long as they did. 

Recent Releases

            These selections were published in recent years—as early as 2008—and they’re all about the struggles of Blacks throughout the world and how, with all of the programs and the public awareness, the struggle remains. We are reminded by these authors that in this list that all is not well. 

March Trilogy(2013-6) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

            Congressman John Lewis has lived an interesting and inspirational life. Growing up in the Southern U.S. right before the Civil Rights Movement, readers learn what inspired John Lewis to participate in this movement. John Lewis was one of the speakers at the March on Washington, and he knew Dr. King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and other figures from that era. The graphic novel format allows for the appropriate depictions of pivotal events from this moment in U.S. history. 

Between the World and Me(2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates

            The author wrote this book for his son in response to the verdict of the Trayvon Martin murder trial. The book echoes James Baldwin’s works in that it serves as an informative tale of what modern Black Americans—particularly males—need to be aware of in American society. While racism is acknowledged and visible due to modern technology and coverage, it remains a “blinded” issue because the book illustrates how the accusations and the deaths of many Black people continue to occur in America. 

Me We Reaped: A Memoir(2013) by Jesmyn Ward

            This memoir focuses on how the repetitive struggles of a group of people because of race and socioeconomic status continue to lead to despair within the “upcoming” generation. Jesmyn Ward—2-time winner of the National Book Award—recalls how the deaths of five young black men, including her brother and her cousin, in four years from various causes, which sprouted from limited opportunities and expectations. This book is a cautionary tale as to why believing that times have progressed can lead to crushed hopes for a “good” life due to a lack of education, government spending, history, family expectations, and health. The focus here is how such limitations can lead to an early death instead of incarceration, which is just as bad. This book is a wake-up call to the harsh reality of those who are left behind deliberately. 

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo(2012) by Tom Reiss

            What inspired Alexandre Dumas to write The Three Musketeersand The Count of Monte Cristo? Well, if your father was a general in Napoleon’s army, who was later betrayed and murdered by him, then those stories and experiences would find their way into your stories. This Pulitzer winner looks at the life of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas who went from a bastard growing up in (what is now known as) Haiti to his rise and eventual fall in the French army. 

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching(2008) by Paula Giddings

            Ida B. Wells-Garnett was a fierce woman who was ahead of her time. While she is remembered during Black History Month, her accomplishments have been forgotten. Born into slavery, Ida B. Wells started her anti-lynching campaign after losing a friend to a lynch mob. In addition, she was one of the first to sue and to win a lawsuit after being thrown off a train for refusing to move her seat way before Rosa Parks did the same thing! And, she was a speaker of the Suffrage Movement in the U.S. and in Britain, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.). Ida B. Wells remains one of the most infamous badasses in American history.

These books are recommendations for Black History Month in how the repetitive struggles of Black Americans continue to affect and to influence the growing demands for change in the United States. Even if the names of the authors are familiar to you, then you should still read the books due to the other names mentioned within these books. These are non-fiction reads, meaning that the people and the history are true whether or not you want to believe it. I believe reading these books will provide a better understanding of how and why people continue to mistreat each other. False knowledge and beliefs can often lead to denial once the truth and the facts are presented, but knowing that there is truth within history will allow the race of humanity to continue moving forward. 

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Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf in the Whale”

By: Jordanna Max Brodsky                                                   

Published: January 29, 2019

Genre: Historical Fiction, Folklore, Fantasy

  Garbed once more as a man, I entered the blood-soaked iglu. I sawed at my hair so it brushed the tops of my ears as a man’s should. I wore a man’s knife in a sheath looped across my chest. I carried a woman’s ulu in my pack. The wolf in the whale had gone south. And so did I. (Chapter 22).

            When I first received the ARC for this book, I did not know what to expect from it; however, the description of the story caught my attention and I read it with an open mind. The Wolf in the Whaleis an interesting story about gender roles, family, survival, cultural differences, and religion. Expectations placed on the characters—and the gods—within the story drive the narrative as well. Readers will gain insight into the first inhabitants to reside in and the first travelers to North America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.

