I'm too white to write this diary. I've read thousands of books, but only about twenty of them were written by blacks. My ignorance in this field is vast, and it's presumptuous of me even to attempt this. Indeed, the only thing worse than me writing this diary, would be not to write it. I have so much left to learn.
At the end of this diary are a couple dozen titles of books by Afro-American authors. I've done what I can, but I won't pretend my list is definitive: it's just a starting point for me, and anyone else who's inspired to reduce their ignorance. I've done a few hours research, and I'm pretty sure the books I list are all very good, and every avid reader should look into them.
I hope you will add suggestions of your own. Please tell us what Afro-American Book is your own favorite, with some explanation of why it means so much to you, or was such a joy to read; or list several more books that would fit on this must-read list; or share a link to another website, where you found a different list of Afro-American Books Everyone Should Read. Goodreads has many lists; I think this is the most comprehensive. But it would be more interesting to read a list of ten or twenty books, where someone added a paragraph about each choice on the list.
Thank You for stopping by and contributing - or at least voting in the poll.
I just finished a wonderful, inspiring, insightful, poetic book: Their Eyes Were Watching God, published by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937. I think it's one of the greatest American books of the 20th century. But what makes a book Great, and who decides which books make the grade?
That's a huge question, and one of my favorite to chew on. I've already written two diaries which address it. Right now I'm concerned with one aspect of that question: the way that traditional systems of value are slanted against otherness in general, and Afro-American Books in particular. Or, how Dead White Males wrote the rules on Great Books.
I'm not quite a dead white male, but I'm 2/3 of the way there. So I'll try to show you how literature looks to me, seen from the wrong end of the telescope, where dead-white-maledom is plain common sense, and Afro-American Books sound like an alien tongue.
I'm American. I was born in New Orleans, and I've lived in Cleveland, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, for at least six years each. But it wasn't always thus. When I was 8, my mother divorced my dad, and quit her life as a suburban housewife. She took me, a brother and a sister, to live in Italy, France, Portugal, Scotland, and all over the South of England. A rather schizophrenic ten years. Actually, most of those months I spent in English boarding schools. In my formative years I was steeped in a culture that was not just dead-white-male-centric, but looking over its shoulder towards 19th century ideals.
As a reader, I cut my teeth on C.S. Lewis, E.M. Forster, J.P. Donleavy, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Kurt Vonnegut and Herman Hesse. As best I can recall, I didn't read a book written by a black writer until I came across The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when I was 18. It was wild and shocking stuff, to a sheltered English schoolboy.
I've nothing against Afro-American Books. I'm generally open-minded, and I'm much more xenophilic than xenophobic. But my education and experience, my worldview, and especially my literary frame of reference are all much closer to historical England than the modern Afro-American experience. For most of us, our inner culture slumbers in our subconscious, where we rarely examine it, or notice how out-of-touch much of it is.
Their Eyes Were Watching God startled me awake. I have walked through so many chapters of old England, and of white America. I can read Shakespeare without a dictionary (mostly). I can slip into Dickens's world: it's 1820, and lowlifes are bantering in Cockney accents, but I feel right at home. But when Hurston dropped me into a black township in Florida in the 1920s, when she brought that world and its people and their speech vividly to life - well, it was a country I'd never seen before, and couldn't recognize. Luckily, she's a powerful writer, overflowing with insight and soul. So it wasn't hard to get to Eatonville, just riding her rich language, and the compelling story of Janie Starks's own life journey. But it was startling to find what a stranger I was, in parts of my own country and era.
This doesn't make me a bad person, or unAmerican. It just reveals surprising ignorance. For someone who has read so many books, I have been lazy and blinkered, when I made so little effort to explore the back yard (or front porch) of my own culture. At least I'm starting to explore now.
The problem we're looking at is how our mainstream culture is slanted, against otherness in general and Afro-American perspectives and stories in particular. They don't have to be shut out, they're just seldom looked at as carefully and caringly as stories which align more smoothly with the main lines of the predominant dead white male worldview. There aren't many American children who grew up like me, speaking in a British accent. But there are at least 200 million Americans who are ignorant, blinkered and lazy in ways they don't even notice, taking traditional values for granted in several directions. Our meanings of humanity, and mythologies of America, slant towards the tales that dead white men have been selling us for centuries. To broaden our perspectives, to include more different voices and views in our own experience, requires determined effort and continual mindfulness from most of us. We must stretch ourselves, to make room for this 21st century America we're building together.
