Category Archives: Readings

Week 8, or Black Books that Stuck With Me

As this week was Spring Break and thus I had nothing new to report, my friend (hey, Kelsey) suggested that I, as an avid reader, write a post on the books about Blackness that have impacted my life.

It’s a great idea, especially since I know this list will change, not only from  year to year, but from month to month, week to week, as I read more and explore the expansive terrain of Black Studies. I also want to give a special shout out to Lynn Weiss, Njelle Hamilton and Lisa Woolfork for introducing me to many of these texts and authors. Without these books, I wouldn’t be who I am, and without you all, it’s possible I wouldn’t have found these books.

So without further ado, I give you my top ten Black novels that shaped who I am intellectually, what I care about as a scholar and a writer, and to greater extent, who I am as a person:

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  1. AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The first book I ever read by Adichie, Americanah hooked my heart from the first page. The narrator, Ifemelu, speaks of her discomfort at a hair salon and I couldn’t help thinking, This is me. For the very first time, I saw someone in a novel that felt like me, that shared my struggles, and most importantly looked like me. I’ll be forever grateful to Adichie for giving me Ifemulu– after reading Americanah, I no longer felt alone.

(I’ve also written about Americanah on my personal blog, Quoth the Ravynn. Click here for more.)

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2. Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates

The best way to get through to me, is through my father. Coates’ narrative of a B-more boy learning the ways of Blackness and America by trial and error, reminds me of everything I love about my father and his stories. It’s raw truth. It hurts to read. It is necessary to read.

(I’ve written about Between the World and Me on my personal blog. Click here for more.)

 

 

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3. Another Country, James Baldwin

Baldwin has zero qualms about giving you the good, the bad, the ugly. Another Country scrapes through gore and heat of America in the 1950s to show the rotting underbelly of a system gone wrong. It offers an escape route, my dear France. The musicality of it has the ghost of Mahalia Jackson humming in my ear. Nothing is more impactful than Baldwin. He gives you sentences clean as a bone– and then stabs you in the heart with it.

 

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4. Passing and Quicksand, Nella Larsen

I really couldn’t tell you what it is that I love about Nella Larsen’s work. It’s sharp and feline, with emotionally volatile female heroines. It’s sensual, both in style and its attention to sensations, like the feel of texts and its hues. It’s mystifying, unsatisfying– and I can never stop thinking about her novels after I read them.They strike me with the desire to read again and again until I uncover the mystery.

 

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5. Half-Blood BluesEsi Edugyan

I read this for a class at UVA and I’ve carried it in my heart ever since. It has everything that I love in it– jazz, history, miscegenation, that Southern Black dialect, a back drop of France, an international perspective, one femme fatale, a certain mysticism about it, a ghostliness. It is a fiction surrounded by an ugly truth, expressed by the slow notes of Hiero’s trumpet.

 

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6. Their Eyes Were Watching GodZora Neale Hurston

This book was assigned in my ninth grade English class. I will never forget the complaints of the white boys who complained that they couldn’t read it; while in my mind it made perfect sense. I remember thinking, just sound it out. And then I realized they probably had never heard anyone speak this way. But it was the sound of my people. It was the language of my grandparents’ trailers, Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was the sound of love. Plus when you add in Janie’s “take-no-prisoners” attitude, I thought, Now this is a female depiction that I can get behind.

 

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7. The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. DuBois

If you haven’t read it, please just go get yourself a copy right now.

 

 

 

 

 

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8. Native SonRichard Wright

Another classic. Bigger’s transformation reminds me that the story is so much more than one boy’s narrative. It is the potential story of every Black man that has ever existed and will ever exist in America. White society put a target on Black men’s back because there is no presence more feared that that of a Black man. And that is a national tragedy– a socially induced tragedy.

