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African American Classics

African/African American Literature

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1madpoet
Feb 1, 2014, 5:02am Top

I like to read classics, and each year I set a different theme for myself. This year, I've decided to read 12 African American classics (one/month- although I'm starting a bit late)

I've already read a few from the 19th Century: Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery, W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk, Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and The Life of Fredrick Douglass. The ones I plan to read this year will be from the 20th Century.

To read this year:

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Native Son by Richard Wright
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Roots by Alex Haley
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Song of Solomon and Beloved by Toni Morrison
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Any comments/suggestions for alternate books would be welcome.

2kidzdoc
Feb 1, 2014, 9:42am Top

Excellent goal, madpoet! I'll look to see what I have on my shelves, and see if I can match you. I definitely plan to re-read Invisible Man, in honor of this year's centennial of Ralph Ellison's birth, and I also plan to read his unfinished novel Three Days Before the Shooting.... I'll definitely read Black Boy by Richard Wright as well. I also plan to read several late 20th century and early 21st century books written by authors from the African disapora, including Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music by George Lewis, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music and Tales of the Out & the Gone by Amiri Baraka, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett, and Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

3madpoet
Feb 2, 2014, 3:50am Top

I started reading Beloved once before, but found it difficult to get into-- I'm not sure why. I hope this time I like it better.

4CurrerBell
Edited: Feb 2, 2014, 4:47am Top

I think Nella Larsen is a must-read. Her two principal works (Quicksand and Passing) are both novellas so you could read both of them pretty easily. In fact, The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and The Stories comes in at just about 300 pages in a reasonably priced trade paperback. There's also a Norton Critical Edition of Passing (Norton Critical).

Though I love both, I personally prefer Passing overall while finding Quicksand's ending more powerful.

ETA: Don't forget that Richard Wright wrote more than just Native Son. In particular, check out his short-story collection Uncle Tom's Children and also his early-written but posthumously-published Lawd Today!, which is woefully underrated (and very different from his later, naturalistic works).

5overlycriticalelisa
Feb 2, 2014, 6:18pm Top

>1 madpoet:
what a great list! half of those books reside in my top books of all time! or at least books i really really love. toni morrisson is amazing but know beforehand that with most of her books (the two you chose in particular, i think) she makes you work. beloved is tricky, at least at the beginning. when i read it years ago, i read to about the halfway point and then started over. lots of things that confused me on the first pass made complete sense with more context, and i was glad i did it that way. i was young and not so attentive, though, so maybe all you need to be is not a college kid with other things on her mind.

i feel like you could add anything else at all by her but another of hers that i particularly love is the bluest eye.

and by baldwin, giovanni's room is freaking amazing. his another country is not the easiest or most pleasant read but it changed my life when i read it when i was just out of college. didn't have the same power (how could it have?) when i reread it a year or so ago, but it still ranks for me.

you're sticking to the more major authors/books?

6madpoet
Feb 2, 2014, 6:31pm Top

Thank you for your recommendations. I haven't heard of Nella Larsen, but I'll try her books.

Yeah, I'm just reading 12 of the more famous works. I'm a slow reader, and some of the classics are not quick reads, anyway. But I will have a bit more free time this year (teaching fewer classes) so I can maybe squeeze in a few more books/authors.

7aulsmith
Feb 3, 2014, 7:34am Top

As to Baldwin, I think Go Tell It on the Mountain probably gives a better impression of African American life than Giovanni's Room which is set in France with a white protagonist. I thought Another Country read as pretty dated on a recent re-read, but then I haven't re-read Go Tell It on the Mountain.

I, personally, would skip Roots. While very influential, it's also very controversial.

9madpoet
Feb 11, 2014, 8:06am Top

#7 Why is Roots controversial?

I'm about half-way through I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It's a great story, but I have to keep reminding myself it's not a novel-- it's not fiction. This is Angelou's autobiography-- what actually happened to her. I guess it's just so different from my experience growing up. Another world. Anyways, poor kid! Abandoned by her parents, and raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was just eight!

10madpoet
Feb 15, 2014, 1:41am Top

Well, I finished IKWTCBS. I wished she had continued into her adult years, as that's what I really wanted to hear about. A wonderful read, though. She's as great an author as she is a poet.

Next up: Their Eyes Were Watching God

11overlycriticalelisa
Edited: Feb 15, 2014, 1:57pm Top

>10 madpoet:

speaker, too. i saw her in college (about a billion years ago) and it was amazing. she was amazing.

she's got a number of memoirs that come after i know why the caged bird sings if you're looking for more of her adult life.

12.Monkey.
Feb 15, 2014, 5:23pm Top

>9 madpoet: Because Haley was sued for allegedly plagiarizing some parts of it from, I believe, two different works. I don't feel like looking it up, so I may be remembering wrong, but if I recall, the judge threw one out as not similar enough, and he had to pay the other one in some kind of settlement? And it's supposed to be non-fic, but I guess (aside of the potential plagiarism) some people have tried to verify some of the history and were unable to confirm some of his key mentions, and also about the African words that were supposed to be passed down in the family from the one guy.

That said, even if it is not 100% truth with these exact people from history, those general events and situations did take place, and it's wonderfully written and moving, and most certainly still worth the read.

13greytone
Feb 21, 2014, 11:35am Top

>1 madpoet: I encourage anyone expanding their knowledge of other cultures. Reading, specifically, books by and about the african american culture is something I take seriously. Although I read all sorts of books, I have made a commitment to own only those that reflect and represent this viewpoint and culture. Space and economics has helped me define the books I surround myself with.

