Books by Black Authors that Changed my Outlook on Race

I have been silent for a little while on here… I wanted to talk about Black Lives Matter but didn’t know how, and then I figured I would use books to convey what I want to say. A lot of non-fiction books have been shared all over social media and I have kept these useful lists for my own education, but I thought I’d share here a few fiction novels (apart from the first one) that I found very useful in making me more aware of racism.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)

Olaudah Equiano was a pioneer in the fight against slavery during the late eighteenth century. According to his memoir, he was born in Africa and was stolen as a child to be sold as a slave. He later bought himself free and joined the Sons of Africa, a group of Africans living in London who led a campaign to abolish slavery. He is a very important figure for me because in history class, we tend to study the white intellectuals who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (who were definitely instrumental and I think we should still appreciate what they did today) and picture black people as ‘only’ suffering.  Here, you have a black man who is taking full possession of his narrative by writing up his life story and leading the fight.

I have to say that I don’t know of a lot of writing by black people prior to the nineteenth century, but I think it is important to amplify historical voices from minorities and give this part of history back to those who own it.

I guess I need to add that not everything is true in Equiano’s memoir; we now know that he was born in the US rather than in Africa, but we shouldn’t forget that this memoir has a political agenda. When he evokes a childhood in Africa, Equiano is depicting a romanticised version of tribal life which makes his abduction only the more violent and cruel – in order to make his European audience understand the inhumanity of the slave trade.

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

I’m not sure this novel needs any introduction by now, as it is a classic in its own right, inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman who escaped, and killed her baby after being captured. In Beloved, the child, Beloved, comes to haunt her mother, Sethe, and sister, Denver, as a ghost – representing the impossibility for Sethe to ever forget where she comes from. This novel gave me a true sense of the impact of slavery on black people, even long after it was abolished. The story of Beloved is the heavy burden that African Americans have to carry on their shoulders, as their country was built on their blood and that of Native Americans.

This is not an easy book to read, no matter who you are. But of course, I am talking as a white person and I think that in history books, we study slavery as a distant concept without taking into actual considerations the individuals who were affected by it. We know, of course, that it was cruel and inhumane, but we need a book like Beloved to hit us in the face and show us why.

I have recently read Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered (2019) which is really reminiscent of Beloved – it too is a novel of magical realism and deals with the notion of collective memory for African Americans, especially women and its impact on motherhood. A collective memory is the memory of a group of people passed on to the next generations, and slavery is at the basis of many black communities’ collective memory… and how could it not be? I think that it’s important that we read about slavery and its impact on individuals, and I think fiction is a great way to immerse yourself in this dark but essential part of history.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout (2015)

The Sellout is about a man who tries to reintroduce slavery in 21st-century California. The premise of this novel is bold, absurd, and absolutely awful; I think we can agree on that. It reminds me of the TV series, The Wire, when a desperate police captain legalises drugs in a specific neighbourhood of Baltimore. The Sellout is a little more satirical and really highlights racial issues in the US.

Yet another book I had a hard time reading, as it made me deeply uncomfortable! I guess I didn’t find it as funny as everyone else because I only found the idea of reintroducing slavery half-absurd. I find that American politics have always been absurd and sometimes ridiculous in its lack of subtlety – like when Native American affairs were directly dealt with by the Land Bureau, clearly showing their interest in Native lands but their disregard for the people that inhabit them. I think I can believe anything can happen in the US, especially given the current president’s never-ending succession of idiotic comments.

Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (2019)

When we first meet her, Queenie is in complete denial that her boyfriend has broken up with her, she has to move back to her grandparents’, and she feels like she’s going nowhere in her career. Queenie is presented as a dark comedy and of course, there are funny bits and the characters are, for the most part, really loveable but I found it to be a very uncomfortable and heavy read. I related a lot to Queenie because she is a bigger girl with mental health issues, but I never realised how easy I had it compared to a black woman… I’m ashamed to say that I never knew, before reading this book, that racism permeated every single area of daily life. My self-esteem was never deteriorated by nasty comments from doctors who can’t examine me correctly because ‘they can’t see properly’, or by men who objectified and sexualised my body with racial clichés. I’ve never had to think that my appearance could potentially be the reason why some people can’t stand me to start with or are prejudiced against me.

Queenie is a very important book to read, because even if it might make you uncomfortable at points (which is okay, by the way, I think we need to face the disagreeable facts first to then be better allies), it is very nice to read – it was more of a page-turner for me – and most importantly, it shows how much we need feminism to be more intersectional and refuse the too widespread branch of feminism that is exclusively white.

There are a lot of free resources online, especially on Instagram and Twitter, which are really great to educate yourself on racial issues and allyship. When you’re not in a position to donate or protest, I find that reading and sharing are the best alternatives.

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