 

 

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9. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson

This is another transnational, multilingual, musical text that explores the fluidity of Black identity. For me, as a former French scholar, I’m always invested in how different languages and cultures influence and impact American Black identity. I’m particularly interested in the Black intellectual expatriate– what does Europe offer that America can’t? What is this line that the Ex-Colored Man is perpetually toeing between classical music and ragtime, proper English and the sonic Black vernacular, the opera and the club? I love that it doesn’t have to be one or the other here– it can be both. It’s fluid.

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10. The White Boy ShufflePaul Beatty

Very little gives more more joy than depictions of Black boys. They’re hilarious. They’re just trying to figure it out. The performativity of Black masculinity is so absurd and yet the seriousness with which boys go about figuring out how to perform it is critical to their development. Beatty hits it all– you gotta learn to ball, you gotta get the haircut, learn how to dab, the art of the insult, you gotta get the girls and you gotta be able to do something on the dance floor. But it’s still satire– Beatty doesn’t miss the danger of it all, the implications, and the traumatic consequences of the pressure to perform. It’s full of wit and vibrant sences, while also dropping every Black reference known to man and some only known to him.

 

Honorable mentions go to:

  1. Caucasia x Danzy Senna
  2. Beloved x Toni Morrison
  3. Things Fall Apart x Chinua Achebe.

And while I’m here, I thought I’d do a few more categories of texts…

Short stories, collections, essays

  1. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes
  2. Drown, Junot Diaz (He’s Afro-Latino, he definitely counts)
  3. “The Mulatto,” Langston Hughes
  4. Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay (Read more here.)

Articles

  1. “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture” x Stuart Hall
  2. “My President Was Black” x Ta-Nehisi Coates

Academic Books

  1. Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Peniel Joseph
  2. In Search of the Black Fantastic, Richard Iton
  3. Articulate While Black, Geneva Smitherman and H. Samy Alim

Comics/Graphic Novels

  1. Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  2. The March trilogy, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
  3. Strange Fruit: Untold Narratives of Black History, Joel Christian Gill

and, finally, an honorable mention category to FILMS...

  1. 13th x Ava DuVernay (for the mass incarceration lesson)
  2. Brown Sugar x Rick Famuyiwa (for the hip-hop history lesson)
  3. Hidden Figures x Theodore Melfi (for the Hampton Roads Black women history lesson)

While some may be astonished that no poetry made my list, it’s mostly because I was never one to writes lines from poems on my wrist. I was always lost in my novels. The characters were my friends– and they still are.

Maybe some day, I’ll do another one of these with music or film or TV shows. It’s all valuable, and it has all shaped me.

God, am I grateful for books and for my parents gifting me with a never ending supply of them.

 

 

Week 6, or Harlem Blues

I’ve woken up essentially every day this week, praying that the bad mood has passed. The current soundtrack to my life would probably be some weary blues music. I find that deeply disturbing primarily because I’m (almost) 23 and life shouldn’t be that hard yet.

I’m trying to force myself to have positive thoughts, in spite of my car dying and still having to write a conference paper for Saturday. (!!!) Even though I’m not the most productive I’ve ever been, I’m focusing a little more energy on taking care of myself. I’m making time for pleasure reading (which sounds impossible considering the amount of academic reading I have to do each week), I’m meditating a little more, trying different teas and taking myself out to coffee shops I like. I spend more money than I’d like to admit on specialty coffee drinks, but it makes me happy. I recently discovered an Alice In Wonderland-esque cafe near the College, Culture Cafe. It serves some of the best lattes I’ve ever had in mismatched ceramic mugs and there’s plenty to look at while I sip: old, first edition, leather bound volumes with yellowing pages line the book shelves which cover the walls from floor to ceiling in the upstairs work area; paint spattered tarps double as curtains; a chandelier of mismatched Edison bulbs hangs just above my favorite spot, an old paisley couch with a coffeetable in need of a new paint job before it. I’m pretty sure the inside of my mind looks something like this cafe.

