Juneteenth – which is today – is a holiday which celebrates the end of slavery (except in prisons) in the United States. It is often celebrated with readings of works by African American writers. I’ve decided to share a few books by African Americans about African Americans which a) don’t belong to the canon of Famous and Prestigious African American Literature (I have great respect for that canon, but I think there are plenty of other people who are sharing that canon for Juneteenth, so I’d rather promote less-well-known works) and b) which show African Americans who are thriving.
Why that second criteria?
As a white person, there are many ways I can fail at talking about books by and about black people. I can’t guarantee that I won’t make some kind of fail. But I at least want to avoid the fail of ‘wallowing in the suffering of black people for edification.’ Depictions of black people
aimed at white audiences in mainstream media which don’t depict black people as a menance have a tendency to depict them in pain and under oppression. Black people obviously have had and continue to have many painful experiences under oppression in real life, but it’s a problem when that is the main kind of sympathetic representation, just as many queer people have a problem with so many queer characters dying in mainstream media. The expectation that black people in media will bare their pain for public consumption is especially…uncomfortable.
But don’t take my word for it – here are some quotes from this roundtable of critics of color:
AW: I was just hanging out with a friend, who’s an indigenous filmmaker, who was telling me about how a lot of the work she’s been seeing from her community, especially people starting out, is focused on instances of oppression and racism rather than lives in which those things are an element, and it frustrated her. I feel like there are a lot of structures in place, both commercial and in terms of grants, that incentivize that kind of work in a lot of POC communities, because it fits an idea about what is “important.” It frustrates me, too — like, the lens through which we get to see POC characters is often so narrow and so focused on pain.
MB: There’s a current movement called “Afro Bubblegum” that calls for films about Africa to be fun, fierce, and frivolous, for exactly those reasons, Alison. And I feel that impulse!
EAJ: I feel like there’s a deep parallel between this and the Memoir Industrial Complex that often asks for women and people of color to cut themselves open and share their pain and trauma. It still seems like it’s ultimately for a white gaze, and that’s why I feel ambivalent towards those works, because often I think they’re not doing something formally inventive or challenging, but merely playing into a genre that renders their subjectivity as abject and easily digestible for a white readership.
So you’ve picked escapist fantasies where African Americans live among unicorns and rainbows all the time?
No, though I have nothing against escapist fantasies. The books I picked don’t ignore racism and systematic oppression of black people. But they present it as one dimension of a complex experience, not the primary defining feature of their existence.
Swerve: Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl by Aisha Tyler
I read this book more than ten years ago. Yet even today, idea from the book still occasionally spontaneously pop into my head, which is more than I can say about most books which I read more than ten years ago. This book is a collection of essays, a mixture of memoir and Whatever the Heck Aisha Tyler Wants to Say.
I’ve also seen Aisha Tyler speak in person once, though I wasn’t individually introduced to her.
My writing style is different from hers, yet I believe that this book has had a subtle influence on this blog all along. In other words, in the alternative universe where I had never read this book, this blog would not be the same.
Speaking of influences on your blog, why don’t you discuss my origin story?
Your origin story?
Yes, tell everyone who inspired you to sometimes feature me, an alter-ego who enjoys making fun of you.
You were inspired by an interview where N.K. Jemisin interviewed herself, and decided to not be polite to herself, both as interviewer and interviewee.
Ha ha, it’s an African American’s writer’s fault that I am here to taunt you on your own blog. Happy Juneteenth!
Anyway, moving on to the next book…
Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann
I’ve already written a review of this book. It’s now Famous in the Ace Community, but not everyone who reads this blog is plugged into an ace community (hooray for diverse readership!) Anyway, it’s a light-hearted read which centers on a black protagonist from a flawed yet functional and ultimately nurturing black family who has black friends, and none of them need to be rescued from misery.
You’re being lazy by picking a book you’ve already reviewed.
Yes, it does save some effort on my part, but I also think this book belongs in this feature.
And the final book I want to present is…
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham
By some freakish coincidence of timing, I started reading this in the middle of May, before the Amy Cooper incident in Central Park happened and went viral across the internet. It was surreal to read the chapter “Birding While Black” just when black birders became a trendy topic.
That said, this memoir is about a lot more than birding while black. A lot of it is nostalgia for the writer’s childhood home, the ‘Home Place’, built and owned and run by his family in the woods of South Carolina, a refuge from society at large, where he first developed his relationship with nature which set him on the path to become a professional naturalist. It’s a bit like Little House in the Woods and it’s a bit like the writing of John Muir, but I don’t want to exaggerate those comparisons because Dr. Lanham has his own distinct voice and perspective.
I also never thought about the ecosystems or natural beauty of South Carolina before, but some of the descriptions in this book make me wish I could go for a walk in the forests of South Carolina.
Happy Juneteenth everybody!
UPDATE: On this very Juneteenth, I happened to stumble on this article about problems with trying to address race with book recommendation lists. I don’t think this particular recommendation list fits the mold described in the article, nonetheless I found the article interesting and worth reading.