Black History Month marks a time where we as a society, community and culture pay particular attention to the experiences , achievements, and everyday challenges of black people here in the UK but also worldwide. Celebrating, supporting, and illuminating Black voices is a task we are trying to fulfill all year round, Black History Month is the perfect time to reflect on what inspired and moved us when we learnt more about the cultures and histories of a group that is marginalized too often.
This year’s theme is ‘Time for Change: Action Not Words’. While more so than ever Black History Month brings to light the social inequalities and racism that are still prevalent in societies around the world, the creative industry in particular finds other forms to draw attention to these issues.
Sadly, the canon and curriculum – certainly when we were at school but also still today – in many western countries evade the study of texts produced by black artists, writers, filmmakers… So we wanted to take this opportunity and ask our SAS community which texts by a black author moved them, which motivated them or opened their eyes, not only to the history and culture that is so often underrepresented in our society but also that has produced numerous outstanding literary works that have been pushed to the margins by the dominant culture.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
The African futurist novel Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor published in 2014 takes you on a journey through the culture, history, and life of and in Nigeria and more particularly Lagos. Belding science fiction and folklore, the story that unfolds introduces the reader not only to an alien species but also to Nigerian myths and traditions.
Three people, seemingly unconnected, are all wandering Bar Beach in Lagos. Their minds are occupied with their own problems. Each thinking they are alone, lonely, and isolated. However, they are soon bound together by an extraterrestrial force. A story of comradery, adventure and heroism unfolds while they all race to safe Lagos, Nigeria, and themselves.
Lagoon is about dislocation and diversity just as much as it is about unity and individual experiences. Explaining the plot would take away from the surprise and beauty of the story and its narration but so much can be said: if you want to read about an alien invasion paired with the legends of Nigerian culture this book is for you! The combination of Africanfuturism (a term Okorafor coined herself), magical realism, and science fiction is what intrigued me about this novel. And, while it can be at times overwhelming with this combination of themes and different narrative perspectives, it is definitely worth it.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I’ve chosen a twentieth century classic for my Black History Month book pick. Their Eyes Were Watching God was a book that I’d often heard referenced during the course of my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, though I’m ashamed to say I never quite got round to reading it until the pandemic. But I am so glad that I did. Hurston’s style is rich and evocative, one that depicts a community that at the time of its publication was neglected by both the litterati and society at large. The story centres on Janie Crawford, who we initially meet as a woman in her forties, who goes on to recount her story from her naive teenage years to the present day. Hurston does not present us with a precocious, independent, proto-feminist in the young Janie, but rather we see how with life’s knocks and hardships, Janie develops into a strong, capable woman unafraid of acting outside of societal norms.
Her decision to utilise her sociologist’s training and write the dialogue in the colloquial speech of the black community in which it is set is a masterstroke. It immerses the reader in a world that may well be quite different from their own. Rather than pandering to the masses, thus sacrificing the authenticity of the dialogue and the characters, she invites them to come and meet this community on its own terms, even if that means a period of adjustment for some. Reading is not always an easy process but it is a very necessary one in order to broaden your worldview.
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Trumpet tells the story of famous trumpet player, Joss Moody who after his death is revealed to be anatomically female. The immediate aftermath of his death is narrated by people closest to him: his wife, his son, his band mates. The loss that Millie, Joss’ wife, feels is there. The son’s sense of betrayal is there. Their voices, nay, their very souls, stick to the prose like bandages, waiting to be unravelled. Memories, thoughts, all swirl in the air like Joss’ heavy cologne; what is the most palpable, tangible encounter throughout the book is Joss’ presence through his absence.
Ultimately, all that matters, at that there is to know about Joss Moody, is in his music. As Lars Eckstein notes, “Trumpet uses jazz as a metaphor of being, as a model of identity formation that privileges a performative approach to the social and biological constraints.” The thing that spoke to me the most, the thing that has stayed with me since that hot, unspeakable summer of 2020, is this constant engagement of plurality, of blurring boundaries. As Tracy Hargreaves asks, “for if a woman can successfully pass as a man, what then, is a woman, or, indeed, a man?” The times when Joss speaks, he speaks about his music, about the African diaspora, “and, significantly, about the absence, return and fantasy of the father, as the present is made bearable for the son only by a necessary recovery of the past.”
What moved Jackie Kay to write the book was a single sentence, coming from the lips of one of the sons of transgender trumpet player named Billy Tipton: “He will always be Daddy to me.” Kay continues, “it made me think how fluid identity is, how unfixed really, how identity is also a question of belief, if you love somebody you will believe them.”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Price Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead sucks readers in with its narrative force. Cora, a young slave, flees from a cotton plantation, her drive for freedom spurring her on. She embarks on a journey turned odyssey on the Underground Railroad – a network of anti-slavery opponents. Whitehead takes his insperation from the operation ‘Underground Railroad’ which helped slaves flee their inhumane treatment in the south. While the name of the operation was only used figuratively, the author takes the talk of an underground railway literally and, at times, hyper-realistically: Cora is traveling along endless railway tracks in dark tunnel systems towards freedom, or so she hopes.
Lot by Bryan Washington
This collection of stories is about living on the margins of society. The focal point of the narrations is Nic, a young man trying to find his place in Houston. Readers accompany Nic on his coming of age journey, witness him trying to create a sense of home despite the lack of safety and security, feel with him as he is making sense of love and fighting against stigma. The different stories are sometimes more, sometimes less gripping but not one falls short of teaching readers a bit about community, family or life in Houston. Not only is this story collection about Nic, it is also about the city, about stigmatization, gentrification, and precarity.
Honey & Spice by Bolu Babalola
The self-coined lover of love and romcomoisseur just recently published her first novel. After her story collection Love in Colour, her 2022 romantic comedy Honey & Spice is very different in tone and style. Honey & Spice follows Kiki Banjo who is out to save the women of her university from heartbreak. In her radio show, she offers advice on how not to get into the mess of situationships. However, low and behold, Kiki finds herself suddenly and unexpectedly caught up in a fake relationship with the man she warned her girls about. With wit, charm and humour, Babalola tells us a story about falling in love with someone you don’t necessarily expect to fall for and the challenges that come with it.
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
It goes without saying that Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Colour Purple has rightfully earned an established spot in the canon of American Literature. Outlining the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia, readers are confronted with the reality of racism, gender inequality, and oppression. Celie, the protagonist and narrator, is a poor, uneducated, fourteen-year-old black girl who starts writing letters to God. The story spans over several decades where we learn about her and her sister’s lives. Celie’s father, Alphonso, beats and rapes her, she gets married off to a man she calls Mr., her sister disappears… It’s hard to capture everything this novel has to offer so I highly recommend just reading it.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A novel of love, loss, and deep-rooted trauma, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a novel that I return to year after year. Sethe is the protagonist of the novel: a mother who escaped slavery but at the eleventh hour, four horsemen come back to take her to the plantation. Out of fear and desperation, she runs to the shed to kill her children, but only manages to kill her eldest daughter. The novel takes place in 1873, eighteen years after the death of the eldest daughter and it traces the aftermath of her absence. A woman named Beloved arrives and Sethe takes her in. Sethe believes Beloved to be her dead daughter. Toni Morrison wrote of the book: “I wasn’t at all sure in Beloved that I would have a character called Beloved. I said at the beginning [of the book] the house was full of poison or venom, but I thought that was just the haunting. But the big question, it turned out, was who was in the position to judge what [Sethe] had done. Who could say that her efforts to kill her children under those particular circumstances were wrong?”