Culture Writers come together to recommend their favourite books for Black History Month
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter, who is torn between her two alternative lives, her poor neighbourhood home life and her prep school life. The line between these two worlds is blurred when she witnesses the shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer when he was unarmed. News spreads about his fatal shooting and rumours spread about her childhood best friend, some even calling him a drug dealer. Protesters take to the streets in Khalil’s name and questions surface about what truly happened that night and the only person who can answer this is Starr. What Starr says could impact her life massively whether that affects her community or herself. This book is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which was a pivotal moment in society. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about what it means to be black in society today as it teaches you a lot about this.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
My recommendation this Black History Month is to delve into the literature of James Baldwin. Born in 1924 in Harlem, Baldwin made a significant impact on the civil rights movement, not only as a writer, but also as an activist. A queer black man, Baldwin entered a predominantly heterosexual space and invited LGBTQ black individuals to speak about their own experiences within the movement. As a result, he was often outcast by his contemporaries, but Baldwin’s revival in recent years has sparked significant conversations within the BLM movement.
My personal favourite novel of his is the heartbreakingly beautiful Giovanni’s Room. Loosely based on Baldwin’s own experience living in Paris, the story follows our protagonist David and his romantic affair with Italian bartender Giovanni. The dim, poverty-stricken Paris of Baldwin’s novel creates a dark, almost gothic, back-drop. Baldwin masterfully captures the intensity of first love and the cruelty of both social, and internal, sexual oppression. David’s internal sexual conflict is tragically portrayed to readers, providing a heart-rendering reading experience.
Sidenote: Frank Ocean’s discography comes to mind when reading this layered and perceptive account of complex queer relationships, so if you like to listen to music when you read – Blonde is the perfect soundtrack.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
I was not prepared, upon starting Queenie, to embark upon a page-turning story of both great entertainment and great emotional turmoil. In her debut novel, Candice Carty-Williams serves brilliant dialogue and hilarious first-person narration with a healthy portion of darker issues, including depression, racism, and class inequality.
These themes and more are entangled in the life of Queenie Jenkins, a young British-Jamaican woman living in South London with her white boyfriend. The reader is plunged into her chapter one vaginal exam and follows her from there on out as she monologues her way through the good, the bad and the downright harrowing.
Carty-Williams spotlights important issues through Queenie’s life, but it never feels trite nor inauthentic. Instead, Queenie is a masterpiece in character-writing, and it is a pleasure, as a reader, to spend time with the eponymous heroine over the course of the novel. In a rare, perhaps even singular, twist, Carty-William’s use of social media messaging is genuinely effective and lends further realism to this contemporary slice-of-life novel.
Full of highlighter-worthy quotes, this read comes highly recommended to those looking for a funny yet deeply moving read.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Legendborn is an incredible YA contemporary fantasy book that extends on the Arthurian legend. After her mother dies in an accident, Bree tries to escape her grief by attending an Early College program at the University of North Carolina. She discovers a secret magical society and suspects they were somehow involved in her mother’s death. She decides to infiltrate the Legendborn as an initiate.
The best part of this book is the characterisation of Bree. She is so complex and nuanced that she jumps off the page and becomes a living breathing person. She is someone I would want on my side in any situation. Her determination and fierce nature links her to other YA fantasy protagonists but her empathy sets her apart.
Tracy Deonn weaves into the story incidents of racism that black people in the USA, particularly the southern States, face on a daily basis. These incidents range from Bree seeing a statue of a slave owner on campus to being called a ‘diversity’ initiate. Racism becomes another adversary in the plot.
The love triangle has become a rather tired trope in recent years but Deonn breathes new life into it. Both love interests are well developed and have different traits that make them appealing. Of course there are still fans who will fight to the death for their ship.
Read Legendborn right now and I promise you will thank me! You won’t have long to wait for the sequel, Bloodmarked, which will be released on November 9th.
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley is a YA novel set in 1959 Virginia, USA. It follows Sarah Dunbar, one of the first black students at the previously all-white Jefferson High School, and Linda Hairston, who (as daughter of the town’s most prominent segregationist) opposes the school’s integration. When the two must work together for a school project, argument is inevitable. However, as they grow unexpectedly closer, both girls must confront not only racism, but also the truth of their own sexuality.
The titling of each chapter as a ‘lie’ excellently suggests what Sarah and Linda truly think and feel, and the switching of the first-person narration between the two characters gives us greater understanding of both girls’ thoughts and motivations for their actions. The historical setting of this book is also very well done. After the story ends, the author relates the extensive research she did into the experiences of black students integrating previously all-white high schools in the American South. Thus her novel, while fictional, is grounded in the real-life experiences of those who were tasked with the difficult battle of integration. Additionally, the depiction of LGBTQ+ identities and issues, including external and internalised homophobia, provides a good insight into what it was like to be LGBTQ+ in mid-twentieth century America. (Talley has a particular interest in writing LGBTQ+ stories.)
Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone. If you are looking for a good book to read for Black History Month, and are a fan of historical fiction, this is certainly a must.
Open Water by Caleb Azmuah Nelson
Written in captivating and indulgent prose, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel is a stunningly heartfelt love story between a dancer and a photographer in London, expertly evoking those tentative first few steps into a relationship, as well as the complexities of the black experience in Britain. Whilst the second person perspective may take a second to get used to, the seamless and flowing nature of the narrative makes it a compelling read.
Azumah Nelson explores masculinity and what it means to be a black man in Britain, as well as the lasting trauma of police brutality and the devastating impacts that systemic racism can have on self esteem and emotional vulnerability. Parts of it are joyful and exuberant; parts of it are utterly devastating. At only 160 pages, it is a relatively quick read, and yet Azumah Nelson somehow manages to infuse it with richly layered artistic and pop culture references that highlight the importance of self expression and representation. I can see this book becoming a modern classic in years to come, and I look forward to seeing what Azumah Nelson does next.
A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson
2019 TS Eliot Prize winner, Roger Robinson’s poetry collection A Portable Paradise is an ode to black British culture. This personal and political collection is worth reading especially this Black history Month. This collection is important to me because its poems document black British history in its fullness. Robinson’s poems commemorate the lives of Grenfell victims, reflect on the status of citizenship for diaspora culture and captures a glimpse of ‘paradise’ that immigrant cultures import into Britain.
Robinson’s poetry is composed of beautiful lyricism and anecdotal stories that capture the lives of individuals. I enjoyed reading the poems that reflect on race. In ‘Black Olive’ the speaker meeting the white director of a literary company transforms this tale into an allegory for tokenism in the literary industry. The tactile imagery and conflation of the speaker with the piece of food – the ‘olive’- speaks pertinently about how we consume and fetishise black writers. The line ‘I love me some black olives’ said by the white director as an example of this fetishisation.
The poems are fragments of thoughts and longer verse stories with meanings that evolve with reading. This may present difficulty when reading but Robinson’s writing is worthy labouring for just to find a glimpse of the ‘portable paradise’ her writes about.
When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten
Award winning When Life Gives You Mangoes is a lovely middle grade novel for everyone. Set on an island, we follow twelve-year-old Clara who lost her memories of her previous summer after a hurricane. Easy to read and even easier to binge with a protagonist that will win everybody’s heart in a few sentences, this book also stands out in terms of its plot; engaging, funny, interesting, and with a plot twist I promise you will not see coming.
Sofia Salazar Studer
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