            The protagonist of this story is also our narrator, who is retelling the events of her life. Omat was born with her father’s spirit as a hunter and with her grandfather’s abilities as a shaman. Hence, Omat is raised and treated as a male by her aunt, her grandfather, and her tribesmen, and she is expected to become the next leader of the tribe much to her cousin’s, Kiasik, chagrin. At the same time, the gods of the world—particularly the Inuit and the Norse—fear the changes to come due to the rise of a new and powerful monotheistic god. Unbeknownst to her, the gods mark Omat as a “threat” for she is expected to bring forth Ragnarök, or the end of the world. The gods’ fear causes Omat’s family to suffer from starvation and isolation. However, anyone who is familiar with myths, legends, and prophecies know that the more anyone tries to prevent a prophecy or an event from happening, the more likely it will occur. Omat’s interaction with her family, other tribesmen, the Vikings, and the gods and the spirits shape her character as she transitions from adolescence to adult. 

            The plot of this novel is broken down into 3 parts: Omat’s bildungsroman, the gods’ fear of the end of their lifestyle and adoration, and the Viking exploration. All of these plots drive the story and provides some insight into how early settlers came to inhabit the Americas, and how the interactions—even brief ones—brought elements of cultural diffusion to Omat’s tribe. The Viking “visit” is based on historical and recorded events; yet, it is unknown as to why they did not remain in the Americas. As for the motives of the gods, anyone who is familiar with religion and myths—or, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and/or Rick Riordan’s books—know the gods depend on both the worship and the stories from the mouths of mortals and shamans for their existence. A new, single god could jeopardize the lives of the rest of the gods. Omat’s journey and growth to becoming a leader means learning from other leaders—the good, the bad, and the worst—meeting challenges from the environment and from other people. Omat manages to overcome these obstacles, but not without repercussions. At the same time, Omat does learn some things from each adversity, which ensures her survival. 

            The narrative is divided into 5 parts: Omat’s birth, family and growth into an angakkug—or shaman; Omat’s power and livelihood being threaten by a visiting tribe who only see Omat for her sex and not for her abilities regardless of her gender; Omat’s journey south in search of her cousin and meeting a Viking, and seeing other people live beyond her world; Omat’s captivity amongst the Vikings; and, Omat’s role in Ragnarök, and its aftermath. All the while, the gods are watching the events unfold and they make decisions for their interests, which do not consider the impact they will have on the mortals. Given the multiple subplots and the story, the later parts in the novel are told in real-time. While this is both appropriate and believable for the plot, it makes the story seem slow at times. Omat is retelling this story. These events already happened—she either was told, or she experienced them—and we are led to believe that this stream-of-consciousness narrative is reliable. 

            The author, Jordanna Max Brodsky, has a degree in History and Literature from Harvard University. The Wolf in the Whaleis a historical fiction fantasy and folklore novel. This story is not only about the brief “meeting” between the Inuit and the Vikings—and other early settlers—but also a look into the folklore—a body of culture, traditions, tales, religion, etc. shared by a particular group of people—with fantasy elements (i.e. gods). The descriptions of the lifestyles of both the Inuit and the Vikings make the story more immersive. The cultural diffusion added by the author’s historical knowledge make the story more believable because the exchange of knowledge amongst various groups of people have been, and continue to be, a necessity for human survival and progression. This novel is a credible story of journey, survival and growth as seen in the author’s style. These elements add to the various dangers all of the characters face from the weather to each other. The realism makes the difference and it flourishes in this novel. 

            Readers who enjoy historical fiction might enjoy The Wolf in the Whale more than those who enjoy fantasy. This is because the historical and the anthropological aspects drive the story more than the appearances of the gods and the spirits. That is not to say fantasy fans won’t enjoy this book, they might not appreciate it as much as historical fiction fans. This is the author’s first standalone novel. So, readers who are curious about the author should read this novel. Fans of the TV show, Vikings, and/or the video game, Never Alone, should find The Wolf in the Whaleto be a well-structured story with the right amount of cultural elements that makes it more believable than the “what if” concept.

            The Wolf in the Whalecaught my attention due to its description about “clashing cultures and warring gods.” I was not sure what to expect from the novel besides shamans and Vikings. Being clueless, but open-minded about the novel allowed me to read the story as it is, and not what I thought it was going to be. The topics of sex and gender roles, culture, survival, interactions between different groups of people, and family drive the story as much as the history and the fantasy within it. There were times in which, some of the real-time events dragged the story. There were times in which, I wanted more from certain characters, but realized it would have diverted from the protagonist. Overall, The Wolf in the Whaleis a speculative fiction novel that is a hybrid of fantasy, folklore, history, and anthropology. I was immersed in the story from start to finish. I recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys an eclectic mix of genres in fiction. 

