One of my sisters and I are both members of the Black Expressions Book Club (I think she joined before I did). It is one of those 'Book-of-the-Month' type clubs that sells 'exclusive' (i.e. inexpensive hardback) copies of titles by African-American authors. My sister was on the verge of dropping them, however, because of her disappointment in the types of books the club choses to promote. Most issues are filled with a great deal of what the book business calls 'urban fiction:' stories from 'da hood,' featuring "thugs" and their women; or variations on the 'girlfriend' genre, made popular by Terri McMillan. A couple of things that don't fit these molds are there as well but for the most part these are our choices -- in addition to Christian literature, cookbooks, a few financial books, and a selection of DVDs.
Since in the main I don't read "urban lit" I really don't want to comment on it. The subject matter for the most part doesn't appeal to me, and looking through the pages of some of the works, the style (...or lack thereof...) of the writing doesn't appeal to me either, although there are exceptions. The Library's Young Adult/Youth Services person here speaks highly of Tyrell, by author Coe Booth. By its cover and subject matter (a 15-year old living in a homeless shelter tries to keep his family together and avoid the easy money temptation of the drug trade) it looks a good deal like any number of other 'Urban' books, but the quality of the writing and character development, it's refusal to supply a stock solution to the Tyrell's problems, make it a cut above the rest. So you really can't judge a book by it's cover.
I've recently been (re)reading work by black (and for the most part male) novelists of the 1960s and '70's: John A. Williams (photo at left), William Demby, William Melvin Kelley, John Oliver Killens and Rosa Guy, all of them very good writers, 'political' without being polemical, writers 'of their times' (and the Black Arts Movement) in the best sense of the word. And, sadly, for the most part not very well known to many readers today (Rosa Guy is much better known as a Young Adult author these days). The great wave of black women writers that came after them, with Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ntozake Shange at its crest, seems to have washed them away from the collective memory. I thought this was a shame, and was curious about why that happened.
I've been thinking about this since The Other Half recently asked me for a list of '25 books every black man should read before age 40' -- one of those impossible tasks that folks ask people to perform on a regular basis. He was asking because his co-workers (or at least the black men under 40 he works with) think he's pretty intelligent and up on things, and wonder how he got to be that way.
The question really is impossible, of course. There are so many great titles to choose from, and how do you limit it to 25? And, for me at least, it tends to change from week to week, as I think of more things which excited me and lead, I suspect, to the formation of my world view. I asked some writer friends for suggestions as well for suggestions as well. Here's mine (not in any real order):
1 The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Dubois
2 Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
3 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
4 The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
5 For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
6 Native Son by Richard Wright
7 Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
8 Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
9 The Color Purple by Alice Walker
10 The Autobiography of Malcolm X
11 Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady
12 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
13 Fences by August Wilson
14 Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown
15 Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
16 The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley
17 I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
19 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
20 Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
21 The Constitution/Declaration of Independence
22 The Plague by Albert Camus
23 Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan
24 A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J Gaines
25 Cane by Jean Toomer
As you might imagine, these are some of the works that deeply influenced me, helping to make me the person I am today. Not all of them are by African-American authors, or even had black people in mind when they were written, but all, I think, tell us something about the nation and the world we live in, and offer ways with which to navigate through it. You may also note I've included some works usually considered "women's books" to the list. It seemed essential for me to do that (their works have helped to save my life over the years).
FYI: Authors most frequently mentioned (their names/works came up more than twice) when I asked this question of friends and fellow writers were: Alice Walker, August Wilson, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, John Edgar Wideman, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, W. E. B. Dubois, and Walter Mosley.
Most frequently mentioned texts (again they got more than two mentions) were: Works by Baldwin and Wideman (people said "Anything" by these two), Black Boy and Native Son by Richard Wright, theater by August Wilson ("Collected Plays," Fences, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"), works of Langston Hughes (Collected Poems, The Big Sea, The Ways of White Folks), novels by Walter Moseley (his 'Easy Rawlins' and 'Fearless Jones' series), The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye (Morrison), The Color Purple (Walker), The Fire Next Time (Baldwin), and DuBois'The Souls of Black Folk.
Emperor Marcus says: Go Forth and Read!