The college "Jeopardy" show this week represents how little interest most of the world makes of african american culture. The category of "African American History" (because of this month's annual celebration) was avoided until it was the only one remaining on the board; and even then, most of the category's (although questioning the most basic and fundamental information) were unanswered by the contestants. I am so pleased you (all of you) have made a commitment to expand your world to include more than the immediately familiar reading material.

I post this to encourage you to not limit yourself to the 'classics' as defined by the publishing community of fifty years ago. There is a current set of published authors who will further expand your reading experience. Their writing will not reflect past social mores, and will include more current pressures and circumstances that you may identify. I used anthologies of short stories to introduce myself to new authors, including african and african american writers worldwide. I encourage you to continue to include different cultures in your reading experience. You will grow in ways that will surprise you.

14overlycriticalelisa
Feb 21, 2014, 7:13pm Top

>13 greytone:

so true.

i do the same with short story collections; it's such a great way to get a taste of many writers/voices. of course the rub is finding so many it's impossible to read them all. and that short story writers don't always transition well into full-length fiction and vice versa.

15madpoet
Feb 22, 2014, 1:45am Top

Well, I really enjoyed Their Eyes Were Watching God. Great story. The vernacular was difficult to get, at first. It's one of those novels you have to read out loud (at least in some parts).

The scene beneath the pear tree is the best allegory of adolescent desire I've ever read. Classic.

16southernbooklady
Edited: Feb 22, 2014, 8:08am Top

>15 madpoet: The vernacular was difficult to get, at first. It's one of those novels you have to read out loud

Zora Neale Hurston took a lot of heat from other Harlem Renaissance writers for her insistence on using the vernacular and local dialects in her work. They thought it "dumbed down" black culture at a time when they were trying to help it to rise. Hurston was more interested in preserving the diversity of African American culture and voice she found.

17Eschwa
Feb 22, 2014, 7:14pm Top

I've read Their Eyes Were Watching God several times and get something new out of it each time. I agree with madpoet that it benefits from being read aloud. One summer I was in a book group that read and discussed this book, and we read some parts aloud, which brought them to life in a new way. I also liked Mules and Men, which is a collection of tales that Hurston collected. There is some question about whether she made some of the stories up, but either way, I found the book fascinating.

I am currently reading The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat. She's probably too contemporary to be considered a writer of classics but she's one of my favorites. I also liked The Farming of Bones, set in Haiti around the time of the Parsley Massacre.

18southernbooklady
Feb 22, 2014, 7:56pm Top

>17 Eschwa: Every Tongue Got to Confess is a collection of the material that didn't make it into Mules and Men.

19madpoet
Apr 14, 2014, 2:57am Top

I just finished reading The Color Purple. I remember it was somewhat controversial, as some critics said it portrayed African American men as wife beaters. I can see why they might say that, but it was also a hopeful, affirming novel. Interesting in the comparison of Africans and African Americans-- and African Americans in Africa.

I think I'd like to read Roots next.

20madpoet
May 22, 2014, 2:21am Top

I just finished Go Tell It On the Mountain. At first I thought it was going to be another polemic against religion. But it's one of those rare books about religion which doesn't take sides. It accepts faith, and the experiences of the faithful, as real. At the same time it doesn't pretend that faith is easy, or instantly solves all problems. And it shows the stumbling and hypocrisy of some who claim to be 'holy'. A very thought-provoking work.

21southernbooklady
May 22, 2014, 8:30am Top

>20 madpoet: I just finished Go Tell It On the Mountain.

Baldwin was a remarkable, remarkable man. His interview with Studs Terkel on the Voices of America radio program is one of my favorite things ever.

http://www.udel.edu/History/suisman/206_08-Fall/1-07%20James%20Baldwin,%201961.m...

22overlycriticalelisa
Jun 2, 2014, 1:37pm Top

>21 southernbooklady:

that was awesome. thank you.

23madpoet
Jun 13, 2014, 1:39am Top

Invisible Man was great. I didn't know anything about the Brotherhood before reading it. It's interesting: several authors from that time period wrote about how they felt the communists betrayed their allies, in many parts of the world. I'm thinking of Ernest Hemingway's bitter denunciation of them during the Spanish Civil War as a '5th Column'.

Next up: Native Son

24maggiezee
Jul 12, 2014, 6:11pm Top

Are you saying you wish she had written more autobiographical books of her adult life? If that is what you are saying, she has in fact written several. An entire series of them. I just finished Singin'and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas. She led a remarkable life.

25madpoet
Jul 12, 2014, 9:01pm Top

>24 maggiezee: I think I'll have to read some of Maya's later autobiographies. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings only told the very beginning of her amazing, adventurous life.

26madpoet
Jul 12, 2014, 9:23pm Top

I just finished Native Son. I think it would have been better if the main character were not such an unsympathetic person. Yes, the environment he grew up in was horrible and oppressive, but does that excuse or even explain what he did? Especially when he bashes in poor Bessie's head with a brick just to keep her quiet. He seems incapable of love or empathy-- a true sociopath. Environment alone cannot create such a person. Then he feels 'free' because of the murders, and the lawyer describes the murders as an act of 'creation'. Well, that's straining the reader's capacity for sympathy to the breaking point.

27JamesdeJongh
Aug 25, 2014, 2:56am Top

I have had similar experiences with my first reading of Toni Morrison's novels. I struggle with the first fifty or so pages and give up. Then months, sometimes years, later I start again and read right through, wondering why I had so much trouble the first time. My theory is that each of her books challenges readers in a new way. After each initial failed attempt, my sensibility as a reader has to make an adjustment and does so unconsciously until I'm ready and then I try again.

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