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According to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, there were 721 challenges to library, school, and university materials in 2021. Those challenges resulted in nearly 1600 individual book challenges or removals. Books by or about Black people or members of the LGBTQIA+ community were the most targeted. Why? Because the focus of the books are racial or sexual identity. People write to share knowledge; people read to gain knowledge.
Librarians are finding themselves on the frontlines in the battle against censorship. In fact, things have become so contentious that librarians are being harassed, threatened, and labeled “groomers.”
As a Black woman and a librarian, I find these actions reprehensible. Most public libraries have collection development policies and, within those policies, are guidelines for how and what material is accessed by children. Ultimately, it is left up to the parent or guardian to monitor and determine what materials their children access and read. Children are not in libraries randomly checking out material that is beyond their age/reading level and, if they are, parents or guardians should be having discussions with those children and explaining why that material is inappropriate for them to have in their home. No family should be dictating the accessibility of reading materials in another family’s home.
Restricting access to material written by Black authors or other underrepresented communities does not make them go away. In fact, it seriously limits a person’s ability to understand and make sense of the world around them. Additionally, it increases the chances for bullying, violence, self-harm, and suicide. People read to know that they are not alone in this world.
Below, I’m sharing books by Black authors that I’ve read and enjoyed. Each book has impacted me in some way and left an indelible impression on me. If you choose to read one, please let me know your thoughts.
Book descriptions provided by Amazon.
Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X
“In the searing pages of this classic autobiography, originally published in 1964, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and anti-integrationist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Black Muslim movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American Dream, and the inherent racism in a society that denies its nonwhite citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time. The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand America.”
Nella Larsen. Passing
“This Signet Classics edition of Passing includes an Introduction by Brit Bennett, the bestselling author of The Vanishing Half.
Irene Redfield is a Black woman living an affluent, comfortable life with her husband and children in the thriving neighborhood of Harlem in the 1920s. When she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare Kendry, who is similarly light-skinned, Irene discovers that Clare has been passing for a white woman after severing ties to her past—even hiding the truth from her racist husband.
Clare finds herself drawn to Irene’s sense of ease and security with her Black identity and longs for the community (and, increasingly, the woman) she lost. Irene is both riveted and repulsed by Clare and her dangerous secret, as Clare begins to insert herself—and her deception—into every part of Irene’s stable existence. First published in 1929, Larsen’s brilliant examination of the various ways in which we all seek to “pass,” is as timely as ever.”
Mamie Till-Mobley, Christopher Benson. Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America
“In August 1955, a fourteen-year-old African American, Emmett Till, was visiting family in Mississippi when he was kidnapped from his bed in the middle of the night by two white men and brutally murdered. His crime: allegedly whistling at a white woman in a convenience store. The killers were eventually acquitted.
What followed altered the course of this country’s history—and it was all set in motion by the sheer will, determination, and courage of Mamie Till-Mobley, whose actions galvanized the civil rights movement, leaving an indelible mark on our racial consciousness. Death of Innocence is an essential document in the annals of American civil rights history, and a painful yet beautiful account of a mother’s ability to transform tragedy into boundless courage and hope.”
“The unforgettable memoir of a woman at the front lines of the civil rights movement—a harrowing account of black life in the rural South and a powerful affirmation of one person’s ability to affect change.”
Gloria Naylor. The Women of Brewster Place
“In her heralded first novel, Gloria Naylor weaves together the stories of seven women living in Brewster Place, a bleak-inner city sanctuary, creating a powerful, moving portrait of the strengths, struggles, and hopes of black women in America. Vulnerable and resilient, openhanded and openhearted, these women forge their lives in a place that in turn threatens and protects—a common prison and a shared home. Naylor renders both loving and painful human experiences with simple eloquence and uncommon intuition. Adapted into a 1989 ABC miniseries starring Oprah Winfrey, The Women of Brewster Place is a touching and unforgettable read.”
Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Take My Hand
“Montgomery, Alabama, 1973. Fresh out of nursing school, Civil Townsend intends to make a difference, especially in her African American community. At the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, she hopes to help women shape their destinies, to make their own choices for their lives and bodies.
