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Posts Tagged ‘African-American history’


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So a cold, snowy Vermont February is here once more, and again we find ourselves asking, “Do we create a specific post for African-American history month, or does creating a specific post somehow minimize the contributions of people of color?” This question led to — “Do we skip this year’s post, or do we again use this month as a reason to highlight the contributions of African-Americans and African-American authors?” And finally we asked, “How can thinking about these questions help us improve The Book Jam?” We answered that last question first by doing a quick audit of our site looking at our posts from the past 12 months, to see the races/ethnicities of authors we have showcased.

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We found that during the past 12 months, we reviewed 140 books. (We removed the “Pages in the Pub” and “Three Questions with Authors” posts as we do not choose all those books.) Over half (57%) were written by white authors from the USA, 24% by white authors not from the USA (mostly Brits, Canadians, Australians and a few Africans), and 19% were written by authors of color (Asian, Black, Indian, Latinos) from anywhere in the world. We noted that featured authors of color tend to be African-American (50%), followed by Latino (37%), and Indian/Asian (13%). Our gender break-down was more even, with 54% of books we reviewed written by women and 46% by men. We also looked at the images we insert into the posts (beyond the frequent book covers), and noted that we tend to insert images of objects, not people. But, we were uncomfortable to note that when we do insert images of people, they tend to be white.

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This audit led to a vow to be more aware of inserting pictures of people of all races and to feature more authors of color in 2015 — and beyond, in all our posts. We believe “you are what you read” and that reading from a diverse set of perspectives enriches you; so we will strive for more diversity. Our reflection also landed us on the side of using this month to give air time to recent books by authors who are African-American or ones that highlight the African-American experience. This decision was reinforced by an African-American student at Dartmouth College who reminded us recently, “sometimes it just helps for the white person in the room to be the one to raise the race issue.”

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So, after all the build up, we are pleased to share the latest GREAT books we have read that happen to have been penned by African-American authors. We think we have something for everyone here: some fiction, some poetry, some non-fiction and some items for children and young adults. And we sincerely hope our selections help you enjoy some great books this month.

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How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon (2014) – A powerful look at “what goes down” when a 16-year-old black boy in a hoodie is shot by a white man. Was it defense against a gang incident? Was it a man stopping a robbery gone wrong? Was it being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it none of these, or a combination of these? And, just when you think you have all the pieces and perspectives to know what happened, a new piece of information inserted into one of the multiple voices used to tell this story, sends you another direction. A seriously impressive book – cleverly staged, with superb and unique voices throughout, and a plot from today’s headlines. This book makes you think about how perspective influences what you see, how stories are told, how choices have implications, and – well, to be honest – the pull and power of gangs.  Read it and discuss with your favorite teen. ~ Lisa Christie

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014) – I fall hard just about every time an author uses free verse to tell a story to children (e.g., Love That Dog by Sharon Creech). And Ms. Woodson’s prose paints powerful images in this National Book Award winning autobiography about growing up a “brown girl” during the 1960s and 1970s in South Carolina, Ohio and New York.  Her story emerges a book about the Civil Rights movement, growing up, and finding one’s voice as a writer. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014) – This slim volume was a National Book Award finalist and offers a powerful way to meditate on what race means in the USA today.  Using news events, such as Hurricane Katrina or another professional tennis player imitating Serena Williams by stuffing towels under her outfits to enhance her bottom and breasts, Ms. Rankine contemplates both what it means to be Black in the USA, and what part we all play as events unfold and we chose what to acknowledge and feel. I think it is important to note that I did not read this in one sitting; but instead, I picked it up, read a bit, thought, put it down for awhile, and repeated. I recommend consuming this book in the same manner, or in one fell swoop. But no matter how you read it, you will be glad you did. ~ Lisa Christie (and Lisa Cadow)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) – We LOVED this book but use the prose of Penny McConnel, co-owner of the Norwich Bookstore to describe it. Thanks Penny! “This amazing book has filled me with such great joy, interest and admiration both during and after I completed it. Efemelu, a young smart Nigerian girl dreams of someday going to America. When she does, her eyes are opened to so much more than she had anticipated; most importantly racism. Back home in Nigeria Efemelu had never thought about being black because everyone was, but when she arrived in the states, she discovered the heavy weight of race that burdens both the black and white populations. In the states she graduates from college, has several relationships with good men and ultimately writes a very popular blog called “Understanding America For The Non White American.” Throughout these years, Efemelu has never forgotten Obinze, the young Nigerian boy she fell in love with in high school and the reader never stops hoping that they will eventually find each other. This is a contemporary story that is not just another story of immigration, but one of identity, love and powerful insights. Adichie is a powerful voice in contemporary fiction; a brave writer whose work I look forward to reading more of.” ~ Penny McConnel (Seconded by Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie)

