The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 10, 2006


In celebration of black authors

In honor of Black History Month, we asked Mosquito staffers to share their favorite books by black authors. We received quite a variety of replies, and it is interesting to note how many of these books have become classics.

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride.

A very moving tale of an heroic woman who raised 12 very successful children. Ruth McBride, daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, ran away to Harlem, married a black man, raised her family and founded an all-black Baptist church.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

My son Bill read this book in his American Literature class this year (junior year). The novel follows the life of Janie Crawford, a colorful woman living in the black town of Eaton, Florida. The author was a prominent black writer. This novel is considered her best.

Cane River by Lalita Tademy.

This story came about as the author was researching her own genealogy. She wrote a fictionalized account based on her maternal ancestors their journey from slavery to freedom and their struggles as women and blacks in the South.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

Set in Manchester County, Virginia, 20 years before the Civil War began, this debut novel is a masterpiece of overlapping plot lines, time shifts and heartbreaking details of life under slavery. Caldonia Townsend is an educated black slaveowner, the widow of a well-loved young farmer named Henry, whose parents had bought their own freedom, and then freed their son, only to watch him buy himself a slave as soon as he had saved enough money. Although a fair and gentle master by the standards of the day, Henry Townsend had learned from his former master about the proper distance to keep from one's property. After his death, his slaves wonder if Caldonia will free them. When she fails to do so, but instead breaches the code that keeps them separate from her, a little piece of Manchester County begins to unravel.

This description was adapted from

Tumbling by Diane McKinney-Whetstone.

This book beautifully leads the reader through the growth of a family by unusual adoptions, growth of a wife who finds a cause to believe in, and growth of a husband who learns to appreciate his wife, family and community. Set in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s, this book is McKinney-Whetstone's first novel.

Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown.

I read this book back in 1966 when I was vacationing at the Marsh Cabin on the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod with my husband and our year-old son. When I should have been looking for birds while my son napped, I sat at the cabin window totally engrossed in Brown's bestselling book about his childhood of violent crime and poverty in Harlem during the 1940s and early '50s.

After time spent at the Wiltwyck School for emotionally disturbed and deprived boys and three terms at the Warwick Reform School, Brown gradually responded to the support and encouragement of professionals whom he had met at the Wiltwyck School.He moved out of Harlem and at age 16, enrolled in evening classes at Washington Irving High School in downtown Manhattan. Then, with the help of William M. James, a Methodist minister, he received a grant to go to college, and in 1965 graduated from Howard University. During his first year at Howard, Brown wrote an article about the culture of violence during his childhood in Harlem. This eventually became the genesis for Manchild,
which was published in 1965.

Women, Race and Class by Angela Y. Davis.

Written in 1983 by the longtime activist, author and political figure, Angela Davis places the women's movement in the context of the fight for civil rights and working-class issues. She describes the intimate tie between the anti-slavery campaign and the struggle for women's suffrage and shows how the racist and classist bias of some in the women's movement have divided its own membership. It is important for us to learn and remember the history of this movement.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

"The black woman is one of America's greatest heroes . . . She has been oppressed byond recognition," noted Alice Walker in an interview.

Celie is one of those heroic women. Her story is told through letters to God and to her sister. She was abused and humiliated by men until two strong women enter her life and point the way to her redemption. Once you read this book, it will stay with you always.

Portraits of African-American Heroes by Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Ansel Pitcairn.

Bolden's book features 20 African-American men and women, and what made them "push the envelope." The short biographies run the gamut from Paul Robeson to Joe Lewis to Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and the beautiful illustrations are sepia-tone paintings.

Jazz A B Z: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits by Wynton Marsalis, illustrated by Paul Rogers.

Marsalis offers poetic views of famous jazz musicians, one for each letter of the alphabet. He combines short biographies with explanations and examples of many poetic forms. One of my favorite bios is of Sarah Vaughan (the letter "V") and contains the line, "Some hear a vaunted vixen's soul rejoice in vain. I hear a voice of verity." This treasure also includes recommendations for 26 must-have jazz recordings.

I recommend any mystery by Barbara Neely. Neely has written a series featuring Blanche White, a southern domestic who puts up with no nonsense, not even murder. Her novels begin with Blanche on the Lam and include one set on Martha's Vineyard (Blanche and the Talented Tenth) and one in Boston (Blanche Cleans Up). Blanche is a marvelous character who always makes the best of an often difficult life, using humor and intelligence. Though some of her books are still in print, your best bet is to visit the library if you want to get to know Blanche White.

My friend Maureen Reddy is chair of the English Department at Rhode Island College. Over the years, she has lectured and written extensively on African-American issues and was kind enough to send along some of her favorite book suggestions.

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold.

Eight-year-old Cassie dreams she can claim the George Washington Bridge by soaring over the city. Based on the author's quilt painting of the same name, this book explores freedom through the eyes of an imaginative young African-American girl. This was a Caldecott Honor Book.

Strange Bedfellows by Paula Woods.

LAPD detective Charlotte Justice is caught in the middle of two violent cases, set in 1993. Woods' mysteries are rich with characters and multi-layered story lines. Some readers may want to start at the beginning of the series — Inner City Blues.

Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell.

This book is a series of allegorical stories and encounters with fictional characters, which sheds light on some of the most perplexing racial issues of the day. Bell argues that racism has always been an integral, permanent and indestructible component of American society. Bell's book is both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Autobiography of Josiah Henson by Josiah Henson.

This book was reviewed on National Public Radio in honor of Black History Month. Henson was a slave who lived in a log cabin owned by his master. He describes living in the cabin and the work he did. He finally escaped from slavery and started teaching the children of slaves who were not allowed to study reading or writing. Henson's log cabin eventually became known as "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Craft, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

This work may be the first on record by an African American woman. It is about a slave and a white woman who escape from a plantation in the South in the early 1800s. A good read.

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel.

Hughes is possibly best known for his masterful, "What happens to a dream deferred?" but he is prolific. Although his work specifically illuminates the African American and his experience in this country, universal themes vibrate through its core. Hughes' poetry is sensuous, sensual and very rich, like perfectly ripe fruit. It is observant, ironic, moving, and pungent as well. I can turn to any page in this book and be satisfied.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito