On this day in 1902, Langston Hughes—poet, playwright, novelist, and leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance—was born. Hughes is revered throughout the world for his extensive literary contributions: his short story collection, The Ways of White Folk, and his poetry collection,I, Too, Am America, are some of his most renowned works.
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He was young at the time of his first foray into writing, and he recalls his introduction to poetry as the result of a racial stereotype. “There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class, and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows,” Hughes added with a note of irony, “that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me the class poet.” At the time, he had no idea of everything his work would become.
In his adulthood, Hughes was a world traveller, enriching himself with trips to Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean. He wrote substantial work while residing in Paris, France. Working a series of odd jobs to support his writing, he earned his B.A. from historically black Lincoln University. Some scholars believe that Hughes was either homosexual or asexual; others believe the world will never know with any certainty. The universal truth remains: Hughes’ legacy is that of a prolific writer, a cultured intellectual, and a voice for freedom everywhere.
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Let’s celebrate his life and work with ten of his most powerful quotations:
“I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”
2. “I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.”
3. “What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode? ”
4. “Though you may see me holler,
And you may see me cry-
But I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.”
5. “I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers as ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
6. “Good-morning, Revolution:
You’re the very best friend
I ever had.
We gonna pal around together from now on.”
7. “When a man starts to build a world,
He starts first with himself.”
8. “I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?”
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too. I want freedom Just as you.”
10. “I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When the company comes,
But I laugh
And eat well
And grow strong
Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table When the company comes.”
It’s the first day of Black History Month, and what better way could there be to celebrate the black community’s rich artistic legacy than with these ten iconic novels? These outstanding works of literature represent the diverse experiences of the black community, collectively featuring black authors and characters of varied genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, and mixed racial identities. If your favorite book isn’t on the list… be glad to have an extra recommendation! Truthfully, there are too many powerful books to list, and the collection below represents only the smallest fraction of the black community’s enormous cultural achievements. So read on! Whether classic or contemporary, these ten books represent some of the world’s greatest works of literature.
Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby.
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.
Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.
Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.
Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.
Fair and long-legged, independent and articulate, Janie Crawford sets out to be her own person — no mean feat for a black woman in the ’30s. Janie’s quest for identity takes her through three marriages and into a journey back to her roots.
One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.
Things Fall Apart tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society.
The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, and which elevates the book to a tragic plane, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries. These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized, and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. Things Fall Apart is the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within.
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven—but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
The Color Purple is a classic. With over a million copies sold in the UK alone, it is hailed as one of the all-time ‘greats’ of literature, inspiring generations of readers.
Set in the deep American South between the wars, it is the tale of Celie, a young black girl born into poverty and segregation. Raped repeatedly by the man she calls ‘father’, she has two children taken away from her, is separated from her beloved sister Nettie and is trapped into an ugly marriage. But then she meets the glamorous Shug Avery, singer and magic-maker – a woman who has taken charge of her own destiny. Gradually, Celie discovers the power and joy of her own spirit, freeing her from her past and reuniting her with those she loves.
At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. A second marriage to Clara Bowden, a beautiful, albeit tooth-challenged, Jamaican half his age, quite literally gives Archie a second lease on life, and produces Irie, a knowing child whose personality doesn’t quite match her name (Jamaican for “no problem”). Samad’s late-in-life arranged marriage (he had to wait for his bride to be born), produces twin sons whose separate paths confound Iqbal’s every effort to direct them, and a renewed, if selective, submission to his Islamic faith.
Set against London’s racial and cultural tapestry, venturing across the former empire and into the past as it barrels toward the future, White Teeth revels in the ecstatic hodgepodge of modern life, flirting with disaster, confounding expectations, and embracing the comedy of daily existence.
First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of American literature. For not only does Ralph Ellison’s nightmare journey across the racial divide tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.
As he journeys from the Deep South to the streets and basements of Harlem, from a horrifying “battle royal” where black men are reduced to fighting animals, to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.
Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America.
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.
When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
Although best known as a poet and pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance movement, Langston Hughes proves himself one of modern literature’s most revered and versatile African-American authors with Not Without Laughter, a powerful classic novel.
This is a moving portrait of African-American family life in 1930s Kansas, following young Sandy Rogers as he comes of age. Sandy’s mother, Annjee, works as a housekeeper for a rich white family, while his father, traverses the country in search of work.
Not Without Laughter is a moving examination of growing up in a racially divided society. A rich and important work, Hughes deftly echoes the black American experience with this novel.
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Featured Image Via Toledo Parent
Back in February of this year, Oprah announced on Twitter that she was working on adapting her Book Club pick An American Marriage to the big screen.
