For Black History Month, Reads beat writers recommend their favorite books by Black authors that thoughtfully and masterfully engage with race and racial justice in America.
“Luster” by Raven Leilani — Recommended by Carly Taylor
Every so often, we’re lucky enough to encounter a writer who clearly was born to write sentences — and for me lately, that writer is Raven Leilani. In her candid, devastatingly beautiful debut novel “Luster,” Leilani tells the story of Edie, a young Black aspiring painter barely scraping by in an entry-level publishing job, who becomes involved in the (sort of) open marriage of a middle-aged wealthy white couple, Eric and Rebecca. The sheer drama of this situation is compelling enough, and Leilani uses it brilliantly to explore the complexities of class, race and their intersection. Unforeseeable circumstances push Edie into a strange existence as she toggles between near-destitution in the inner city and Eric and Rebecca’s pristine suburban home. The relationships between each of the characters are richly nuanced — perhaps most movingly, between Edie and Akila, Eric and Rebecca’s adopted Black daughter.
As she tries to keep her head above water, Edie’s voice is frank and incisive, relentlessly confronting bodily realities and sexual dynamics rarely expressed on the page. At its heart, “Luster” is a Black female artist’s coming-of-age story, and it will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever tried to navigate supporting themselves while pursuing the artistic dream that nourishes their soul.
“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas — Recommended by Kyla Figueroa
A reference to a quote by Tupac Shakur, Angie Thomas’s novel “The Hate U Give” is a staple young adult novel that shows how systems of oppression directly impact the lives of African Americans. Through critiques of criminal justice in the United States and representations of social groups, Thomas explores these systems and their relationship to minority communities. The story revolves around 16-year-old Starr Carter, who feels she is living two different lives: one in her poor neighborhood, Garden Heights, and another at Williamson Prep, a private school in a richer part of the city. She soon becomes the spotlight of national media when she witnesses an officer shoot her childhood friend, Khalil.
Throughout the book, Starr learns to find her voice. The story begins with her feeling torn between her two worlds, unable to be truly open about herself for fear of the repercussions. Eventually, her desire for justice outweighs her silence caused by fear, and she decides to speak up about Khalil’s death by testifying to the grand jury. Through the trials and tribulations of the plot, Starr develops a passion for activism, tackling issues that negatively impact her community and rebuilding Garden Heights. She ends by promising that she’ll “never forget, never give up, and never be quiet,” about the Black lives lost to the hands of police brutality.
“Cane” by Jean Toomer — Recommended by Lily Nilipour
Hailed as a modernist masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer’s novel “Cane,” published in 1923, is a short amalgamation of poems, stories, play-like dialogue and other fragments that offers poignant sketches of Black rural and urban life in the South. Toomer wrote much of “Cane” on afternoon train rides going back home in Georgia, where he was working as a principal in a rural school. Those train rides permeate the very language and imagery of the novel; Toomer’s stories feel transitory yet circular, and there is the constant presence of the dusk and the setting sun.
The structure of “Cane” is like a circle. On the macro level, we move from South to North to South again, and on the micro level, we hear repeated lyrical phrases in individual stories and see the inevitable return of characters to their own pasts. Everything comes back to us; history is inescapable, weighing us down like the house Rhobert wears “like a monstrous diver’s helmet, on his head.” While reading, I felt the hypnotic power of Toomer’s words — as if I were paused in the time and world of this book, immobile in my own body despite everything whirling around me, much like how a train carries you while you sit still, the locomotive a vessel for your own movement. This is what I feel “Cane” is about: immobility despite movement, sameness despite change — and how that is both beautiful and painful.
“Memorial” by Bryan Washington — Recommended by Kirsten Mettler
Benson and Mike are not perfect. At first, their relationship seemed magical — but now? Everything gets in the way; they argue about everything from their exclusive status to racial privilege. The couple is stuck in a constant fight-and-make-up cycle. Things only worsen when Mike flies to Japan at the last minute for a family emergency, making Benson all too aware of the complicated relationship he has with his own relatives.
Following a gay couple living in gentrified Houston, “Memorial” is a stunning debut novel. It lives in the uncomfortable by exploring the beauty in realistic relationships, as well as all of their flaws. All of the characters have imperfections that make them all the more likable, complex and relatable in their portrayals. By using a conversational tone to write such a messy story with strikingly dynamic characters, Washington writes a work of fiction that is incredibly believable. The novel provides a fresh perspective by delving into the ways intersectional social identities impact the way we move through the world and navigate its problems.
“Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century” by Dorothy E. Roberts — Recommended by Richard Coca
“Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century” is a really important read, especially for anyone going into the sciences. Heavily sourced and well written, I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for more of a sociological lens towards our society’s increasing fascination with genomics. Dorothy Roberts argues how institutional racism — although it can sometimes be subtle — has profound impacts on medicine’s research agenda and affects medical care. She also pushes against the idea that science is somehow apolitical, when in reality that could not be further from the truth. By debunking the myth of race as a biological concept, Roberts teaches us how to ensure science does not promote inequality but rather actively works towards a just society. For more books by Dorothy Roberts, check out “Killing the Black Body,” a book on extending reproductive justice to all women.
“Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi — Recommended by Valerie Trapp
Following Gifty, a Ghanaian-American PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine, “Transcendent Kingdom” is the rare type of novel that forces you to attempt to read it in one sitting. A story about addiction, religion and loss, Gyasi’s straightforward, scientific prose assembles a picture of a family dealing with the death of a golden son — Nana — who died of a heroin overdose.
Gifty’s voice speaks in your ear. The tunnel vision of her first-person narration positions you inside a mind struggling to hold the certainty of neuroscience, the simultaneously ecstatic and punishing pull of religion and the silence of her mother’s depression all in one brain. It is at times restrained and at others profuse. Reading this novel is what I imagine an actor might feel like — grasping at the walls of someone else’s brain — only to come out and find that the world is still the same, and you are still you, and somewhere during the day it seems you turned to the last page.
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