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Reading Black History Month in a Different Way

The time is upon us. Black History Month.  A month that is ever filled with Rosa Parks skits and recitations of speeches and essays by the Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr.  We discuss the great black authors, activists, inventors, explorers, religious figures, and celebrities.  In 28 or 29 days we cover everything from the first indentured servants to the first black president.   But by our teen years, we’ve heard it all before, and are interested in approaching Black History in a different way.

To that end, how and what do we read during Black History Month?  Do we go back to the old guard of fiction and nonfiction on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the march through Selma?  Break out Roots and Queen and The Autobiography of Malcolm X?  These things are all well and good, but Black History Month is just as much about the African-American past as it is about the African-American present.  Not only must we all reach out to understand what has gone on, but take just this one month to also share what still is going on.

These are the books that are going on my feature wall for the month of February.  Some are new, some are old; some history or memoir, some novels or poetry.  Some probably had to be read in the classroom by most of us.  Some are completely new.

Cane by Jean Toomer.  An ambitious teen might find this collection of poetry and prose from the 1920s a fascinating read.  Toomer is one of the earliest members of the Harlem Renaissance and brings light to a turn-of-the-century view of the South that we no longer see in our retrospective spyglasses.

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.  Whether you like poetry or not, this book has something for you.  From comedic strophe, to brief odes to dancers (check out Midnight Dancer on page 91), to revolutionary poems, Langston Hughes is the king of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Collected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998.  Covering three bombastic decades in the matter of Black History across the globe, we get everything from the seven line, 22 word A Poem/Because It Came As A Surprise To Me to lengthy prose poetry featuring numerous ellipses.  Some have a deeper meaning to sit and consider; others are more fun and straightforward (or are they? You decide).

Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper.  This is a favorite of my students (and of mine, in the Historical Fiction category).  Sharon M. Draper wanders into the world of Historical Fiction with the story of a young African girl taken into slavery and her daring escape. It’s an award winner and a crowd pleaser, and it can make a great discussion piece with some of the questions in the back.

Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama because it just has to be there.

For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf: A Choreopoem by Ntozake Shange.  This epic poem-play tells stories on top of stories, and brings the intense plight of women of color in the 1970s and through time.  There are some situations and language that might be offensive to some readers, so go in prepared.  You’ve also got to get over the dialect a little—try saying it aloud if you’re really having trouble.  The release of the film For Colored Girls has also brought more interest in the original text.

Hope on a Tightrope by Cornel West.  We don’t always agree as far as philosophy, but this is a great collection of words and wisdom for any person, young or old, of any race, any ethnicity, any faith.  My favorite quote? “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

Incognegro by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece.  This fascinating graphic novel was inspired by some of the writer’s own experiences, but takes them to a whole new level.  Our hero, Zane Pinchback, is a very light-skinned New York journalist who goes undercover to investigate lynchings in the south and report the stories via his “Incognegro” column.  Bring on the newest mystery, which includes his brother in Mississippi, and we’ve got some serious noir for you.

Letters to a Young Brother by Hill Harper.  As someone who portrays a successful doctor and investigator on a network crime drama, Hill Harper is a recognizable and attention-worthy personage in the community.  At least if you watch CSI:NY.  Harper uses different methods of writing letters, emails, memories, and straight talk to discuss some of the questions and thoughts potentially lurking at the backs of a young brother’s skull, alongside his own history, thoughts, success and potential.  The advice that you take away, whether you are a young brother or not, is both poignant and useful.

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall.  Published in 1994, this story of a man who goes from street hoodlum to newsroom journalist is full of interesting insight into our recent history, something young people are rarely exposed to in any kind of setting.

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker.  This fantastic graphic novel contains very few words; the pictures speak thoroughly for themselves.  Designed in a sepia black and white, the bloody tale of a slave and his famous insurrection is not quite as gruesome as it could be, making it more attractive to more readers who are turned off by the blood and guts of other graphic novels.  Much of the actual text is straight from The Confessions of Nat Turner, lending it even more credibility as a historical work.  Of course, it’s also just really interesting.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave speaks for itself.

Push by Sapphire.  With the release of Precious a couple of years ago, the novel that it was based upon is still garnering interest.  Providing a look into a beautiful person with a horrible life dealt to her, we can feel her triumph alongside her inspiring teacher, Ms. Rain.  (Side story: When I was fifteen years old, my school librarian pulled me and my best friend aside and gave us a copy of Push, asking us to read it and tell us if she should get it for the library.  We both, of course, said yes).

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  If by some chance you haven’t read it in some high school English class, this is a must read.  While the dialect is something to get around at the beginning, the sumptuous descriptions and fascinating characters living in early 20th century Florida are well worth it.

Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High by Melba Patillo Beals.  While we learn in history class about those that got the movement going, this book tells us about a person Brown v. Board of Education actually affected. Her story of integrating and coping with that integration gives us a view into high school that many of us take fully for granted nowadays.

Of course, so many more books could go on my wall, but I’ve only got so much space.  I wouldn’t mind a whole collection of historical fiction from the black perspective (Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains come to mind).  Sadly, I can’t make the list as long as I’d like it to be.

There’s been plenty of dialogue about whether or not Black History Month should exist.  Isn’t it just American History?  That question has yet to be truly answered, but reads like this deserve to be featured at some point, and Black History Month provides the perfect opportunity.  The old guard has been updated and expanded to include a whole subgroup of people and experiences, discussed and depicted in new ways.  So it goes to say that we should read them, and so many more.

What are you reading this Black History Month?


  1. Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

    I started a little early…I read “Forge” by Laurie Anderson. So good! A worthy sequel to “Chains” even though it’s told from Curzon’s POV, and I missed hearing from Isabel.

  2. Riley Riley

    Like Maria, I’m also reading “Forge” by Anderson, having thoroughly enjoyed “Chain.” I tried listening to the audiobook of “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,” but it just wasn’t doing it for me. I’ll have to try reading the actual book some day.

  3. Currently reading Big Machine by Victor La Valle. The other day I was thinking about finally reading Incognergo. After seeing it on this list I added it to my library queue.

    Hip Hop Speaks to Children edited by Nikki Giovanni is a great collections of poems for young readers and it comes with a CD. There are poems, by Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Eloise Greenfield and many others.

    If your looking for a very good historical fiction YA novel, you should check out A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott. The MC, 15 yr old Genna Doyle loves to make wishes at the local garden in Brooklyn. One day she’s transported back to Civil War Era Brooklyn. As far as I know this is the first YA novel to mention the NYC Draft Riots.

  4. Jessica Pryde Jessica Pryde

    Doret, I have never actually heard of A Wish After Midnight! It sounds fascinating and is going on my to-read list.

  5. Jessica, I think you’ll enjoy it. A Wish After Midnight definitely skip closer to the top of the queue worthy. Its been compared to Kindred but one of the many things I like about AWAM is its own very good story.

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