A book is not enough right now. We need more than a book to recognize, address, and reckon with the violence against Black lives which has long been ignored and normalized. Even so, reading is a place to start and bolster change. Literature aids us in educating ourselves, exercising our imaginations, enacting empathy, dispelling isolation, and providing comfort, discomfort, invigoration, and illumination.
Reading is not enough. But it is also not nothing.
This list is a witness to Black experience. The poems, essays, stories, and other texts speak of and to lives that matter. The list is not exhaustive but representative. Please stay tuned for more posts and broader lists addressing literature and race. Until then, members of the English Department offer a book or two (or ten!) to begin exploring the depth, texture, struggle, and courage of our current moment.
Memoir and Essay
Hunger by Roxane Gay (2018). In the memoir-happy mainstream, this rare, raw portrait of a Black woman coming to terms with her body is as sobering as it is refreshing. One reviewer perfectly describes it as “an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality” (New York Times).
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald (2018) is a story about authenticity and identity, anger and action. Gerald, a young African American gay man who graduates from Yale, writes about issues that are central to America’s current conversation about race, privilege, and politics. The book departs from the usual memoir convention of pinning the narrative on insight and experience that have transformed the author’s life.
Hook: A Memoir by Randall Horton (2015) responds to the idea of the American Dream with a tale of radical self-reinvention. The narrative moves fast among Horton’s different roles: Howard University undergraduate, international cocaine smuggler, addict, felon, scholar, activist, educator, poet. Horton came to Hope as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series in 2018.
The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, by Toni Morrison (2019). Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s last publication before her death collects titles like “Racism and Facism,” “A Race in Mind,” “The Price of Wealth, the Cost of Care,” “The Slave Body and the Black Body,” and “Women, Race, and Memory.” Morrison’s celebrated novels depict Black life during various eras of the African American experience, but these writings show the work of a literary genius when applied to problems of equity in the 21st century.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016). In this novel, you’ll follow two sisters through eight generations from Africa’s Gold Coast to current times in America. In chapters that alternate from sister to sister—one in Ghana and one in the U.S., this unflinching story portrays the terrifying legacy of slavery, “both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation” (Publisher’s page, Penguin Random House).
“Who’s Passing for Who?” by Langston Hughes (1956). A very funny short story that, nonetheless, raises some very serious issues of race. The plot is a modern re-working of the classic African American trickster tale.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937). Hurston’s classic story of a woman coming into adulthood and gaining her own sense of self in rural, Depression-era Florida.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson (1912, 1927). First published anonymously, this novella gives readers a succinct but comprehensive look at issues of “the color line” in early 20th century America.
Pym, by Mat Johnson (2011). In Johnson’s satirical 3rd novel (Johnson visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series), Chris Jaynes (the protagonist), a scholar of literature, loves Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, because it reveals Poe’s deep and complex 19th century racism. Jaynes takes Poe’s novel as semi-autobiographical, and mounts a rag-tag expedition of African-Amercian adventurers who would trace the path taken by Arthur Gordon Pym to Antarctica. The book is both side-splittingly funny and profoundly painful in its investigations of African American and White American biases and desires.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928). Powerful short novel that examines the issues facing a mixed-race woman in early 20th century America and Europe.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z. Z. Packer (2003). This versatile collection of short stories offers characters on several different social margins facing dilemmas impacted by wrestling with racial identity. Including the highly lauded “Brownies,” where a troop of Black girls must face a troop of white girls, among other intensely intuitive, clear, and vivid stories, Packer’s fiction–her debut, and the first of these stories published when she was 17–is consistently compelling.
Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). A path-breaking book set in the deep South, Chicago, and Washington DC and composed of poetry, short fiction, and a story that reads more like a drama script. Toomer’s writing can be cryptic, but its densely imagistic vividness greatly rewards close reading.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982). Widely regarded as a contemporary classic, this epistolary novel provides unflinching commentary on the effects of domestic and sexual abuse even as it keenly affirms the growth, bravery, and companionship of two separated sisters and their experiences over twenty years. Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery, and Sofia still have much to teach us about pain, power, and belonging.
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward (2012). A stirring novel about a family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the bonds they make, the dreams they dream, all of it interwoven with references to myth and legend. Beautifully written with music in its lines.
Hybrid Genres and Graphic Novels
Kindred, by Octavia Butler (1979, 2017). Damien Duffy and John Jennings offer a graphic adaptation and profound tribute to Octavia Butler’s classic science fiction novel, in which Dana, a Black Californian in the 1970s, is mysteriously transported back and forth in time to the pre-Civil War South, becoming entangled in the lives of both the slaves and the slave owners. Lauded as foundationally intersectional for its scorching look at race and gender across history, the graphic adaptation recreates this critically acclaimed and internationally celebrated text in a new, rich format.
Incognegro: a Graphic Mystery, by Mat Johnson (2009, 2019). In this historical graphic novel, Zane Pinchback, a depression-era, Harlem Renaissance reporter, goes undercover to visit his home town in Mississippi when his brother is falsely arrested for the murder of a white woman. Pinchback can pass for white, but his brother cannot. This gripping novel covers the difficulties of colorism, Jim Crow-era violence, the plague of lynching in America, and racism in a visceral black and white format. Johnson visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.
