When I was fresh out of college back in the 90s, I was lucky enough to get a gig with Marie D. Brown at Marie Brown Associates — one of the first African American literary agents in New York City. Her office, located in downtown Manhattan was always a hub for writers and artists like Xenobia Bailey, Faith Ringgold, Arthur Flowers and Ed Bradley, just to name a few.
My four years there instilled in me a deep respect for those working within the industry to ensure that Black literature remain a part of the discussion.
Whether it be history, novels, or science fiction – our canon continues to grow, and should be read and recognized year round. The following list is a testament to our continued ability to create beauty life, art and culture even in the most challenging of times.
In this list, I not only offer a few titles myself, but I have also enlisted the help of a few fellow culture-makers: writers and thinkers who are in their own way contributing to Black culture and whose lives are truly reflective of Black excellence.
"Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An interpretive History of Blacks in American Films" by Donald Bogle
I first met Tia Williams back in the 90s when she worked as an editorial assistant at Doubleday. There are only a couple of times I thought I would die in my life, and riding a subway to the Bronx, with Tia Williams to cover a story, was one of them.
Since then, the Bronx is being gentrified and Williams, a former beauty editor (Elle, Glamour, Lucky, Essence) has also gone on to win awards and is a national bestselling author of The Accidental Diva, The It Chicks series, and The Perfect Find for which she was recently awarded the Best Fiction prize at the African American Literary Awards in October 2016.
She lives with her 8-year-old daughter in Brooklyn, and is the Copy Director at haircare giant, Bumble and Bumble. Incidentally, her book choice is authored by Donald Bogle, who was one of the many wonderful people I met through Marie Brown Associates.
I grew up obsessed with Old Hollywood. Even as a little girl, it was clear that in the teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, white and black actors were nowhere near equal footing. Black people were on the margins in those early films, slipping in and out of scenes as maids, servants, busboys, slaves, dancing girls, porters, harlot mulattresses, and field hands. I always wondered who those actors were; what their lives were like. All my questions were answered in Donald Bogle’s seminal “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films.” The first time I read it, I was shocked and thrilled to find that these actors weren’t nameless, faceless bit players. Black people in the early 20th century knew who they were. They were on the pages of our own movie mags. They were our movie stars. I love that. These pioneering film actors signaled the beginning of Black Hollywood, and their journey is fascinating. A must for movie junkies.
"Salt: A Novel" by Danielle Boursiquot
Black History wouldn’t be the same without the Haitian presence and this list wouldn’t be complete without some kind of harkening to this spirit of liberation.
Patrick Howell is someone who I met through my now-defunct blog Blackgirl on Mars. My conversations with Howell throughout the years about parenting, writing and spirituality add much to my own personal contemplations about such issues.
When asked about what book ought to be on this list, Patrick A. Howell, writer, contributing blogger at Huffington Post and Investment Banker had this to say about Danielle Boursiquot’s December 2016 release, "Salt":
She arrived with flames on her fingertips.
Those are literally SALT’s opening words- fire! So, reading Danielle Boursiquot’s debut literary work SALT is not so much about a quaint flight into the Haitian American experience. It is about complete and total immersion, like Hurricane Matthew. The emerging author’s immeasurable gifts are on full display as a young Olive Seraphin, in a pitch perfect paced narrative that races against the clock to explain her life to her unborn daughter.
In the opening chapter, Imperatrice, the matriarch of the Seraphin family gives a stirring send off to her daughter’s abusive husband that are alluded into the aforementioned quote. Ms. Boursiquot’s gifts as a literary narrator remind me of the finest of fellow country woman Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat’s and her debut Krik Krak where beautiful language and a compelling narrative, create a mental impression and audience for generations to come.
"Parable of the Sower" and "Blood Child & Other Stories" by Octavia Butler
Deborah Cowell is a former publishing professional and independent writer and editor. I know Cowell from our days in 90s NYC publishing and our common Brooklyn and Caribbean backgrounds have meant that we often found shelter in the other’s mutual understanding in the many differences between how folks in Manhattan and Brooklyn rolled.
