Photo credit: Derrys Richardson
African Americans frequently bemoan that it’s just our luck to have Black History Month designated in the shortest month of the year. I laugh, but I don’t joke about that because I know the history of the observance. I remember my church in Seattle celebrating Negro History Week in the 1960s when I was a child. I learned then that back in 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson created the national time of acknowledgment of Black achievement to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln — both in the same week of February. In 1976, President Ford recognized that many of the nation’s events happened throughout the month, and mentioned Black History Month as being part of the year-long Bicentennial Celebration. Black History Month is now celebrated in many parts of the world, including in the Caribbean, where I reside much of the year and participate in programs that celebrate local and international Black history.
My new book, BLACK INK: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing
, pays homage to historical and contemporary heroes of Black literature. The anthology covers 250 years of personal narratives on the evolution of African American literacy by some of our most elite writers — from the time of Frederick Douglass to the era of President Barack Obama. There are 25 pieces in the book, taken from classic works that many students and scholars of history or Black Lit may be familiar with, as well as other newer works. I researched over 50 nonfiction books, articles, and lectures to curate the final selections. Here are 12 of those books — one for each month of the year — to read and consider the struggles and victories of Black literary freedom all year round.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
by Frederick Douglass
Originally published in 1845, the 2010 City Lights Books edition of the memoir I read featured an essay by activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis. Knowing the book was a classic, but not remembering having to read it in school, I took it upon myself to do so as my personal Black History Month assignment one year. I was captivated by Douglass’s tale of how he taught himself to read when he was enslaved, when doing so was not only against the law, but also punishable by death. With literacy, he was able to read abolitionist publications that confirmed the oppressive and inhumane nature of his condition, and was motivated to plot out his escape to freedom. His story inspired me to look for and gather all the stories I could on how reading and writing influenced the Black Liberation struggle — and so, BLACK INK
Twelve Years a Slave
by Solomon Northup
I was so disturbed after seeing the movie adaptation of this memoir that I thought surely the book must be more textured, more poignant, more thoughtful. I was right. The 1853 account by New York State freedman Solomon Northup of the dozen years he spent in captivity in the South after being kidnapped resonated with me. The fact that he could read put him in peril (he had to deny it) and served as his savior (he wrote a letter to those who could assist). I couldn’t get over the fact that he was deprived of something we take so much for granted — paper — for nine years, and once he obtained one sheet, he had to craft a pen and ink to write with out of the meager resources of slavery. How he did it, I’ll leave for you to discover. Amazing.
The introduction to Twelve Years a Slave
, written by Henry Louis Gates Jr., asked, “What is an African American classic?” That discussion of the dearth of books considered classics by Black authors led me to include it in BLACK INK
too. Gates’s most recent book, 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro
, provides us with a crash course on Black History.
Up From Slavery
by Booker T. Washington
In this classic, which I hadn't previously read, I learned that Washington was born into slavery and freed upon Emancipation. He tells the story of how a “whole race learned to read” at one time. How adults and children were in makeshift schools together. How, at age 12, he had to work and couldn’t make it to class on time, so he rigged the clock at his workplace in order to get there when school started. Another incredible fact: he walked over 500 miles to go to college at Hampton Institute in Virginia. That school still stands as one of the most prestigious historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — and so does the institution he founded, Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Dust Tracks on a Road
by Zora Neale Hurston
I was an editor at Essence
magazine when Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
was reissued and became the most popular novel among women readers. However, as a lover of nonfiction, I always preferred her real-life story, Dust Tracks on a Road
. In it, I found a passage on how hard it was for her, a Floridian who lived for many years in Harlem, to write in California. How she got a book deal after being penniless is also a tale that puts today’s authors’ complaints about getting publishing into perspective.
The Big Sea
by Langston Hughes
My father shares the same birthday, February 1, as Langston Hughes. Born just a year after Hughes and raised in the same state of Kansas, my dad (an attorney who became a judge) often recited Hughes’s poetry around the house, and successfully defended a client in a death penalty trial during which he recited for the jury the poem “Mother to Son," which starts, “Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.” So Langston Hughes has a special place in my heart, and this book was my favorite to read for research and just plain recreation. Hughes shares how he became a poet, using with his trademark wit even when he’s telling a tale of woe.
Notes of a Native Son
by James Baldwin
The spirit of James Baldwin has been revived in these times of Black Lives Matter. Notes of a Native Son
is a collection of essays in which he touched upon many subjects, including his struggles in becoming a writer. Baldwin had been working on an essay for publication in Essence
magazine at the time of his passing. The first draft remains unpublished, so these “notes of a native son” have to suffice for me.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
This collaboration between the author who would later pen the phenomenal bestseller Roots
and the freedom fighter Malcolm X is a classic memoir that has been in print since it was first released in 1964, just before Malcolm’s assassination in 1965. I had read it in high school, and in 1992, I saw the Spike Lee-produced movie based on the book. Malcolm X often relayed in his speeches that a seventh-grade teacher in Mason, Michigan, who had given him some of his best grades, asked if he had thought about a career. Young Malcolm replied he had, indeed, been thinking about becoming a lawyer. The admired teacher responded amusedly: “A lawyer — that’s no realistic goal for a nigger.” Now, reading it again, I was taken by the context of the story — that he had been a top student in a predominantly White school, yet was not expected to have similar aspirations. In the excerpt I chose, Malcolm talks about this, and how much he loved to read. He may not have become an attorney, but fortunately, that passion for learning led Malcolm to study Black history independently, form a cultural identity, and eloquently debate (most notably at Oxford University) and convey the condition of African Americans to the world.
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Martin Luther King Jr.
Many bibliophiles of Black literature know that Malcolm published an autobiography, but I think it is lesser known that his nemesis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also penned his life story under a similar title. I was drawn to the passage on his years at Morehouse College. My own mother went to Clark College next door at the same time. King writes that after he graduated from there at age 19, while in seminary school, he attended a speaking engagement by the president of Howard University — which happens to be my alma mater — and was influenced by Dr. Mordecai Johnson’s description of a trip to India in which Johnson studied the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. King says he “left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.” I imagine that this trip to a bookstore could have formed the foundation of the nonviolent strategy of the Civil Rights Movement.
Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture]
by Stokely Carmichael With Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
In 1967, activist Stokely Carmichael (who would later expatriate to Guinea and change his name to Kwame Ture) infused into the national and African diasporic consciousness the inspiring philosophy and bold rallying cry of “Black Power.” I was a teenager at the time, and successfully pleaded with my father to take me to hear Carmichael speak at Garfield High School in Seattle. In a time when we admired and drooled over intellectuals and activists more than entertainers, I became one of his biggest fans, going to hear him when I was a college student at Howard University (also his alma mater). After I graduated and moved to New York, I continued to attend his speaking engagements — and at one, I met my husband. So I highly recommend the timely Ready for Revolution
, which discusses the nature of activism, tells how Carmichael rose to prominence, and explains how reading played a part.
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
by Alice Walker
The Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author of The Color Purple
is primarily known as a novelist. However, as with my preference for novelist Zora Neale Hurston’s memoir, I enjoyed this collection of Walker’s essays. In it, I found a profoundly personal narrative of a dark time in Walker’s life, in which writing poetry brought her back to life and light. Fortunately, Walker is still writing prolifically and we can all access her work on her official website, alicewalkersgarden.com
. In addition to having her voice in BLACK INK
, I am humbled and grateful for the unsolicited pre-publication review
she gave the anthology on her blog.
by Edwidge Danticat
In an effort to open up the anthology to include Black immigrants who have contributed so much to the United States, I included an excerpt from Danticat’s collection of essays. The title story tells of two Haitian journalists who risked their lives to write their truth. Their assassinations had a lasting impact on Danticat’s own award-winning writing. Just as we can never forget when it was illegal to read and write in America, we must not take for granted the hard-won freedom to publish that many people in the world are still struggling to achieve. Whether here or abroad, writing can be dangerous.
Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
by Barack Obama
Unfortunately, I was not able to secure the rights to excerpt the passage from President Obama’s coming-of-age memoir that I enjoyed so much, in which the young Barack shares how he formed his racial/cultural identity through the books he read independently while in college. But I do feel that this, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, is worth reading — especially as a kind of bookend to Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. Perhaps even better for BLACK INK
, though, I was able to reprint an excellent presidential “exit interview” of sorts by former New York Times
book critic Michiko Kakutani, on how reading books helped to shape Obama’s eight glorious years as President of the United States of America — which will go down in the annals of Black History.
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Stephanie Stokes Oliver
is the author of BLACK INK: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing
, and three more books of nonfiction: Daily Cornbread: 365 Secrets for a Healthy Mind, Body, and Spirit
, Seven Soulful Secrets for Finding Your Purpose and Minding Your Mission
, and Song for My Father: Memoir of an All-American Family
. Formerly the editor of Essence
, founding editor-in-chief of Heart and Soul
, and vice president of Unity Publishing, she started her magazine career at Glamour
. For more information, see stephaniestokesoliver.com.