By Melissa Mora Hidalgo, Ph.D.
The Fourth of July is here.
For many, Independence Day in the USA means fireworks, barbecues, and summertime fun. It means displays of red-white-and-blue patriotism, military appreciation, and national pride. It means thinking about America and what it means to be American.
This year, though, the Fourth of July will feel different, and not just because we’re in the middle of a historic global pandemic. The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired a national reckoning around racism that pushes all of us who live in this country to ask deep, critical questions about this country we call “America.”
When we ask and contemplate the question of what it means to be an “American,” we’re really asking what it means to be a “United States-ian”—what it means to live in, be from, or grow up in the United States of America—because “America” is a whole continent, and the US is of it, not all of it.
And typically, we learn about “America” from books written by old white guys like Melville, Thoreau, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Crane, and many others that purport to show or tell us what (US) American life is all about. Books like Moby-Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby, and other “great American” novels continue to enjoy their status as canonical “must-reads” for US students.
Here is a “new” Top 10 list of novels that speak to the diversity of the American experience. They raise and grapple with key questions around identity, history, where we come from, and what our futures will look like in this country so often called America.
Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (1972)
Set in a New Mexico village after World War II, Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of a young Mexican American boy, Antonio Márez, and his special relationship with his healer grandmother, Ultima. Anaya passed away within days of this article. Now is a great time to revisit this coming-of-age classic by the godfather of Chicano literature.
James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
The first novel by the celebrated Black American writer James Baldwin is a semi-autobiographical rendering of a teenaged boy’s upbringing in a religious household in 1930s Harlem, New York. John Grimes, the novel’s protagonist, spends his fourteenth birthday by himself and takes readers on his introspective journey of self-discovery as he realizes the larger forces (slavery, injustice, religion, racial oppression) that have shaped his life.
Carlos Bulosan, America is in the Heart (1943)
This semi-autobiographical novel by Bulosan, a Filipino poet, writer, and activist, describes his boyhood in the Philippines and his immigration to the US as a migrant laborer. America is in the Heart represents one of the first works about the Filipino American experience on the West Coast during the Great Depression.
Ana Castillo, The Guardians (2007)
Castillo’s The Guardians is a novel about a woman who is raising her undocumented nephew—whose parents have disappeared—in the US-Mexico borderlands. Set in El Paso, The Guardians follows teacher’s aid Regina and her nephew Gabo as they navigate their precarious lives in this border town. There’s a bit of mystery and suspense, too, in this seventh novel from the acclaimed American Book Award–winning Chicana writer.
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake (2003)
Gogol is the US-born son of Bengali immigrants. Lahiri’s novel follows Gogol and his rocky road to acceptance of his seemingly strange name and to newfound appreciation for his culture, far away from his parents’ homeland. The Namesake is the first novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning South Asian American writer.
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852)
It isn’t a novel, but no “Fourth of July” reading list would be complete without the powerful oratory of Frederick Douglass. His searing speech to the Rochester (New York) Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association in 1852 exposes the hypocrisy of the idea of American freedom and describes why he “mourns” the Fourth of July. Douglass’s 19th-century speech remains relevant today and is required reading for anyone interested in working for racial justice in the US.
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1989)
Kingston blends autobiography and the myth of a legendary woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan, in her classic work about life as a Chinese American daughter of immigrants living in California. Told in “talk-stories,” Kingston’s award-winning book engages themes of gender, nationality, and cultural oppression from the perspective of a first-generation Chinese American woman.
Nella Larsen, Passing (1929)
Set in 1920s Harlem, Larsen’s last novel focuses on the relationship between two childhood friends, Irene and Clare, as they negotiate their place as light-skinned Black women in the post–World War I era. Passing describes what happens when Clare cuts herself off from her community, marries a racist white man who doesn’t know she’s Black, and “passes” as a white woman.
Tommy Orange, There There (2018)
Orange’s award-winning debut novel follows several Native American characters as they travel to the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Nations of Oklahoma, writes with devastating beauty about the lives and struggles of contemporary urban Native Americans.
Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories (1921)
Born Gertrude Simmons on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, Zitkala-Sa’s collection of short stories centers on her childhood memories and education at a Quaker missionary school in Indiana. Selections like “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” “An Indian Teacher Among Indians,” and “America’s Indian Problem” introduce readers to the young Native woman who would become an activist and advocate for American Indians in the 1920s.
Dr. Melissa Mora Hidalgo holds a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego. She studied English at UC Berkeley and earned an M.A. in English at the University of Chicago. Dr. Hidalgo has over twenty years of teaching experience at the high school, community college, and university levels. She currently teaches ethnic studies, cultural studies, and gender studies classes in the California State University system.