While I was there, waiting the arrival of a friend, my mind wandered, as it had done so many times this semester, to the authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The more I learned about them, the more they came alive, filling my mind as so many of my novel characters do. I wondered what they talked about over coffee, and what the rapport was between all of them. Reading David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was In Vogue makes me laugh at the way he describes the boys of the moment and I’m enthralled by the drama of it all. I texted my friend saying I would love to write an HBO series called Harlem which would follow all of these interconnected lives. 

Every time I’m introduced to a new character, I usually equate them to an artist I already know. I could barely contain myself when I realized Jean Toomer sounded a lot like my friend, Ed: brilliant to the point of genius with words but scatterbrained and so ill-focused he produced only one work. Whenever my professor narrates Jean Toomer’s life, I can’t help but imagine Ed, long and lanky, floating from project to project, attracted to whatever piqued his interest. I see my friend Araba in my mind’s eye when we speak of Zora– hard, unyielding, talented, with a tongue and mind that’s sharp as a whip. Then, of course, Langston Hughes always reminds me of Micah, the modest documentor of the harshest of Black realities. Her work is so sonic, infused with hip-hop, only a step away from Hughes’ jazz flavored everything.

Sometimes I wonder who I’m like of the group. I relate to both Countee Cullen and Jessie Fawcett, Countee for his love of the classic but mixed with Black flair that he admits he knows less of than he does French, Jessie for her valiant artistic effort but true talent as the teacher, the editor, the stage manager of the Renaissance. Then, sometimes, every now and then,  I come back to Nella Larsen, the mixed raced, foreigner to America in every way. A Danish mother and a West Indian father gave birth to an American Black Nella who didn’t fit, couldn’t fit by the American standard. Europe didn’t have her answer, Black America didn’t have her answer, and the homelessness haunts everything she writes. What I admire most about Nella, though, is the almost feline sharpness with which she writes. Her style is so distinct that I’d be hard pressed to pick up a piece of her work and not know its hers. She’s attentive to fashion and textiles and colors that correspond to moods, which shift almost from page to page. There’s this lack of self-restraint that I love about her novels, the unapologetically sensual female leads that run her stories.

There’s a detail that really makes me hesitate and linger over Nella: after her husband divorces her, she disappears from the Harlem scene for ten years with barely a trace. 

Things are not always what they seem…the leading message of both Nella’s work and her life, something that deeply resonates with me at the core of my being.

I like Sunday morning Harlem musings. The more I read about Black art and Black artists in the 20th century, the more I realize that’s where I want to reside when I teach. I love my comics, I love my literature, and this is just an extension–or a specialization, depending on how you think about it. I’m discovering my time periods and my contexts. No matter how much I love Ida B. Wells, she just doesn’t capture my entire imagination like the artists do. When I’m thinking of late 19th and early 20th century, my mind immediately goes to a paper. My interest in Ida B. Wells quickly turned into a paper topic: the self-representations of Ida B. Wells as a New Woman, in light of Booker T. Washington’s uplift and respectability politics. But when I’m thinking of Harlem, my mind spins with art projects. How would I do a web series version of my Harlem HBO series? Could I do a graphic biography of Nella Larsen’s life? How can I paint this? How can I imagine this? How can I create work that adequately places itself in conversation with the intellectual discourse of the time? In a lot of ways, it seems a shame to write an academic paper on the Harlem Renaissance, when I know these artists would have been more receptive to my art. They would have been curious to see how their discourse would have shaped my thought.

Making art is not the absence of critical thought. It is the most critical expression of thought that we have.

It’s why I’ll gladly keep my Sunday morning Harlem musings, with a cup of tea in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.

Week 3, or Burn Out and (Intellectual) Soul Food

It was bound to happen: the burnout. I went straight from undergrad to a masters/Ph.D. Program with nothing but a (relatively) short summer in between, and was only just beginning to recover from four years of near tortuously rigorous education at UVa when I rolled up to William and Mary.

