Black History in Literature, Part 2: Novels

“Discrimination is the hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind the that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

There are many ways to stand up against discrimination, and one of those ways, I believe, is to write about it. During these times, some may have felt that writing about it was the only thing they could do. In many cases, it was. To write about anything is to put something to question, no matter the topic. Within every book there is a question. Within every poem, play, essay, short story, or what have you, there is a question. There is very rarely an answer. By briefly examining these important and influential novels, I hope to identify these questions. In doing so, I can gain as well as give a new perspective on the experience of a black person in the US. I know I’m going to miss some really important ones (mostly because I haven’t read them yet), so don’t forget to leave some of your favorite African American based books in the comments below.

Immediate disclaimer: I haven’t read The Color Purple or 12 Years a Slave yet.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan, and when 10-year-old Bud decides to hit the road to find his father, nothing can stop him.

It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan, and when 10-year-old Bud decides to hit the road to find his father, nothing can stop him.

“A bud is a flower-to-be. A flower in waiting. Waiting for just the right warmth and care to open up. It’s a little fist of love waiting to unfold and be seen by the world. And that’s you.”

This was one of the first books I ever loved. I first read it in fourth grade as teachers and parents urged me to branch away from Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants (I had a high reading level, and they insisted I use it). So this is the book that I picked. I think this is important, first and foremost, because it is a children’s novel. It doesn’t have the intensity or complexity of something by, say, Toni Morrison. It’s digestible to young readers, and with this honest portrayal of a young black boy during the great depression, I find that important. In my mind, the book has always been representative of the eternal question: when things get so hard, why keep going? Because, the book answers, ‘when god closes one door, he opens another.’

“Just like when there’s a time that a smart person knows enough is enough, there’s a time when you know you’ve got to fight.”

Push by Sapphire

Precious Jones, a illiterate sixteen-year-old, has up until now been invisible: invisible to the father who rapes her and the mother who batters her and to the authorities who dismiss her as just one more of Harlem's casualties. But when Precious, pregnant with a second child by her father, meets a determined and highly radical teacher, we follow her on a journey of education and enlightenment as Precious learns not only how to write about her life, but how to make it her own for the first time.

Precious Jones, a illiterate sixteen-year-old, has up until now been invisible: invisible to the father who rapes her and the mother who batters her and to the authorities who dismiss her as just one more of Harlem’s casualties. But when Precious, pregnant with a second child by her father, meets a determined and highly radical teacher, we follow her on a journey of education and enlightenment as Precious learns not only how to write about her life, but how to make it her own for the first time.

“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers: ‘Grow, Grow’.”

This novel gives insight as to what it’s like to live poor and forgotten, live knowing that system thinks you don’t matter and most consider you to be a lost cause. In this story, Precious is a “black object in a world of hopelessness and despair”. While the details of her story are not remotely universal, the core of her story is something that too many people share, including a disproportionate amount of black people. Precious, for the majority of the story, is simply surviving. Is there more to life? Is there a way we can break out of this, find something better? The answer: if we all hope together, maybe.

“I say I drownin’ in river. She don’t look me like I’m crazy but say, If you just sit there the river gonna rise up drown you! Writing could be the boat carry you to the other side.”

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. It is a vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child's yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.

The Bluest Eye tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. It is a vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child’s yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.

“Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another–physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”

Why should we love something when it is not beautiful? This book. Just…this book. Something that is hugely important that people often miss – this is not negatively looking at blue eyes and blonde hair. It’s honestly critiquing society. Pecola’s love and need for blue eyes was representative of a life she would have preferred. The white, middle class life. She loved the idea, and love can be so dangerous. Love perpetuates beauty, and to many black girls beauty, in their minds, is impossible. Because they can never be white. This is important and continues to be important because this is still a problem in society today. When asked who the prettiest, smartest, nicest child is in a line up of identical cartoon children (save for their color), children chose the light skin. Whiteness is what we continue to behold as beautiful – the white face, the white figure. It’s not nearly as bad as it was in the past, but we still have a ways to go. This book is a beautiful take on the identity of a young black girl who doesn’t think she’s beautiful.

“Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.”

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Tomboy Scout Finch comes of age in a small Alabama town during a crisis in 1935. She admires her father Atticus, how he deals with issues of racism, injustice, intolerance and bigotry, his courage and his love.

“If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?”