I could continue in this vein - but I'd end up painting a pretty rainbow in heaven, with no relation to the concrete facts on the ground. The issue of stable but outdated traditional values vs. an emerging diversity of voices operates at so many levels of our culture and our own minds. Overall, we are progressing, and both America and our shared understanding of Humanity are growing larger, kinder, and newer. Sometimes the progress looks agonizingly slow. You know this, you have thought on these matters many times. Let's bring this diary back to earth: to Great Books and Afro-American Books.
As you may already know, there is an actual set of books called Great Books of the Western World.
The project got its start at the University of Chicago. University president Robert Hutchins collaborated with Mortimer Adler to develop a course, generally aimed at businessmen, for the purpose of filling in gaps in education, to make one more well-rounded and familiar with the "Great Books" and ideas of the past three millennia. . . . Hutchins said "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind."In the first edition (1952) there were 514 individual works. They were almost all written by dead white men. None were by women - but three were written by St. Augustine, who was of mixed African and Roman descent. In 1990 they published a second edition, with a few changes, and about 70 works from the 20th century added. So Great Books of the Western World now includes four women authors (Austen, Eliot, Cather and Woolf) - but only one black, who died in 430 AD. When this second edition came out, Mortimer Adler was asked in an interview why his Great Books did not include any black authors; he simply said, "They didn't write any good books."
When you read that, you feel like smacking Adler for being an overeducated, unthinking ass. But when you think a little longer, that sentence is even more chilling. This was a man who dedicated his life to learning, to books and ideas, to finding the best of the best that history had to offer. How can someone who has thought so much end up so utterly ignorant and blind?
Then you think longer, and it looks even worse. Because that kind of mule-headedness is spread all through our society, and is most concentrated and impenetrable among the gatekeepers at the very top. And it tilts against every minority, and women, and every kind of otherness. So Blacks, Women, Hispanics, Native Americans, Muslims, LGBTs (when gatekeepers spot them): all these "others" can go to Law School or Business School, but most of them will be thinned out of the competition before they become Senators or CEOs. There are too many Adlers at the top, who will look at their work, and find it doesn't quite measure up to their own narrow standards. The Adlers won't need any conscious animosity to do this. They are so convinced that their standards = excellence, that they have completely closed their minds. As I said before, we are progressing towards a more inclusive vision of humanity - but there are still a lot of Adlers at the top.
All I can see to do is to educate myself, so that I get rid of any unconscious Adlerism in myself. So I will make a point of reading powerful and poetic books written by Afro-Americans, to help me illuminate a larger and truer vision of humanity in my own head.
I usually prefer using Black instead of African-American. Black strikes me as simple, dignified, powerful; while African-American sounds like it was invented by a sociologist, so they could get all their boxes to line up on the page. But if I look at books by Black Writers, there are too many to be getting on with, between Zadie Smith, Chinua Achebe, and the next twenty greatest African writers that I've barely heard of. I settled for Afro-American (which I'm guessing is OK, since Henry Louis Gates, Jr. uses it), which narrows the field to writers closer to my own culture.
Technically, Afro-American could include all the Americas, right down to Machado de Assis - a Brazilian who Harold Bloom called "the supreme black literary artist to date". If you want to read a marvelous, quirky book that's off the beaten track, check out his The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, or Epitaph of a Small Winner. But that book came out in 1881, and doesn't speak straight to our own culture. Edwidge Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory) and Derek Walcott (Omeros) are closer in space and time.
I'll mention a few more Afro-American Books before getting to the poll, just so you have the titles in mind: Passing, Cane, Raisin in the Sun, The Women of Brewster Place, A Lesson Before Dying. If any of these, or different titles by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin or Richard Wright, or indeed any other favorite books at all come to your mind, and you think they belong on a shortlist for someone who's just beginning to explore Afro-American Books, please mention them in a comment below.
I'm usually quite the know-it-all. It's kind of refreshing to be asking my readers to teach me, for a change. Thanks for dropping by, and for any titles you drop in your comments below.