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

A Look Into: America’s Top 10 Books Based on “The Great American Read”

Tonight, Tuesday, October 23, 2018, PBS will announce, based on votes, which book is “America’s Best-Loved Book.” The series and the vote were announced last spring, and the last few weeks have given viewers and readers a brief in-depth look into each book. The 100 books were categorized based on theme, not genre, which makes it for a more relevant look into the books. Now, PBS has reached the end of the series, viewers have reached the end of voting, and American readers will know which book was selected as “America’s Best-Loved Book.”

Twelve days ago, the Top 10 Books, based on voting were announced. Here they are, not listed by vote rank:

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White                       Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell         The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis        Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë                         Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling           Little Women by Louisa May Alcott                    The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien        Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen       Outlander (series) by Diana Gabaldon        To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Take a look at the way I listed PBS’ Top 10 Books. Have you noticed anything? The column to the left has a list of books that can be categorized under the “fantasy” genre; and, the column to the right has a list of books that can be categorized as “historical” fiction. What does this say about America’s taste in literature? What does it say about the notions surrounding fantasy literature?

First, the historical fiction books; two novels take place (before,) during (and after) the American Civil War, two novels are about society in England during the 1800s, and one novel is about segregation in the United States during The Great Depression. All of these novels give readers insight into the social dissonance occurring during certain moments in human history. People have either read one or more of these books for school, or saw the film adaptation at some point in the lives. Their stories are familiar by all, and well loved by readers.

Now, for the fantasy books, all of which have at least one media adaptation whether or not it’s movie or television. Lewis, Tolkien and Rowling are from Britain, and E.B. White—not to be confused with T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King—and Diana Gabaldon are from the United States. Each of these fantasy novels (and series) falls under different subgenres. Charlotte’s Web and The Chronicles of Narnia are for children and have talking animals, which comes from Aesop’s Fables; Harry Potter is a bildungsroman series that follows Harry Potter and his friends and schoolmates as they learn about magic and prepare to fight against the evil wizard, Lord Voldemort; and, The Lord of the Rings and Outlander are fantasy novels that make up a larger compendium of books set in the world the characters reside in, Middle-earth and 18th Century Scotland, respectively.

It’s interesting how fantasy fiction is beloved enough to keep the genre growing and going. Fantasy and fairy stories are not only for children—read Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy Stories—but also they are not enjoyed by all children. Children who grew up reading fantasy and fairy tales grow up and write stories of the same genre as adults. And, some of those stories are for adult readers. The author determines the audience whom his/her/their story is read; and yet, two of the fantasy books in the Top 10 are fantasy stories for adults. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a fantasy world, and in Outlander, the protagonist time travels to the past by means of supernatural elements.

Fantasy has been an established literary genre since the publication of both The Chronicles of Narnia (1950) and The Lord of the Rings (1954). Lewis and Tolkien are recognized as being two of the authors who helped solidify the genre. Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871), and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, respectively, which were a few of the early fantasy books in which the fantasy genre emerged. All of the mentioned books were popular enough for media adaptations, and those films brought more attention to the books. Harry Potter brought fantasy to a towering level that no one saw coming. Fantasy literature is an established, recognized, and read genre. Hence, the books that made it into “The Great American Read” Top 10 List.

Do I believe any of the fantasy novels in the Top 10 will be chosen as “America’s Best-Loved Book”? No, I do not, but not due to the reason you may or may not believe. While I am an enthusiastic reader of the fantasy (and other speculative fiction) genre, I—like everyone else—had to read certain books as a student in grade school and in college. And, I enjoyed reading some of those books for my English classes. I was able to relate to the characters and comprehend the social issues mentioned throughout each novel. Some of the themes found in those novels still resonate in today’s society. I’m not saying that that isn’t the case with the fantasy books in the Top 10, but one novel calls out “America” to me whenever I think about the title. And, that book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

First published in 1960, during the American Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird follows Scout and her family who are living in Alabama during The Great Depression. This coming-of-age novel illustrates the loss of innocence Scout and her brother, Jem, experience when their father, Atticus—a lawyer, defends a disabled black man accused of raping a white woman. This Pulitzer Prize winning novel has been said to be a literary response to the murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi on August 28, 1955. Emmett Till’s murder sparked outrage nationwide, and was the event that would eventually lead to the start Civil Rights Movement.