This book talks a lot about innocence, morality, and sympathy. In includes a lot about the struggles of a black man and community through the eyes of a young girl as she tries to figure out how people divide themselves. It is difficult to comprehend how a person could hate another person without first knowing that person, passing judgement with a glance. Reading a white child trying to make sense of it adds some kind of sense to the whole thing. What these people are doing, it’s not looking. They can’t tell the difference between a mockingbird and a blue jay, although they’re sure that one is bad and the other’s good. A blue jay can’t see through the mockingbirds eyes – it’ll go on sure it’s a mockingbird. There is a real struggle to be able to sympathize with other human beings, to discover that these people are, in fact, human beings. We are all different, but we are all the same. We are unequal, but equal. We are all human. When we have enough sympathy to realize the humanity of the people around us, we can see our own.

“When they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . .” His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Beloved by Toni Morrison 

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

“Beloved looked at the tooth and thought, This is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop maybe one at a time, maybe all at once. Or on one of those mornings before Denver woke and after Sethe left she would fly apart.”

This book is not about slavery. It’s about people, and what happens next. What are you, when one day you become more than another man’s property? At what point do you become free? Beloved is a character who belongs complete to other people. Her life depends on the love and attention of Sethe and Denver. And she is empty and falling apart. To Sethe, at least, she would rather her children be dead completely than dead on the inside – “if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear happen to her.” To Beloved, she cannot distinguish death from the white man – the skinless man with a whip is after her. This is the embodiment of both death and slavery. Slavery took the personhood and the identities of an entire peoples, sapping them and leaving them to discover something different when it was through with them. People keep doing this to themselves and to each other, and this is a kind of slavery that we cannot allow ourselves to be subjected to. We have to remember slavery and the wrongness of the past hundred years for the same reason we must forget. Who are we, without it?

“But suddenly she saw her hands and thought with a clarity as simple as it was dazzling, ‘These hands belong to me. These my hands.’ Next she felt a knocking in her chest and discovered something else new: her own heartbeat. Had it been there all along? This pounding thing? She felt like a fool and began to laugh out loud.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtson

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One of the most important works of twentieth-century American literature, Zora Neale Hurston’s beloved 1937 classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an enduring Southern love story sparkling with wit, beauty, and heartfelt wisdom. Told in the captivating voice of a woman who refuses to live in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams, it is the story of fair-skinned, fiercely independent Janie Crawford, and her evolving selfhood through three marriages and a life marked by poverty, trials, and purpose. A true literary wonder, Hurston’s masterwork remains as relevant and affecting today as when it was first published—perhaps the most widely read and highly regarded novel in the entire canon of African American literature.

Sexuality, power, independence. This was one of the first major books by a black woman about a black woman and one of the many gemstones of the Harlem Renaissance. I could never do it any justice, so I’ll live you with it, and let it speak for itself. Let me know what you think about it in the comments, and have a very nice day.

“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

Part 1 – Part 2

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (pronounced like ‘air’ for those of you who are confused as I usually am) by Charlotte Bronte, my favorite of the Bronte sisters is one of my favorite books, and easily my favorite of the romantic persuasion.  

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When I was first assigned this book for an independent novel assignment in school, I had mixed feelings. I had heard it described as ‘romantic’, ‘boring’, ‘amazing’, and again, ‘romantic’. So I didn’t quite know what to think. Then, of course, there was the synopsis.

Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre nonetheless emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity.

She takes up the post of governess at Thornfield, falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman’s passionate search for a wider and richer life than Victorian society traditionally allowed.

With a heroine full of yearning, the dangerous secrets she encounters, and the choices she finally makes, Charlotte Bronte’s innovative and enduring romantic novel continues to engage and provoke readers.

I like very dark stories, typically. So this book didn’t exactly pique my interest. However, when I actually read it, I changed my mind very quickly.

While this isn’t exactly promoted, the story of Jane Eyre is quite dark. When the story opens, your thrown into Jane’s torment straight away. The tragedy of Jane’s childhood was that she remembered a time when she was loved and had someone to love, and each time to finds this love it is torn away from her. Her parents, her Uncle Reed, her dearest (and only) childhood friend. These events build her up into the type of women the rich folk look for in a governess (a stay-at-home private tutor/babysitter). Her passion is treated as a sort of undertone. It does not control her, but it gives her a sort of outward spunk (for lack of a better word) uncommon in women of the time. Making Jane one of these most interesting characters I have ever read.

