Meaghan McDonough ’17/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Reading diverse narratives is a challenge all readers should take on. Whether these are characters or stories that you can relate to personally or not, you’re bound to learn something. Sometimes it’s as simple as learning how to write diverse characters, and other times you might learn something about yourself. This practice is not only a great exercise in empathy, but it’s also, often, a great lesson in history. In honor of February being Black History Month, here are just a few iconic black narratives all readers should strive to get through.
Written by African American author Richard Wright and published in 1940, this seminal work of black literature tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old living in 1930s poverty in Chicago’s South Side. This book has been a subject of discussion Frantz Fanon and other black revolutionaries and philosophers due to its portrayal of the systematic inevitability of the black struggle. The novel, which is divided into three ‘books’, follows the protagonist Bigger Thomas through his crime of killing a white woman, his attempt at hiding, and his eventual imprisonment. Bigger’s crimes are not excused, but they are given context: what can happen when a black man has no other option, when the system in which he lives is designed to fail him.
Winner of the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction, this novel—published in 1952 and written by African American author Ralph Ellison—explores many of the issues faced by members of the black community in the early 20th century. Starring an unnamed narrator who opens the novel claiming to be an “invisible man”—not in the literal sense, but rather in the way that people simply refuse to see him—who is hiding from the world and living underground. The narrator then goes on to tell his life story, which ultimately explains how he came to live underground. The narrator’s story borders on the mythological and legendary, with stunning prose to heighten the unreality of it. That being said, the subject matter—from black identity to Marxism to Booker T. Washington—is all incredibly real and the backbone of the narrative at hand. By no means an easy read, but certainly an essential one.
August Wilson is the cornerstone of black theatre narratives, and none so clearly depict the issues of the relationship between African American men and society as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Completed in 1982 and performed in 1984, the play is the third of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle and is the only one not set in Pittsburgh. The play depicts the ongoings of an African American blues band rehearsal in 1920s Chicago. It deals heavily with the issues of black identity relating to race, art, and religion, while also highlighting the exploitation of black artists by the music industry. While any August Wilson play provide explanation for these issues in a historical context, this play does so particularly well, especially in terms of brevity. It not only explores the tension between black and white, but within the black community as well.
Though Hurston’s novel was poorly received—both by black communities as well as white—at the time of its publication in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God went on to become one of earliest intersections of feminist and black literature. The narrative comes through in extended flashback: the main character, Janie Crawford—a black woman in her early forties—tells her transformative life story to her best friend Phoeby. The novel celebrates Southern blackness and femininity in equal fervor, pulling no punches in terms of female sexuality. Through the course of her three marriages to three different men, Janie is transformed from a voiceless teenager to a woman fully in control of her own destiny.
Part time-travel and part slave narrative, Kindred is a best-selling novel originally published in 1979 by African-American sci-fi author Octavia E. Butler. The first person narrative follows Dana, a black writer living in California, as she travels back in time to meet her ancestors on a pre-Civil War plantation. Exploring the intersection of power, race and gender, the novel depicts the complexities of antebellum slavery and it’s legacy as part of contemporary America. Though the novel is science-fiction, it is undeniably a work of black and historical literature, as it accurately depicts slave communities in the pre-Civil War South while also being a critique of American history.
Winner of The Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award for Fiction, Alice Walker’s critically acclaimed novel is one of the most recognizable in black literature. An epistolary novel published in 1982, The Color Purple focuses on the lives of black women living in the rural South. Addressing the effects of combined sexism and racism against black women, the novel highlights the value of questioning gender roles as well as the importance of sisterhood. Though the book is commonly read in high schools, it has been challenged many times for it’s explicit content, particularly related to sex. That aside, Alice Walker’s novel and it’s characters provide some of the most valuable narratives of black women in literature.
Though Black History Month is an American holiday, A Small Place is a great, short novel that could be finished in a few hours. From it, readers would get a perspective on the intersection of colonialism and race. A Small Place is a part-fiction part-autobiographical novel published in 1988 and acts as a protest piece against the government, tourist industry, and British colonization of the island of Antigua. Poetic and profoundly personal, the narrative manages to raise questions to readers as the narrator asks them of herself. A good read for an afternoon or a train ride on a day when, perhaps, you want a narrative that portrays issues of race outside of the U.S.