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6 must-read novels in honor of Black History Month

Posted by Alex Pearlman  February 17, 2012 06:23 PM

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black like me.jpgBy Tamar Zmora

Since Gutenberg created the printing press, society has benefitted from the mass production and dispensation of the written word -- though occasionally it’s done more bad than good. Harmful publications occasionally slip through the cracks, serving primarily as hateful propaganda.

Because February is Black History Month, rather than stewing over the sinister, we should exalt the groundbreaking works published in spite of or because of racial tension. These authors rose up against adversity and wrote seminal works that shaped the present day.

The Invisible Man. This novel is the only thing Ralph Ellison published during life; his essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, were published posthumously. An unnamed man, marginalized and overlooked by society simply because of the high levels of melanin in his skin, sequesters himself in a hole in New York City filled with 1,369 light bulbs -- his one source of illumination in an otherwise bare and condemning world. Artist Jeff Wall found inspiration from the novel and photographed his vision of this eponymous figure in a piece entitled "After Invisible Man." 

Black Like Me. In this book, titled after the final verse of Langston Hughes' poem "Dream Variation," White Texan John Howard Griffin documents his six-week road trip across the segregated South, during which he masqueraded as a Black man (Griffin took a series of anti-vitiligo drugs and spent time under an ultraviolet lamp to alter his skin tone before beginning his expedition). After publishing this exposé of the South’s prejudice in a series of articles in Sepia magazine in 1975, Griffin and his family received several threats and, for a period of time, moved to Mexico.     

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Maya Angelou's autobiographical novel about childhood and early adulthood in the racially divided South depicts a sobering story of rape, racism, homelessness, and teen pregnancy -- all by the age of 17. But with great adversity comes immense triumph, and Angelou's novel proves to be a testament to her strength, courage, and resilience.

to kill a mockingbird.jpgTo Kill A Mockingbird. This story has made an indelible impression on multiple generations. Who could forget Boo Radley, the ghostly heroic recluse? Or Scout, the loveable and clever young tomboy? And certainly not Atticus Finch, model father and ethical compass? At the center of the novel is the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a White woman. As Tom’s lawyer, Finch must defend him against a bigoted Southern jury, while 6-year-old narrator Scout observes the injustice around her and struggles against the “Whites only” mentality so deeply ingrained in Depression-era Alabama.

Beloved. Toni Morrison's acclaimed novel about 18-year-old Sethe and her family, who are trying to build a new life in Cincinnati after escaping slavery, is based on the life of escaped slave Margaret Garner. As Morrison’s story shows us, however, trying to forget a past fraught with trauma, abuse, and horrific memories is painful and nearly impossible.

Black Boy. Richard Wright's autobiographical novel tells the story of a smart child going up against the racist 1920s South. Wright, who loves to read and learn, is distraught when both Whites and Blacks attempt to squash his ambitions, but after moving to the North with his aunt, he finds some comfort in a Communist community in Chicago.

Also, happy birthday to Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Frederick Douglass. May there be more like you.

What is your favorite African-American novel?

About Tamar -- I'm a recent Wellesley College grad with a degree in English and studio art. I grew up in the Midwest and briefly lived in Europe and the Middle East. My name is often mistaken for Tamara from "Sister, Sister." I love exploring coffee shops and am almost always highly caffeinated. I am very interested in films, the arts, theatre, painting, photography -- you name it -- '90s TV shows, and music.

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