It is challenging to select a handful of books that can adequately encapsulate over four hundred years of racial disparity, injustice, and oppression of a group of American citizenry. Historically, our educational institutions designate African American history as unworthy of mandatory study—as if our contributions have been insignificant. After all, the United States has specific narratives, which some would identify as propaganda, about how we, as a nation, prefer to be perceived by others and ourselves. The so-called Land of the Free has never been an apt description of the lives of African Americans. We continue to be plagued by a separate set of challenges that impact our very survival, both emotional and physical.
I recommend four pivotal books—two fiction, two nonfiction—that can broaden your understanding of the complexity of this tightrope that African Americans must successfully navigate daily.
1. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (Doubleday, 1979)
Octavia Butler’s Kindred is a compelling narrative about Edana Franklin, a 26-year-old African American woman, who in 1976 is married to a white man and living in California. She is thrust back in time to before the American Civil War, where her skin color designates her as a slave. Butler manages to skillfully engage the reader in the unrelenting horrors of being treated as less than human while telling a provocative story about love, loss, and the interconnected relationships of white and Black Americans.
2. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 2019)
Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is the methodically constructed story of Elwood Curtis, an intelligent and optimistic African American boy growing up during the 1960s during the late Jim Crow era. Despite his unwavering belief in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “that he is as good as anyone,” a web of evil easily traps him. Whitehead’s novel shows the vulnerability of being Black in the United States.
3. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)
Khan-Cullors and Bandele’s When They Call You A Terrorist is fundamental in understanding our current climate. People are raising signs declaring “Black Lives Matter,” even while our country identifies the founders of this movement as terrorists and a threat to the United States. It is imperative that we understand the incidents that sparked this monumental movement founded by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. This book provides the backstory and identifies what makes this movement unique, profound, and essential to human rights advocates around the world.
4. Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies by Dick Gregory (HarperCollins, 2018)
Dick Gregory’s Defining Moments in Black History is a collection of essays on the complicated and diverse history of the Black experience in the United States. Dick Gregory was a comedian, civil rights activist, and historian, who specialized on the often overlooked or erased facts concerning the reality of Black Americans’ existence, contributions, and legacy. We currently see these same dynamics in the current White House, where a divisive president, who is sympathetic to neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups, is attempting to denigrate and reverse all the accomplishments of the previous president, who was the first Black man elected to the office. While at times humorous, this book exposes the twisted ways that language norms and intentional omissions have sustained a belief in white superiority while consistently denigrating Black people as the inferior other.
Tawnya Perry has a Bachelors Degree in English Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Masters Degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California. She has taught graduate students at both UCLA and USC and is a Licensed Psychotherapist. Ms. Perry has worked as a Psychiatric Social Worker for the Los Angeles Unified School District for over twenty years. She is a member of Mocha Girls Read and STCC Book Clubs. She has written two novels scheduled to be published later this year by The Wild Rose Press.