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Seven Stories for Black History Month

Hello readers! It’s October, which means autumn, earlier evenings, and apparently RAIN. Of Biblical proportions. So what to do on all those rainy nights? WELL, as it happens, October is also Black History Month. So I thought I’d kick off my shiny brand-new blog with a (non-exhaustive) list of stories about interesting or memorable black characters. Several of them deal with slavery, only because I’ve read them fairly recently. However in future posts I will also be sharing titles by BAME authors on a variety of subjects and themes. The books here are not new titles, but they have all affected me deeply in different ways. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to know what you thought of them! If you haven’t, I hope this post inspires you to try them.

  Kindred – Octavia E. Butler
A time-slip novel you might enjoy if you liked The Time-Traveller’s Wife. Dana is an educated, independent, middle-class black woman from 1976 Los Angeles, married to the scholarly Kevin. One day, she finds herself physically transported back to a cotton plantation in Maryland, in 1815. We aren’t told how, but we do find out why. She ends up trapped there, forced to confront uncomfortable truths about her heritage at the same time as living the life of a slave. It’s definitely not a sci-fi novel, as the mechanics of the time travel aren’t really discussed, nor are they the most important part of it. Instead, Butler shows us the brutality of slavery - the helplessness, the feeling of being trapped – up close, through Dana’s character. The descriptions of the violence are graphic and disturbing, but Butler brings some nuance to the social dynamics at play. What I liked most about it was her optimism about the capacity and desire of human beings to find commonality with other human beings, when they are not restrained by their own social conditioning.

Notebook of a Return To My Native Land - Aimé Césaire 
Part of my required reading at university, Aimé Césaire’s book-length poem was unlike anything I had ever read before, both in genre and style. It’s not strictly a story, but it mixes verse and prose to explore and express black Martinican cultural identity under European colonial rule, and I remember being completely stunned by it. Césaire uses language in startlingly unexpected ways - powerful, evocative, and demanding. It probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s precisely the strangeness and beauty of the language that keeps me coming back to this one; it’s always in easy reach on my bookshelf. I read this bilingual edition by Bloodaxe.

Small Island – Andrea Levy 
I discovered the late Andrea Levy fairly recently, when I watched the BBC television adaptation of The Long Song last Christmas, but I didn’t get to Small Island until earlier this year. Small Island is the story of the generation of black Caribbeans who emigrated to Britain on the Empire Windrush and highlights the tensions they experienced between their expectations of the “Motherland” and reality. It follows bright-eyed newly-weds Gilbert and Hortense as they leave their small island in the West Indies for a cold, grey, war-weary England, full of hopes and ambitions for their future. Gilbert served in the RAF during the war, and Hortense is eager to put her new teaching degree to use. But not everything turns out as they anticipated and they must learn to cope with their disappointment and frustration, both with each other and with this other small island they now call home. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, and heart-warmingly tender in others. I wasn’t a fan of the ending, but if you’re looking for a feel-good book that discusses prejudice and belonging in a way that’s also thoughtful and poignant, this is it. 

Beloved – Toni Morrison 
An intense one. This might be a good crossover book for Halloween and Black History Month, as we find out pretty early on that it’s set in a house that’s haunted by the ghost of a small child. However, it’s so much more than just a ghost story. It’s about how the legacy of slavery reaches down through generations, and all the ways in which that legacy affects relationships between children and parents, especially mothers. Supernatural influences feature heavily, and the dead inhabit the same space as the living, but spooky thrills are not the aim here as the most harrowing scenes (and they ARE harrowing) are painful and tragic, rather than frightening. All the same, not for the faint-hearted, but will stay with you for a long time.

Twelve Years A Slave – Solomon Northup
Many of you will have already seen Steve McQueen’s viscerally powerful film based on the memoir of a free black man from New York, who was abducted and sold into slavery in the South. But don’t let this stop you from reading the book; it is a measured and carefully written account of the workings of the slave trade, of the contrast between the American North and South, of the suffering of the slaves themselves, and of Northup’s own faith and determination to get back home to his family. The simple yet elegant prose makes a stark contrast to the darkness of the contents of his narrative; he describes horrific violence carried out on himself and others in such bald terms that I had to stop reading at certain points to take a deep, composing breath. Interestingly, it was published a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but to me it was so much more compelling due to the first-person voice and the fact that it is a memoir rather than a fictional account. It will put you through the gamut of emotions, from horror at Solomon’s plight, to rage at the men responsible for it, to simple awe and admiration for his courage and resilience throughout the twelve-year ordeal.

Ignatius Sancho's Shop (From Dead Men's Teeth) - Jamie Rhodes
Inspired by the letters of Ignatius Sancho, a black African writer, entrepreneur and abolitionist activist living in London in the eighteenth century, this fantastical little story takes us on a surreal journey through Sancho’s imagination. Descended from slaves, Sancho occupied a unique position while he ran his little shop in Mayfair, supplying sugar, tobacco, rum and other products of the slave trade, to the fashionable figures and intellectuals of his day. While he sold the luxury products he needed to make a living, he had access to thinkers, artists and politicians whom he managed to influence with his abolitionist ideas. When Sancho is injured and his shop vandalised during a street riot, author Jamie Rhodes leads us through a dreamlike sequence of images and characters that seem to reflect Sancho’s deepest hopes and fears about his identity, his heritage, and his abolition work.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - Mildred D. Taylor
I make no apologies for including a children's / YA book here; it's beautifully written, deals with big themes, and the characters learn something about themselves and their world. Told through the eyes of nine-year-old Cassie Logan, this is a coming-of-age story as Cassie becomes aware of the injustices and violence of growing up black in 1930s Mississipi. When I read this book as a young teen, I didn’t know much about racial segregation in America or Jim Crow, and this certainly opened my eyes. There were incidents that made my blood boil, like the attitudes of teachers and shopkeepers trying to keep Cassie and her brothers in their “place”. But the references to the “night men” and the whispers of the violence they wreaked chilled me to the core. It’s interesting to note that Taylor was writing this book when the civil rights movement of the sixties were still fresh in public memory. That movement took place three decades after the events in the book. I wonder if Taylor felt then whether enough progress had been made, or whether there was still a long way to go to achieve real equality. Sadly, so much of it still feels relevant, even today.

Let me know what you think of my picks in the comments or over on The Brown Brontë’s Book Club. See you next time!
Shabnam (The Brown Brontë)


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