Over 60 years later, To Kill a Mockingbird remains on school reading lists and is listed as an “American Classic.” Personally, I believe this novel has just as many life lessons and memorable characters such as Aslan from Narnia, Gandalf from Middle-earth, Professor Dumbledore from Hogwarts, and Charlotte from Zuckerman’s Farm. As someone who grew up during the publication of the Harry Potter books while old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, I found the former books to be enjoyable and the latter book to be more thought provoking as I continue living in a changing United States.

Harper Lee does not shy away from the issues of race and class in her novel. In addition, she was not afraid of including the harsh reality of life that her child characters had to witness and to endure. To Kill a Mockingbird continues to teach readers of all ages that judging people based on their traits and not their appearances or their living situation is essential to being a good person. Yes, there are people who harm the innocent and get away with it, but treating people the way they deserve to be treated—with respect—goes a long way.

PBS’ “The Great American Read” allowed denizens in the U.S. to review what many people read and enjoy. The great thing about the special was that all genres of literature were considered. Furthermore, the special gave insight into which books, many which remain on school reading lists, are and remain popular by readers and non-readers alike.

Three Topics Surrounding the Black Community that are Subtle and Profound in “Black Panther”

(If you have neither seen, nor read Black Panther, then please be aware of spoilers!)

Black Panther is the latest Marvel (and Disney) feature film in which, King T’Challa returns to his home, Wakanda, in order to be anointed king and establish his rule. In addition, he has to come to terms with a changing society, a villain from the past, and a contender for the throne. And, while this is not the first feature film about a “Black” superhero—check out the Blade Trilogy—it does include many hidden references that Black people, in the United States and in the rest of the world, are familiar with as part of their heritage. And, no, I’m not referring to the scene with the wig.

First, there is the opening scene, which states, “1992 Oakland.” Without spoiling this scene, it is important to focus on its setting. Anyone who remembers 1992, remembers the L.A. Riots that occurred as a result of the Verdict in the Rodney King Trial. Southern California had several racial issues that were a build up of tensions between the Black community and the Los Angeles Police Department, the Black community and the Asian store owners, and the Drug Wars. These tensions and incidents have been discussed in documentaries and in the biopic, Straight Outta Compton.

In addition, it is important to know that societal improvement has been slow during the past 25 years. Fruitvale Station is about a Black man who is shot and killed by a White Police Officer. The movie is based on real life events following the murder of Oscar Grant. Interestingly, Michael B. Jordan stars in this movie, which is directed by Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther. The fact that Erik Killmonger was raised in that environment during that moment in American history is essential to both his character and his personality.

Second, there is the following scene, in which T’Challa “rescues” Nakia from bandits. It turns out that these bandits are men from the terrorist group, Boko Haram. Boko Haram—“Western education is a sin”—is a terrorist group who, similar to the Taliban, want to return their society to “earlier” Muslim practices. Unfortunately, the common misconception of this belief is the objection of females. Boko Haram believes that females should NOT be educated and independent of males; however, they believe that Western culture is responsible for this “risk.” Hundreds of girls have been abducted from their schools, held captive (at gunpoint), and forced to marry members of the terrorist group. Ironically, when the movie premiered, Boko Haram struck again and abducted over 100 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Nigeria. For some reason, neither the United Nations, nor the world leaders have done anything to put an end to this terrorist group. Whether or not they have been working on a solution without the public’s knowledge is undetermined. Yet, it is strange that a fictional country is putting more emphasis on this than the news networks.

Last, is one of the closing scenes in which, Erik is dying and T’Challa allows him to make a final decision. Erik makes his decision saying the following: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ship because they knew death was better than bondage.” The United States, while acknowledging slavery and racism, remains in denial of the treatment of Black Americans during AND after slavery. In biographical and autobiographical accounts, many captives who were brought over as slaves recall the brutal conditions of being confined in the ship’s cargo hold. Amistad, the slave ship in which, an infamous revolt occurred in 1839—watch the 1997 film by Steven Spielberg—the captives recounted the “treatment” of “sick” slaves…they were chained together and thrown overboard to drown. In addition, when the crew made sexual advances towards the captives, or if some of the captives had free range of the ship, then those captives would jump overboard rather than suffer bondage. The statement made by Erik Killmonger displays his American upbringing and knowledge surrounding slavery and colonialism.

Now, what do all of those scenes mean? While Black Panther is a “stand alone” film amongst the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is one of the best MCU films, currently. Yet, the movie took the time to further its impact on the targeted audience. It’s a shame that these references are lost amongst everyone else. At the same time, do Black Americans remember how dangerous Boko Haram is?