Best of all was the memory when we met Chaka Khan in a Manhattan hotel, where I experienced the usual cool-as-a-cat Cowell stunned into silence. Yeah, that’s the power of Chaka Khan. Cowell writes:
Specifically, Parable of the Sower, and Bloodchild and Other Stories, both by Octavia Butler. When I first read "Parable of the Sower" I felt like it was somehow preparing me for specific events in the future...and then when the 2003 blackout happened (NYC) I felt like I understood in a much more nuanced way what was happening as people just instinctively started walking. The pattern of movement was breathtaking to watch. It also made me be aware of my surroundings in a much different way as I set out the following morning in search of food.
The essence of the story itself is like a vaccination to all that is happening now and exactly what I needed to have called up from my longterm memory of reading experience. "Bloodchild and Other Stories" taught me how to endure the difficulty of being surrounded by folks who seem nice but are in fact unkind and quite dangerous. It put me on the path to learning how to remain calm, lucid, and focused anywhere I am in the world. I first read it just before going to work in corporate publishing, and it is one of the books that helped (and helps) save my life. I meditate daily on the energy "Bloodchild" cultivated in me. To read these two books is to be soundly on the path to knowing.
"The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era" by Elizabeth Dowling
One of the many things I learned while working with Marie D. Brown was the strength and undeniable presence of the professional Black working class. Marie D. Brown is a child of the Civil Rights Era and her knowledge and wisdom instilled in me a knowing of the excellence that too often, remains silenced in our media. This is the type of book Brown relentlessly pursued to ensure saw the light of day. This is my recommendation for this list:
Following the life of Daniel Murray, Dowling Taylor shows readers not only the great freedoms to be had in that period right after the Civil War, but the robust legislation afterwards created to systematically curb the wealth and success of African Americans. Daniel Murray, the wealthy black civic leader, businessman and assistant librarian at the Library of Congress was a “race man” a man who sought not to be in the company of whites but to ensure that merit-based opportunities would be available to African Americans.
It is interesting to be reminded that such successes experienced by African Americans during the period known as Reconstruction were shepherded through the Republican party, of which, Abraham Lincoln was a member. The book gives insight into Baltimore before the war, of how it once, during the time of Murray’s birth, had the largest population of free Blacks due to government jobs and the establishment of Howard University, which quickly became a magnet for intellectuals and entrepreneurs.
The book is a good historical reminder of the white betrayal that was necessary in order for Jim Crow, the KKK and the mass firing of Blacks in government jobs once Woodrow Wilson took office, to take place. This is a historical lesson worth learning about - for as the old adage goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois
I remember reading The Souls of Black Folk in college, and feeling like a whole new world had been opened up to me. Working with Marie Brown only solidified my awe and gratitude for Du Bois: for doing the work that paved the way for continued literary achievements throughout the African diaspora.
This list could not be complete without W.E.B. Du Bois. In February, his seminal "The Souls of Black Folk," was reprinted with a new forward by Vann R. Newkirk II.
Restless Classics writes:
W.E.B. Du Bois’s seminal work of sociology, with searing insights into our complex, corrosive relationship with race and the African-American consciousness. Reconsidered for the era of Obama, Trump, and Black Lives Matter, the new edition includes an incisive introduction from rising cultural critic Vann R. Newkirk II and stunning illustrations by the artist Steve Prince.
As Du Bois famously phrased it in 1903, 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” For anyone interested in understanding race in America, or in the literary lineage that begins with Du Bois and continues with James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Souls of Black Folk is essential reading.
"The Sellout" by Paul Beatty
Speaking about the 90s—one of the communities I came into close contact with working at Marie Brown Associates was the crop of young poetic talent that was raising their heads in downtown New York City and claiming their own.