Considering how challenging mentally and emotionally UVa had been for me specifically, I really ought to have given myself more than a three month respite from academic heavy lifting. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I have an unquenchable burning desire to know, to learn, and to be in an environment of constant stimulation. Academia is the perfect place for a person like me, except for one thing: academia tends to push you too hard, and more often than not, you’re not really in a position to push back.

It started with discovering an entire class had been cancelled on me. My tinge of annoyance turned into frustration and then to panic as I tried to find a solution. Panic turned into a constant and heightened state of anxiety as I’ve struggled to make up missed reading for the class I’ve since substituted for my original, keep up with the weekly assignments, write my lengthy (w e e k l y) précis as I can’t attend Tuesday classes, and find my footing generally in the class. This course was an imperfect solution to a decidedly perfect and well planned semester. 

Let me be clear: Academia is my stability. I can control very little, but there is something calming and steadying about sitting down each week, copying down all my assignments and readings, organizing it into manageable chunks that stabilizes my ever changing life and my incessantly active mind.

It was nothing but a misstep. It was like missing a step walking down the stairs and your heart flies into your throat. 

I still haven’t quite recovered.

Add all this to the fact that I’ve switched from working on the William and Mary Quarterly to OI books this semester, where the chapters are long and the turn around are short; that I’ve had 800 page texts for the last two weeks; and I’m attempting to orchestrate an art exhibit for the end of the month? And of course, now is when family issues intensify and time is slipping between my fingers, like my days are two hours shorter than everyone else’s. 

In the midst of all of the insanity, I managed to fall ill (which I’m starting to think is just as much a reaction to stress as it is actual sickness), Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States of America and I’ve been to a protest almost every week since. 

The emotional energy it takes to simply exist these days in a political moment that is less political than it is a circus of baffoonery takes away from my ability to do even the most basic things, like properly feed myself. I get caught in a maelstrom of cynical tweets and lengthy facebook posts and articles and photos and videos, a never ending stream of panicked negativity, and when I finally get my head above water, it seems impossible that I have to work and study when the world seems to be ending.

I am absolutely not the only person feeling like this. But it’s particularly isolating these days. 

I console myself by playing the Harry Potter movies on repeat, eating a small mountain of dark chocolate chips every day and ignoring responsibility by teaching myself to hand letter via instragram videos and Pinterest. I spend more time decorating my (bullet)journal, which I use for class notes, than I do actually taking notes. I can get through about a half hour of work at a time before everything gets overwhelming and I have to watch the first three minutes of Finding Dory to cheer myself up.

And a surprising amount of my comfort has come from reading (parts) of my 800 pages monstrosities of African-American history. In two of my classes, we’re wading through texts from the Nadir, the period of after Reconstruction and into the early 20th century that has been classified as one of the worst periods of racism in U.S. History. I’ve read The Philadelphia Negro and Black Reconstruction for one class, and have been encountering more and more Ida B. Wells in my supplementary reading. My teachers often talk about the W.E.B. DuBois’ hardness of personality and I think to myself, was there any other way to be? Was there any other way to endure the hardness of life during the Nadir? Was it not the grit of surviving the Nadir that gave Ida B. Wells the steel to not run when her printing press was burned down? Not only did she stay, but she got twice as loud and twice as fierce. 

I like to think that it was their belief in the ability of humanity to improve and in their own personal ability to do what they felt was just that sustained them. I like to believe that it was a combination of faith and passion and a strong sense of morality that kept them going. Trying times reveal the worst and the best of us, and I’m just hoping that my current weakness will give way to strength. All I can do is move one day at a time, having faith each day, feeding my passion, and doing at least a little good each day, for myself and for others. I have to have faith that each small, positive thing will add up to a happy life in a larger picture. 

So I read a little Black history every day. I thank God for their strength and pray for my own. I admire the intelligence and tenacity of those who came before me, and pray that I can do my forebearers justice. I praise the good they did this world and it inspires me to do good in my own way.

Thus far, that’s been the best medicine for Burn Out– taking it day by day, and letting my work inspire me to do just a little good each day.