Then, of course, there is the love story. I am a closet-case sap, you see. And while I am very tired of stories where it feels like they quite literally fall into a sort of love like state with a person they’ve talked to once, their relationship was not as simple as the synopsis makes it seem. Jane insists on being his equal, his partner. Not his servant or what have you (even though she’ll only call him Mr. Rochester). She is not a character looking for love, and when she starts to have a crush she fights it. The whole thing happens as it should: gradually, then all at once. And since Charlotte Bronte is such a brilliant writer, we get to experience her pure joy, as it is the first time since she was a very young child that she had been happy. And, really, it’s not that dramatic. Everything that happens is set up in a way where, when it happens, you’re just thinking ‘Of course‘.

Also, this is a Gothic novel. It is dreary. The main characters are damaged (in fact, I believe they discuss this at some point) and there are ghosts and crazy people and fire. Monsters hiding in the shadows, even. Not like the boogieman, of course, but in the way where earlier in the book we are told a ghost story and we watch as it seems to play out (until logic takes hold, of course). But there are moments when the whole thing feels like a madhouse, when you think for a moment someone is going to die. And, perhaps, someone does.

There are maybe two sunshine happiness moments in the whole story. The first, the sequences in which Jane and Rochester declare their love for one another and run off to get married. The second is the ending. I mean, this book has one of the happiest ending in the history of ever. Especially taking into consideration the pasts of the characters and the whole rest of the book. When you get to the ending, it is very satisfying and slightly giggly.

I would recommend this book to people who are fans of classic literature with feminist views, strong female protagonists, romance, and gothic fiction.

If you enjoyed basically anything by Jane Austen, Lady Windemere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde, Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, or Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, you will probably enjoy Jane Eyre

If you have read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and have yet to read Jane Eyre, I’ll have to kindly ask you what you’re doing with your life, because clearly you have done something incorrectly.

Basically, I love this book. Give it look. And if you didn’t love it, please tell me why below.

Have a nice day.

It Makes Me Sad

Day 6 of the 30 Day Challenge. Let’s talk about our feelings. No, but I am going to talk about a book that poured the feels all over my cold heart. I am one with the fact that I am a monster. So just know, this book is infused with those feels.

Okay, I’m sorry. I’m a liar. I don’t really find things sad like your average person. Because for all the sadness in the books, usually a happy ending will just erase all of the sad for me. Like in Les Miserable (the musical – I haven’t gotten to the book yet). For me, that is one of the happiest endings of all time. Everyone who died finally got to be free. Even with The Fault in Our Stars. Yeah, it’s sad. But then they find what they were looking for and it’s just beautiful. Beauty is always happy, no matter how sad it is, in that it makes me happy. So, rather than explain the hours spent grieving over a lost character or all the countless times when I actually yell at the book in my hands because it’s hurting me with unresolved pain, I’m going to tell you something that is my kind of sadness.

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That’s right. It’s Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Okay, maybe the beauty couldn’t full erase the sadness. Because this is the kind of unavoidable and absolute sadness that just kills me. And that is the sadness of something that didn’t have to happen, something that happened to another person who just wanted to be cruel or ignorant. And that really kills me. It really does.

I have the same kind of sadness when reading books like Beloved and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It doesn’t always go hand in hand with racism, those just happened to be the examples that popped into my head. Since racism hits pretty close to home.

I don’t have to tell you that To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. Because it is. One of my favorites. But just…the thing that happens to Tom Robinson didn’t have to happen. And it’s so terrible, and it didn’t have to happen. Mayella could have had the courage to say something, and maybe she would have if her daddy wasn’t such a waste of life, and if they didn’t live in a society where you could get away with anything as long as you blamed the black guy. And they had so much evidence. The jury knew what happened. They had to. And it took them so long, not because they were debating what was true and what was lie, but because they were debating what was right. And they chose wrong. And that’s sad.

I’m right with Boo Radley on this one. Shutting yourself up away from the mess that is humanity doesn’t seem like such a bad idea sometimes.

It’s when you get into the ‘what ifs’ that make things really sad for me. Because that’s when you can’t do anything about it and you have nothing else to do but dwell on it. And that’s sad.

Terribly sad, actually. I’ve gone and depressed myself.