Among them were the likes of Tony Medina and Paul Beatty. I first interviewed Beatty for the Source back then — and kept abreast of his work due to his sheer brilliance. When he dropped The Sellout - a book that made him the first American to ever win the prestigious Man-Booker Literary prize it made my year.
As I read the book, Beatty’s genius tore through me and it was not once that I thought, This is THE great American classic. The Sellout is literary double-dutch, with full access granted to those versed in Blackness.
"Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating The Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks"
edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku
The year 2017 marks the 100th birthday of the late poet and cultural icon Gwendolyn Brooks. Miss Brooks’ depictions of poor and working-class African Americans provides insight into the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and her lens on the Great Migration, hard and necessary truths about race injustice, and the Black Power movement interprets and contextualizes current racial inequities and tensions.
This collection of poetry, essays, and art inspired by the work of Miss Brooks celebrates her life, writing, and activism.
“In the hands of Gwendolyn Brooks, old age is a diamond with many facets. Throughout her poetry, Brooks has illuminated old age as a time of isolation and withdrawal, remembrance and continuity, poverty, vulnerability, even homelessness, exploitation, neglect, abandonment, marginalization, and destruction. And, yet, she offered resistance and affirmation.” —Angela Jackson, award-winning poet and activist
"Piecing Me Together" by Renee Watson
In the summer of 2016 Watson launched I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts. She launched the #LangstonsLegacy Campaign to raise funds to lease the Harlem brownstone where Langston Hughes lived and created during the last twenty years of his life. Her hope is to preserve the legacy of Langston Hughes and build on it by providing programming for emerging writers.
Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together is a young adult novel. In the book, Jade believes she must get out of her poor neighborhood if she's ever going to succeed. Her mother tells her to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way. And she has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful.
Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for "at-risk" girls. Except really, it's for black girls. From "bad" neighborhoods. And just because Maxine, her college-graduate mentor, is black doesn't mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.
I first met Jason Reynolds at the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony inaugural session in September, 2014.
There can hardly be a piece celebrating Blacks in publishing without mentioning book lover and writer Brook Stephenson (Feb. 21, 1974- August 9, 2015) and his brother John Stephenson, who both realized the vision of a writing retreat specifically for Black writers. Brook Stephenson had many talents, and one of them was bringing people together.
In a beautiful house in a Warren, Rhode Island, I met Jason Reynolds for the first time. Reynolds is an accomplished writer who focusses on producing thought-provoking literature for our children and young adults in a world where representation is of utter importance.
Reynolds is a prolific writer and has published six titles thus far: "Ghost," "As Brave As You Are," "All American Boys" (co-written by Brendan Kiely), "The Boy in the Black Suit," "When I was the Greatest" and "My Name is Jason. Mine Too."
His book "As Brave As You Are" is a Kirkus Award Finalist, a Schneider Family Book Award Winner and a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book. Jason Reynolds is a literary hero! Here he is speaking about his novels "Ghost" and "All American Boys" at the 2017 AWP Book Fair.
Here are his mentions:
- "The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin: It's a timeless collection of essays about black life in America, as well as a perfect introduction into black critical thought.
- "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day" by Nikki Giovanni: A brilliant collection of poems written in the late seventies to give an internal glimpse of the disillusionment some people were feeling after the Civil Rights Movement.
- "Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light" by John A. Williams: a lesser known writer, who wove a complicated thriller around the issue of police brutality in 1970's. A masterpiece.
- "Salvage the Bones" by Jesmyn Ward: A contemporary exploration of black life in the rural south, family dynamics, teenage life, and the storm...before the storm.
- "Nigger" by Dick Gregory: read this after you finish "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"
- "Another Brooklyn" by Jacqueline Woodson: a beautiful tale of the black diaspora wrapped in sisterhood and friendship, in an ever-changing urban landscape.
- "Honey, I Love" by Eloise Greenfield: one of the tiniest, most beautiful books ever made.