Bustle is reporting that the announcement has resurfaced recently with the novel’s author Tayari Jones retweeting Oprah’s original tweet and clarifying her enthusiasm. All of this suggests the project is moving forward in development.
An American Marriage is both a suspenseful romance and an exploration of a married life in shambles, seen through the lens of letters sent back and forth between a black man falsely convicted in prison and his wife on the outside who must carry on alone while dealing with the romantic interests of a longtime friend.
In celebration of Black History Month, we thought we’d give you a solid twenty books by and about people of color. Some are fiction, some nonfiction, and there’s even a little poetry in here. Twenty is a lot of books, but maybe you can read just one this month. It really doesn’t matter which—they’re all awesome! We promise.
1. Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin
Summary: “Trayvon Martin’s parents take the readers beyond the news cycle with an account only they could give: the intimate story of a tragically foreshortened life and the rise of a movement” (Barnes & Noble)
Why you should read it: This book will remind you of the issues and struggles faced by people of color in today’s society, and the very real inequalities suffered by young black men.
2. Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama
Summary: A memoir from the son of a black man and a white mother, trying to find his place and meaning in life as a black American. Follow along with Barack Obama as he traces back his family lines, all while learning more about himself and his father.
Why you should read it: Get an inside look on Barack Obama before the oval office, and how his family and journey as a black man shaped him to be the man he is today.
3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
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Summary: This is a story about a 16-year-old girl who witnesses her childhood best friend get shot at the hands of a police officer, even though he was unarmed.
Why you should read it: Although fictional, stories like this have happened all around the country. See police brutality through the eyes of someone new, and how it affects the community in which it happened.
4. I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi
Summary: A collection of humorous essays that dissect cultural obsessions, Ajayi’s book loudly calls out bad behaviors in both our real and digital worlds. Subjects vary from cultural importance of television shows, to discussions of race and media representation.
Why you should read it: We all get swept up in pop culture and debates on the internet. It might be time to check yourself on the facts and the way you handle yourself on social media. During today’s political climate, this book will bring you the information you need to Do-Better.
5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Summary: Cora is becoming a woman, while enslaved on a cotton plantation in Georgia. A new arrival from Virginia, Caesar, tells her about the underground railroad. It has the same purpose as the underground railroad we are familiar with, except it’s an actual railroad with conductors and engineers.
Why you should read it: Colson Whitehead brings together terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era and terrors faced today. This novel can bring things to light for its readers, while telling a compelling and powerful story of one woman.
6. Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Summary: A semi-autobiographical novel, it follows John Grimes—an intelligent teenager in 1930s Harlem. This novel accounts for Grimes’ relationship to his family and church. The personal side focuses on the relationship between Grimes and his mother, his biological father, and his stepfather. It discusses the negative and positive impacts the Pentecostal Church had on the lives of African-Americans.
Why you should read it:Go Tell It On the Mountain was ranked 39th on Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, and was included in Time Magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. This novel is extremely influential and is a must-read for everyone.
7. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
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Summary: This book discusses issues specific to men of color and mass incarceration in the United States. Alexander notes that the discrimination faced is also prevalent among other minorities and socio-economically disadvantaged people as well. The central focus is within the title: “mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow”.
Why you should read it: A lot of people believe the wicked Jim Crow laws are long gone, but they’ve just changed shape. Read this book to understand what is happening, and why.
8. Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr.
Summary: A collection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons that focus on racial segregation in the U.S., emphasizing permanent religious values. King reflects on his deep understanding for the need of agape, while discussing how we need to first face our fears in order to reach the better world he believes there is.
Why you should read it: The sermons included have shaped many movements around civil rights and are extremely important to remember today. King’s speeches and sermons are inspirational for everyone, reading this book could change your perspective on life while giving you an extra nudge to keep fighting.
9. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou by Maya Angelou
Summary: A collection of Maya Angelou’s poems, containing her reflections on African American life and hardship, celebration of womanhood, and tributes to influential people of her time.
Why you should read it: Angelou’s poetry shifted and shaped the world, inspiring and captivating both people of color and women. Every line and every word she writes serves its purpose. Angelou was highly influential, and everyone should have her poetry under their belts.
10. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
Summary: Published in 1965, this book is the result of a collaboration between Malcolm X and Alex Haley. It’s based on a series of interviews held between Haley and Malcolm X between 1963 and Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965. It describes Malcolm X’s philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism.
Why you should read it: It’s impossible to fully understand the Civil Rights movement without understanding Malcolm X. There’s no better way to understand his mind than committing his autobiography to memory. And watching the movie.
11. Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin
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Summary: Slevin follows Michelle Obama from her working-class childhood in Chicago’s largely segregated South Side. Highlighting her tribulations at Princeton and Harvard Law School during racially charged times of the 1980s, to raising a family and helping Barack Obama become the President of the United States.
Why you should read it: One of the first detailed accounts of Michelle Obama’s life, showing the path of how she got to her seat as first lady. Read this novel to see how Michelle Obama has always strived to change the world.
12. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois
Summary: A collection of essays written focusing on race, Du Bois’ book takes from his own experiences as a black man in the United States.
Why you should read it: This book is extremely relevant to black history, and holds a special place in social science as one of the early works in sociology.
13. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Summary: Set after World War II, this play follows a family facing their own war against racism in Chicago. The Younger family of five lives in an apartment meant for three, building tension. When the patriarch of the household passes, the family comes into $10,000 from a life insurance check. Each member of the family has their own plans for what the money could go to.
Why you should read it: This play accurately depicts the lives of a family in post-WWII Chicago. It’s a classic, simple as that.
14. Kindred by Octavia Butler
Summary: A story that focuses on a young black woman from 1976, who finds herself jumping time between her present Californian life and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. She meets her ancestors and becomes entangled in the community, conflicting with her existence in her own time.
Why you should read it: There’s nothing like a socially conscious time travel story, and Butler’s the master.
15. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
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Summary: A historical novel published in 2003, set in pre-Civil War Virginia, Jones examines the issues regarding the ownership of black slaves by both black and white Americans.
Why you should read it: This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel takes on slavery in a very personal way. It’s pretty unforgiving and unforgettable.
16. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Summary: This book is written as a letter to the author’s teenage son about feelings, symbolism, and realities of being black in the United States. Coates explains American history and the “racist violence that has been woven into American culture” to his son.
Why you should read it: Published in 2015, this is a more recent and accurate telling of what it’s like to be black in America. Coates’ style of writing letters to his son creates a personal feeling to the book, and gives its readers a closer look into his thoughts.
17. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
Summary: This memoir recounts Jefferson’s life in the upper-crust of black Chicago, her father being the head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, and her mother a socialite. She takes us into the insular and discerning society she grew up in. “I call it Negroland because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.”
Why you should read it: Jefferson gives a different perspective, showing the readers a glimpse into the world of the Talented Tenth. It showcases privilege, discrimination, and misconception of “post-racial” America.
18. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Summary: A collection of poetry sharing what it feels like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, seeing the shadow of Jim Crow and becoming aware of the Civil Rights movement.
Why you should read it: It’s a National Book Award winner and Woodson can do no wrong. It’s a great place to start!
19. Fences by August Wilson
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Summary: A play written in 1985 that explores the African American experience while examining race relations (and other themes). Troy, 53-years-old, is the focus of the play. He’s the head of the household who struggles providing for his family. It follows Troy’s struggles throughout his life, and the effects they have on his family.
Why you should read it: It was adapted into a film in 2016, and we all know the book is better. The play gives the readers a chance to see color barriers faced by people of color in the 50s, and how some were able to break that barrier.
20. The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y. Davis, Cornel West, and Others on Black Americans and Politics in America Today edited by Wahneema Lubiano
Summary: Essays from some of today’s most respected intellectuals that share their ideas on race, power, gender, and society.
Why you should read it: This collection of essays can shed light on issues you may not be aware of, or bring more knowledge on issues you’ve already known about. There’s no such thing as knowing too much about something.
Maya Angelou is by far one of the most inspiring poets and civil rights activists in history. Her groundbreaking memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Singscemented her status as a literary icon and earned her the honor of being the first African American bestselling female author.
Her career has been lined with honors, accolades, and recognition as her powerful writing—centered largely on identity, racism, sexism, family, and exploration—has struck a chord in audiences everywhere. Her words breathe a soothing message that hope and happiness is never unattainable. Here are ten quotes by Maya Angelou to brighten your day.
1. You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
– “Still I Rise”
2. We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
– “Touched by An Angel”
3. The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
– “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”
4. Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
– “Phenomenal Woman”
5. When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear.
– “A Brave and Startling Truth”
6. Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.
I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.
Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.
– “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me”
7. And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restores, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
– “When Great Trees Fall”
8. Centered on the world’s stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,
for I shall not be moved.
– “Our Grandmothers”
9. We grow despite the
horror that we feed
upon our own
– “Glory Falls”
10. The ancestors remind us, despite the history of pain