But when her first week on the job takes her along a dusty country road to a worn-down one-room cabin, Civil is shocked to learn that her new patients, Erica and India, are children—just eleven and thirteen years old. Neither of the Williams sisters has even kissed a boy, but they are poor and Black, and for those handling the family’s welfare benefits, that’s reason enough to have the girls on birth control. As Civil grapples with her role, she takes India, Erica, and their family into her heart. Until one day she arrives at their door to learn the unthinkable has happened, and nothing will ever be the same for any of them.
Decades later, with her daughter grown and a long career in her wake, Dr. Civil Townsend is ready to retire, to find her peace, and to leave the past behind. But there are people and stories that refuse to be forgotten. That must not be forgotten.
Because history repeats what we don’t remember.
Inspired by true events and brimming with hope, Take My Hand is a stirring exploration of accountability and redemption.”
Ann Petry. The Street
“The Street follows the spirited Lutie Johnson, a newly single mother whose efforts to claim a share of the American Dream for herself and her young son meet frustration at every turn in 1940s Harlem. Opening a fresh perspective on the realities and challenges of black, female, working-class life, The Street became the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies.”
Alice Walker. The Color Purple
“A powerful cultural touchstone of modern American literature, The Color Purple depicts the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia. Separated as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie sustain their loyalty to and hope in each other across time, distance and silence. Through a series of letters spanning twenty years, first from Celie to God, then the sisters to each other despite the unknown, the novel draws readers into its rich and memorable portrayals of Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery and Sofia and their experience. The Color Purple broke the silence around domestic and sexual abuse, narrating the lives of women through their pain and struggle, companionship and growth, resilience and bravery. Deeply compassionate and beautifully imagined, Alice Walker’s epic carries readers on a spirit-affirming journey towards redemption and love.”
Stephanie Powell Watts. No One is Coming to Save Us: A Novel
“JJ Ferguson has returned home to Pinewood, North Carolina, to build his dream house and to pursue his high school sweetheart, Ava. But as he reenters his former world, where factories are in decline and the legacy of Jim Crow is still felt, he’s startled to find that the people he once knew and loved have changed just as much as he has. Ava is now married and desperate for a baby, though she can’t seem to carry one to term. Her husband, Henry, has grown distant, frustrated by the demise of the furniture industry, which has outsourced to China and stripped the area of jobs. Ava’s mother, Sylvia, caters to and meddles with the lives of those around her, trying to fill the void left by her absent son. And Don, Sylvia’s unworthy but charming husband, just won’t stop hanging around.
JJ’s return—and his plans to build a huge mansion overlooking Pinewood and woo Ava—not only unsettles their family, but stirs up the entire town. The ostentatious wealth that JJ has attained forces everyone to consider the cards they’ve been dealt, what more they want and deserve, and how they might go about getting it. Can they reorient their lives to align with their wishes rather than their current realities? Or are they all already resigned to the rhythms of the particular lives they lead?
No One Is Coming to Save Us is a revelatory debut from an insightful voice: with echoes of The Great Gatsby it is an arresting and powerful novel about an extended African American family and their colliding visions of the American Dream. In evocative prose, Stephanie Powell Watts has crafted a full and stunning portrait that combines a universally resonant story with an intimate glimpse into the hearts of one family.”
Colson Whitehead. The Underground Railroad
“Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him.
In Colson Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is both the gripping tale of one woman’s will to escape the horrors of bondage—and a powerful meditation on the history we all share.”
ABOUT THIS LIST
This list was inspired by this post created and shared by Elizabeth Leiba on LinkedIn. Elizabeth Leiba is an author, activist, and influencer. She, along with Lisa Hurley, started a “Save Black Literature” Book Club, an effort to protect the voices of Black authors in the face of unprecedented efforts to remove their literary works from book shelves across America. To learn more about Elizabeth Leiba, visit her website. To learn more about Lisa Hurley, visit her on Instagram at @HappyHappyPhoenix.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
Leave your recommendations below and commit to buying, sharing, and amplifying the voices of Black authors. Take a stand, #DiversifyYourBookshelf, #ReadBannedBooks, and #SupportBlackAuthors. If you’d like to look at additional lists, read here, here, and here.
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