Matthew Henson: Artic Adventurer by Graphic Library (2006) – I am ashamed to say I had no idea an African American, along with two Inuit men, were with Admiral Robert Peary when he successfully traveled to the North Pole and on his previous unsuccessful attempts. I am grateful this graphic biography for children brought these men to my attention. THANK YOU to our town’s children’s librarian for putting this book in my sons’ hands. (But I will add, shame on me and shame on American history books for not highlighting Mr. Henson. And, shame on us still, for not talking about the Inuits who made the success possible.) ~ Lisa Christie

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selena Alko and illustrated by Sean Qualls (2015) – Mr. Qualls received a Coretta Scott King Honor award for his previous work, and his illustrations for The Case for Loving are “spot on” in their inviting nature. In this picture book (also recently reviewed by The New York Times), Mr. Qualls teams with his wife to tell the story of Loving Versus Virginia, a landmark civil rights decision of the US Supreme Court that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriages, a case resonating as we watch legal decisions over gay marriage unfold. But, beyond its importance, this book tells the story of love. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

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The Book Jam is of two minds about African-American history month.  On the one hand, any excuse to delve further into books by amazing authors who are African-American (see Toni Morrison) is a reason to rejoice.  On the other hand, we do not want to seem belittling by focusing on African-American history just because it is February.  And, since one of our sons (who technically is Latino) is identifying as a Black boy, we are especially cognizant of the complicated issues this month brings to light.

Martin Luther King Jr.Civil Rights MovementBlack History FactsAfrican-American Soldiers in the Civil WarHarriet TubmanMarch on WashingtonFreedom Rides

We also recognize that as white women, we can not ever know what it is like to be Black in the USA.  However, we believe as recent well-publicized research about reading has shown, good fiction has the power to transform and teach.  So in that light, and, since The Book Jam often features books by or about African-Americans and/or Africa, we are choosing to look at February as another excuse to highlight more great fiction and nonfiction options by and about African-Americans. May we all learn something. 

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kid (2014) – I sincerely hope any Oprah nay-sayers are ready to overlook her pick of this book for her book club.  If you dismiss this novel just because she chose it, you will miss out on a great story. Besides, we honestly believe that any book that helps you understand the day-to-day plight of African-American slaves and the forming of two important American abolitionists is worth your precious reading time.  The narration mostly takes place in Charleston, SC and alternates between the voices of a young woman slave owner and of her young slave.  The prose by the best selling author of The Secret Life of Bees keeps you turning the pages, the characters are interesting, and few of the relationships are simple – which makes you think.  What I most loved about this book — both of the narrators are based upon actual people from history. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (2013) – Yes, that John Lewis, the Congressman and the man who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., has (with two collaborators) written a memoir in the form of a graphic novel. Told in flashback as a story relayed to two young constituents who came to visit his Capital Hill offices on the morning of Barack Obama’s first inauguration, this book begins with his childhood in rural Alabama and follows Mr. Lewis through meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and into his student activist days in Nashville.  The pictures perfectly explore how his life must have felt at the time.  The prose explains what he was thinking as each of the momentous moments of his life unfolds.  According to the authors, the 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was inspirational to Mr. Lewis and other student activists.  We hope March proves as inspiring to future leaders.  We are so glad we found this book (thanks to our town’s children’s librarian), and are truly looking forward to Book Two. ~ Lisa Christie and Lisa Cadow

Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations Edited by Retha Powers and Henry Louis Gates (2013) – Perfect for anyone interested in history, famous individuals or words of wisdom.  Five thousand (although we took the editors’ word for that number and did not count them) quotes are pulled — covering such diverse time frames as Ancient Egypt, American slavery, the Civil Rights Era, Apartheid, and today. With a foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and passages from authors, artists, scientists, philosophers, theologians, activists, politicians, this volume places quotes from Aesop’s Fables and the Holy Bible beside the words of Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou and Jay-Z. How many books can claim that? ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

And yes, we reviewed these last year, but we believe they are worth mentioning again –

How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston (2012) – As the author himself facetiously writes, please read this as part of your preparation for African-American history month activities. Through truly funny and often painful humor,  Mr. Thurston makes readers think hard about their own racist tendencies.  He even has a focus group, with a token white person, to help him think through many of the items he discusses.  Whether you agree with him or not, for me, any time I am thinking about how I could better interact with the world, I am truly appreciative of the source that started me thinking about improving my actions. Bonus – it makes you laugh. ~ Lisa Christie

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Bradley (2011) – A book for children and the adults in their lives.  In this book, three young slaves, two of them President Jefferson’s own children fathered with his slave Sally Hemings, tell their stories of life at Monticello.  Their voices highlight the contradiction between slavery and freedom, and illustrate the USA’s struggles while the Founding Fathers still lived and worked.  As such, the USA’s history unfolds from a typically unseen perspective. ~ Lisa Christie

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