It’s February, the month of the year devoted to promoting education about the Black experience in the US! As much as I (like Tracy Turnblad) wish every month were Black History Month, February is a good time to be as active as possible in libraries and schools to provide venues for spotlights on all aspects of Black history. As a librarian, for me this means: books! And films and music, but mostly books. Hit the jump for some of my favorite books, movies, and music by, for, and about African-American people.
Cane: by Jean Toomer. A gorgeously experimental volume rarely matched in style even today, Cane is a series of interlocking stories, drama, and poetry about both rural and urban African-American life.
Tell My Horse: by Zora Neale Hurston. My love for Hurston began in high school, when we read Their Eyes Were Watching God and visited historic Eatonville for the Zora! festival. Early in college I got my hands on the rest of her notable catalogue and was hers for life. Tell My Horse is a fascinating example of early anthropology (Hurston studied with Boas at Columbia) which details Afro-Caribbean cultures and religions–the title references god-possession in Haitian Vodou.
Brown Girl, Brownstones: by Paule Marshall. I was first introduced to this remarkable coming-of-age story in a Black literature course in undergrad; I then gobbled up all other Marshall books I could find (Praisesong for the Widow is also excellent). Brown Girl, Brownstones is both a story of burgeoning womanhood and an insight into what the American dream means for this particular Barbadian immigrant family.
Kindred: by Octavia E. Butler. One of the first and most noted Black science fiction authors, Butler rightfully holds an important title in the canon of speculative fiction. Kindred is a tale which melds Black history and the classic SF trope of time travel, creating an immediate, troubling, beautiful story in which a young Black woman comes into direct contact with her ancestry, both white slave masters and African-descended slaves.
Uncle Tom’s Children: by Richard Wright. One of the first famous (and infamous) African-American writers of the modern era, Wright is best known for Native Son and Black Boy, two searing stories of Black men’s experiences in America. Uncle Tom’s Children is a collection of short stories and novellas detailing the varied lives of African-American people in the aftermath of slavery and under Jim Crow.
What They Found: Love on 145th Street: by Walter Dean Myers. A return to the world of 145th Street, this collection of short stories from Myers focuses on love in all its many appearances. With the familiar Curl-E-Que beauty salon as its hub, What They Found travels the streets of NYC to find heartbreak, solace, redemption, and love in strange and troubling places.
Demon Days: the first cartoon band to grace the world’s stadiums, Gorillaz is a sprawling collaborative project with an array of talented performers, musicians, and DJs. Demon Days is one of the greatest albums of the 2000s, certainly one of the most experimental, interesting, and sheerly beautiful, and includes performances by De La Soul, MF Doom, and Ike Turner among others. Must-listen track: “Kids With Guns.”
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: previously best known for singing with the Fugees, Lauryn Hill’s solo debut album made her a star in her own right. Miseducation is a stellar hip-hop record from a woman with a singular voice and writing talent. This album and Hill herself made clear that a rapping voice and incisive, honest stories were not just the territory of male MCs. Must-listen track: “Final Hour.”
The Grey Album: Danger Mouse’s seminal mash-up of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album may go down in history as one of the gutsiest forays into experimental music yet (since few dare to tamper with the golden cow of the Fab Four). The Grey Album is a stunning feat, and to this day I can never hear “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” without strands of “What More Can I Say” trickling in. Must-listen track: “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”/”Julia.”
Motor Booty Affair and Standing On the Verge of Getting It On: ahh, the godfathers of funk! Though I tend to enjoy more of the Parliament side of things, there’s no doubt that Funkadelic lives up to its name. George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and the rest of the gang changed music forever, boomeranging from acid-fried psychedelia to Zappa-styled humor and wackiness to experimental blues. Must-listen tracks: “Aqua Boogie: (Parliament), “Alice In My Fantasies” (Funkadelic).
Jeanius: Jean Grae’s fourth album, Jeanius is a collaborative effort between the lady rapper and 9th Wonder. The flow is masterful, the rhymes are fresh and smart–this was an album well worth waiting for. Must-listen track: “Love Thirst.”
Malcolm X: Spike Lee’s famed biopic of the divisive civil rights leader, this film features one of Denzel Washington’s greatest performances and the amazing story of Malcolm Little’s journey through the America of his time.
Do the Right Thing: another famous entry in Spike Lee’s canon, the Academy Award-nominated Do the Right Thing is a slap in the face to white America, a subtle expose of the many faces of racism. Its direct descendant Crash (which actually did win the Academy Award) is not a patch on this intelligent, moving film.
A Raisin in the Sun: adapted from Lorraine Hansberry’s stage play, this modern version of A Raisin in the Sun is wonderful, showcasing the talents of Sean Combs, Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, and Sanaa Lathan. Different but certainly not lesser than its classic counterpart, A Raisin in the Sun remains an inspiring, moving story both of its characters and its creator.
Beloved: based on the novel by the unmatchable Toni Morrison, Beloved features a stellar cast including Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, and Oprah. At nearly three hours, the film covers as much of the source material as possible, creating a gorgeous, shocking, and heartbreaking piece of cinema.
Introducing Dorothy Dandridge: the story of a true Hollywood legend, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge is the tale of Dorothy Dandridge, the first Black woman nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and an incredible performer and artist. Starring Halle Berry, this film is a beautiful introduction to an American trailblazer and an evocative glimpse into the difficulties Black artists met with, in entertainment and everyday lives, in the 1950s.
Marvel Knights: Black Panther: An 8-episode miniseries based on Marvel’s Black Panther character, this animated series is one of Marvel’s best productions (usually most of the animated glory goes to the DCAU). Amazing voice acting from Djimon Hounsou as T’Challa and the supporting cast, a beautiful soundtrack which includes an original theme song in “Wakandan” (based on a Bantu dialect), and a story which is by turns thoughtful and edgy all combine to make Black Panther well worth anyone’s time. The series makes no apologies for creating a fairly political plotline; for a cartoon ostensibly aimed at a younger audience, Black Panther tackles subjects most adults are uncomfortable with. Seeing a politically and physically powerful, self-reliant, and family-oriented black male character in a comic, cartoon, or movie today is still lamentably rare. Black Panther fills that gap admirably as he defends his country and family from European invasion and supernatural threats.
Booklist has a wonderful selection of YA titles focused on Black history–check out their list here. I actually have one of their titles–Black Boy White School–on my hold list at the library; I was drawn by the topic as well as by the fact that the main character is from Cleveland!
What are your libraries doing to celebrate and promote African-American history this month? What are your favorite titles concerning the topic?