Nothing could be more relevant to this project about political literature than Black History Month, which we want to salute. We won’t focus on various historical and political books, except to note some recent ones we’ve read. Both MSW and SE have read and highly recommend The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson; SE in fact named it the best book she read in 2010. MSW also recommends The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and SE Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington. SE considers Michelle Alexander’s remarkable The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to be the kind of urgent wake-up call that is absolute must reading for every anti-racist.
But the territory of Politerature is fiction. Some have averred in our comments section that all fiction is political. On that we have the word of no less an authority than Toni Morrison, one of the greatest if not the greatest literary mind of our time. In a 2008 interview in Poets & Writers, Ms. Morrison responded to criticism of her work as “too political” thus:
“‘All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS. What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t!” Then she said “in a steely voice”: “Slavery can never be exhausted as a narrative. Nor can the Holocaust; nor can the potato famine; nor can war. To say slavery is over is to be ridiculous. There is nothing in those catastrophic events of human life that is exhaustible at all.”
Thinking about older and newer work, MSW asserts that Richard Wright’s Native Son is far more consciously political (and extremely didactic in some court room speeches at the end), than almost anything being published now. SE attended a reading at which Ayana Mathis demurred about her novel, the current Oprah Book Club pick The Twelve Tribes of Hattie being intentionally political, yet it seemed to SE to be sort of a fictional version of The Warmth of Other Suns, and in fact Mathis thanks Wilkerson for her work in the acknowledgments.
As two white writers, we don’t want to leave the last word on Black History Month book recommendations to ourselves. Instead we direct you to the following African-American sources:
- At the Black women’s site For Harriet, here is a list of 100 Books by Black Women Everyone Must Read
- At the African American Literature Book Club, ever-expanding, ongoing discussions, commentaries, reviews and more.
- Black Literature focuses on Black books, authors, writers and readers.
- Center for Black Literature includes links to the center’s publications as well as news about its many events.
- The Black Literature Index is a bibliographic index.
- Ringshout, a group “dedicated to recognizing, reclaiming and celebrating excellence in contemporary literary fiction and nonfiction by black writers in the United States” offers a book list, and also has a quite active Facebook page for you FBers out there.
- At her blog Fledgeling, YA author Zetta Elliott frequently writes about questions of diversity and representation in children’s literature.
- At White Readers Meet Black Authors, novelist Carleen Brice challenges white people to, well, as the site’s name says, read works by Black writers. The site is most active leading up to the holidays, but it’s worth checking in year-round.