Whether you’re looking to engage with history or just looking for a really good read, these 3 books paint a vivid and unique portrait of black history, culture, and obstacles.
As a (visually) white person who spent most of my formative years growing up in Ferguson, Mo, I’ve been fortunate to have an opportunity to develop what might be a considered a unique perspective on race and racially-oriented politics. Themes of racism and oppression are constantly popping up in my writing, both intentionally and not, and I’m highly conscious of creating racial diversity and other representation in my books. As a Christian, I find this a topic which should not and indeed cannot be ignored.
Recently it occurred to me that there are several books I’ve read to inform my perspective as well. These novels use fiction to paint a vivid and enthralling portrait of what it’s really like to wear black skin– from America to Africa, from culture to culture, and from every age group.
In honor of Black History Month, I’d like to offer you a short reading list of 3 unique books for people who prefer fiction but want to understand something outside of themselves.
The Story of Beautiful Girl
by Rachel Simon
Beginning in 1968 but spanning all the way to 2011, this book tells the story of two main characters: a white woman with developmental disability and a black man who is deaf, both cruelly confined in an institution until a daring escape attempt separates them. Beautiful Girl, whose name Homan has never had the ability to hear, is hauled back to the School for the Incurable and Feeble Minded, but Homan embarks on a forty-year adventure to find and rescue his true love.
Starkly written and startlingly insightful, this raw tale delves deep into what it was like for one man to be both African American and disabled in a world unfriendly to both. This is also an amazing book for anyone wanting to understand the perspective of someone overcoming mental disability or trauma, as we are given to see life from Beautiful Girl’s eyes as well.
Trigger warning: One character deals with traumatic memories of rape and abandonment.
The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm
by Nancy Farmer
In Zimbabwe, 2194, the children of a prominent general are kidnapped and struggle to make it home through the labyrinthine layers of culture, classes, and tradition. An unusual detective agency of men with useful but difficult mutations are hired to track down and rescue the children. Behind it all, the traditional gods of two African cultures are at war for dominance over the land and people.
Although set in the future, this epic adventure manages to encompass realms of African culture that spans from most traditional reaches of history and religion, for every class and walk of life, and continues to be relevant. It’s also a highly suspenseful and action-packed read suitable for younger audiences and adults alike.
Trigger warning: If you are uncomfortable reading something whose premise depends on foreign gods being treated as real, this book is not for you.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
by Alexander McCall Smith
Set in modern Botswana, this understated mystery-drama tells the story of a woman detective with a heart of gold and determination of adamant. Hired to solve matters common to afflict all of humankind, the particular case of a boy who may have been kidnapped by witch doctors pulls at her heart and draws her in.
Stunningly authentic, this book contains a portrait of modern rural Africa like no other I’ve encountered. Standards of beauty and honor are painted against the vivid and precious African landscape.
Trigger warning: Our main character deals with memories of rape, abuse, and the loss of a child.
It seems to me that most people have at least heard of To Kill a Mockingbird, or Teacup Full of Roses, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These are all worthy must-reads, but I hope I have widened your scope, at least a little, with these suggestions. They are all fantastically written and singular novels, and the perspective they offer is rich and eye-opening.
Have you read any of these books? What are your favorite reads for Black History Month?
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