Ever since I was young, I had to struggle to find books that told the stories of people that carried the same identity as me. I would constantly try to find books where the protagonist wasn’t white, cis-gendered, and straight. As I continue to get older, I am excited to see more stories of people who do not fit into those categories and continue to see growth in the amount of representation not only in books, but in other forms of popular media such as movies and tv shows. However, although we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go to reach the level of representation we should be seeing in popular media.
As any person of color knows (especially black people), the media only likes to portray one experience of being black in America. However, while we do all identify the same and have similar experiences, there are still many different black people in America. Yes, contrary to popular belief, we aren’t all the same. So, in honor of black history month, here are five novels that highlight different experiences of black people in America, as well as some commonalities a lot of us share and experience as being black in America.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Jason Reynolds’ brilliant novel Long Way Down is not only an ode against gun violence by highlighting the negative cyclical effects it creates, but also an empowering story that emphasizes the importance of family in the black community. The novel follows fifteen-year-old Will as he rides down an elevator, gun tucked in the waistband of his jeans. The recent murder of his brother and the culture of violence he has been surrounded by leads to him going to get revenge on the guilty party. Taking place in sixty seconds, as Will rides down the elevator, each floor the elevator stops at has a new person entering who is no longer alive and connected to his brother. That’s not the only connection they all have though. Gun violence is also a running theme as he faces each individual.
Many of us have never seen a gun or been even been in this kind of situation but it reigns true that gun violence can often become an issue in black communities. Solving an issue with a gun can be seem as normal due to the cyclical nature of it and the unfortunate conditions of living in these neighborhoods due to systemic racism. As Furious Styles said in Boyz n the Hood: “Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? I’ll tell you why. For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves.” However, as I mentioned before, gun violence is not the only theme this novel highlights. This novel also shows the strong sense of community and loyalty to family often felt in the black community. Will immediately knows he must get revenge for his brother. This truly is a natural part of the black community where family is often held to a high level of importance and is one of my favorite parts of being black. While it is not an experience that is entirely unique to being black in America, it is part of our culture and how we navigate in this country that allows us to have a stronger bond to one another as a community.
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry
Based on his Oscar-winning short film of the same name, Hair Love, shows the importance to people everywhere, but especially young black girls, of loving our hair. This children’s book, whose lesson reigns over my heart, follows a young girl, Zuri, whose father must learn how to manage her kinks and coils while her mom is away. It is so heartwarming to see her father continuously attempt to learn how to do her hair and please his daughter!
This novel not only shares the message of loving our kinks and coils, which have been shunned for so long due to European beauty standards, but also highlights a beautiful father-daughter relationship that we often don’t get to see due to the stereotype of the absent black father. This shows a part of the black experience in America that is loving our hair and being proud of everything it can achieve, even if it has been deemed “unprofessional” and “ghetto” for years!
I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
I’m Still Here is a phenomenal read by Austin Channing Brown that touched me deeply as a black woman. Brown’s novel follows her experience navigating a racialized America from 7 years old all the way into adulthood. She uncovers what it really means to learn to love your blackness while constantly surrounded by whiteness and the difficulties of navigating a world catered to whiteness. This highlights an experience most black people can relate to when they are in white spaces, but especially if you grow up in completely white spaces. She tells the story of going from being in a majority-black space in Cleveland to being in a majority-white space in a middle-class suburb.
I deeply related to this text as I had a similar experience to Brown. While it feels like many black people have one experience or the other, both of which create major differences in who we are, having both experiences, such as Brown and I had, really allows you the differences of the communities. This novel will show you the difference in those experiences and the class division black people often face, as well as having you examine whiteness in a way you never expected.
Six Degrees of Separation By John Guare
While this is a play, and not by a black author, this story still highlights the issue we have navigating spaces, even with white liberals who are more “woke” or believe they are better than conservatives. Many white liberals believe that simply because they vote for the “right” person and say the right things publicly that they do not contribute to systemic (or any other kind of) racism. However, John Guare calls out other white people in his play by highlighting how that is not true.
Six Degrees of Separation follows a young black man, Paul, as he shows up at the home of an upper-class white couple Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge. Getting into their home under false pretenses and constructing lies with his charm, the couple trusts him until they realize in the morning everything he said was untruthful. Throughout the novel, we see the difference in treatment they give to Paul when they thought he was on their same class level versus when they realize he is a con artist. The play truly highlights the oftentimes “true colors” of white liberals who only believe black people deserve rights up until we are not the conforming black people they want us to be or until we aren’t of their same class level. Our experiences in America often have to do with changing ourselves around white people, even ones that “aren’t racist,” to be more acceptable to them.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, an American novelist from Lorain, Ohio and HBCU Howard University alumni is a literary icon and her critically-acclaimed novel Song of Solomon proves this. Song of Solomon follows Milkman Dead through his life (the 1930s-1963, ending right before the civil rights movement) as he tries to discover and navigate the world. In the novel, Milkman takes a journey to find Gold but ends up making discoveries about his family’s history. The novel truly highlights many aspects of the black experience including family and community.
Song of Solomon has a lot of aspects that many can relate to, such as feeling alienated and lost, a disconnection from one’s family, and the pressure to be a certain way. I think an important note that is definitely a part of the black experience for many of us in America, however, is not knowing your family’s history. For a lot of us, we were taken from the origins of our people and had no way of documenting our history, even once we were in America. While we have created our own culture of blackness, the novel really highlights the clarity and the larger sense of identity that comes with knowing who your ancestral family is.
Feature Images Via RhysTranter.com, University of Washington Magazine, WTTW.com
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