March Series by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin (2015). This award-winning graphic novel trilogy portrays the Civil Rights Movement as experienced by U.S. Congressman John Lewis. Illustrated and lettered by Nate Powell, the black and white autobiography of Lewis as a civil rights activist is offered in three volumes of gripping and powerful story-telling, bringing to life the cursory and sanitized paragraphs offered in school textbooks.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014). Though Rankine (who visited Holland, MI in 2010) has been publishing books that defy genre for some time—Citizen won awards in poetry but also creative nonfiction—this collection landed on the New York Times bestseller list. In it you’ll find short vignettes detailing racial microaggressions, journalistic reflection on Serena Williams and other Black athletes, and lyric meditation on police brutality and the erasure of Black experience mixed with stunning visual artwork by Black artists. The combination of these genres and media (look for collaborative “Situation” videos online, the origin of some of Rankine’s writing here) results in a volume of hybrid work equally enthralling and disturbing—and well worth your attention. You won’t want to miss her previous genre-bending book either, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004).
Riot: a Poem in Three Parts by Gwendolyn Brooks (1969) Brooks’ chapbook Riot documents and contextualizes the violence of the 1968 Chicago riots after the asssination of Martin Luther King Jr. With controlled, focused language, these three long poems (first published in a slim 22 page volume and later included in her full-length book Blacks) lament, accuse, and decry allies who talk and do not act: “But WHY do These People offend themselves?” say they / who say also “It’s time. / It’s time to help / These People.” Brooks (who visited Hope College in 1993) was the first Arican American to win the Pulitzer Prize, served as U.S. Poet Laureate, and was the first African American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown (2019). This book won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. A poet of great feeling and intensity, Brown describes the emotional and social struggle of being black and gay in America in the 20th century. Brown investigates the issue of safety in America–and the tradition of African American people feeling very much not safe—through intimate poems about family, love, desire, and history, all grounded in lovely, tight verse forms.
1919 by Eve Ewing (2019). A community organizer and sociologist at the University of Chicago, Ewing revisits the violent but lesser-known Chicago race riot during the “Red Summer” of 1919. By blending speculative and Afrofuturist modes in her poetry to explore the stories of those who lived through and those who died in the riots—in 8 days, 38 died and over 500 were injured—Ewing reveals and recasts the past; in doing so, she helps her readers understand how very close it is to the present.
Collected Poems by Robert Hayden (1986) Hayden was a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in the 70s, and was the first African American to hold that office, which later became the U.S. Poet Laureate. He lived virtually his entire life in Michigan, having been born in Detroit. His poetry, which describes the difficulties of growing up Black and academically motivated in urban Michigan, uses more traditional forms and meter. In this way, he links the tradition of English verse with 20th century Black life and spiritual awareness to create a new understanding of American English.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (2018). Hayes’ (who visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series) sonnets track the frustration of a Black man living in America in the year after the election of the 45th president of the United States. Using a loose version of the sonnet, Hayes tracks experiences that reveal the complexities of status, desire, and agency in a Black body. Powerful and sometimes densely written, the poetry demands deep attention and engagement—just like our national inheritance of racism demands.
Montage of a Dream Deferred (or Harlem) by Langston Hughes (1951). A book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred looks at the frustration felt by African Americans in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood at the lack of equitable advancement for African Americans. In this poem Hughes expresses the impatience and disappointment of racial trauma and hundreds of years of oppression while using the sounds and rhythms of mid-20th century jazz, swing, and bebop.
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa (1993). The Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry in ‘93, Neon Vernacular displays Komunyakaa’s range of subjects and skill. Komunyakaa’s poetry often uses jazz rhythms to describe his childhood in Bogalusa, Louisiana, his service in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and Black life in the U.S., while addressing deep moral questions. Komunyakaa (who visited Hope College in 1994) has long been considered one of the most musically gifted poets writing in America.
Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae (2014). Kidnapped from his black father to be raised by violent, racist white maternal grandparents, McCrae does incredibly thoughtful, imaginative, and painful work in his poetry—seven books and counting—to interrogate the spiritual and cultural task of being Black in America. If his previous poems both adhered to and disrupted form and meter, chafing against tradition like the historical consciousness imbued in the lines themselves, this volume fractures language and line in dexterous, disconcerting ways, perhaps like the shattering of one’s identity and humanity when internalizing oppression.
Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith (2018). This Pulitzer-prize winner and recent U.S. Poet Laureate offers in her third volume a variety of poetic modes—erasure, found poetry, docupoetics, epistolary fragments—to explore our nation’s original racial sins while tying those historical moments to the current moment. These are bold, blunt, and deeply spiritual poems.
Jason Reynolds (who visited Holland, MI in 2018) and Brendan Kiely’s young adult novel All American Boys (2015) takes on racism and police brutality and its impact on their community from the perspective of two teens—one Black, one White. Pair with one or more of the following #ownvoices contemporary YA novels: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois (1903) and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1901), two very different lives, two very different perspectives. Washington was born into slavery; Dubois was born after the Civil War into a upper middle class family. Although there were fundamental differences in their approach to issues of racism and inequality, both became leaders in the fight for civil rights.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) and Please Stop Helping Us by Jason Riley (2014). Somewhat like the Washington-DuBois debate, Coates and Riley represent two very different views of current issues lived by African Americans.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963) and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. by Jesmyn Ward (2016). This anthology of poetry and essays was envisioned as a response to Baldwin’s seminal essay collection. Various prominent voices (among them Edwidge Danticat, who visited Hope College in 2015 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series/The Big Read) use creative nonfiction and poetry in exploring the violence of both our past and our present, recognizing that the moment Baldwin asserted would come–the fire next time–is here, and we need to talk about it.