February 24, 2021
To honor Black History Month we asked our staff to share a favorite novel by a Black author—past or present, adult or children’s—that has a special meaning for them. We hope you discover at least one book you have not read before, and that it will mean something to you too.
Buyer, Center for Fiction Bookstore
Binti: The Complete Trilogy
By NNEDI OKORAFOR
Published by DAW BOOKS
This compelling science fiction trilogy tells the story of a young woman’s journey away from her sheltered childhood home to attend university but finds herself thrown into a world completely apart from everything she’s ever known. Binti is an unforgettable character and hers is a beautiful story of leaving home to search for your path and coming back home to find it.
Head Librarian & Education Director
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
By CHRISTOPHER PAUL CURTIS
Published by YEARLING BOOKS
I experienced racism before I was old enough to understand it. With humor and a sense of hope, Curtis’s middle-grade novel, set in the early 60s, propelled my awakening. And the wonderfully weird Watsons showed me that a strong family unit can dull the emotional damage racism inflicts.
PR & Marketing Manager.
All Aunt Hagar's Children
By EDWARD P. JONES
Published by AMISTAD PRESS
I first read Edward P. Jones (who won the Pulitzer for his novel The Known World) when the writer Dana Johnson wrote about his story, “Bad Neighbors,” for the Center’s website. Jones’s two story collections focus mainly on Black Americans in D.C. His writing is adept, precise, insightful, and empathetic. He spins out whole worlds in just one sentence. Take for example the opening line of “Bad Neighbors” from All Aunt Hagar’s Children, “Even before the fracas with Terence Stagg, people all along both sides of the 1400 block of 8th Street, N.W., could see the Benningtons for what they really were.” I mean, don’t you want to know those Benningtons too?
By Toni Morrison
Published by Vintage
I continue to think about this story, both the writing that made me keep having to put the book down in astonishment at its majesty (“Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks.”) and the character of Sula, who becomes the embodiment of evil in her Bottom community, due to all that she never had, the huge losses, and the expression of them here:
“In a way, her strangeness, her naïveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”.
Red at the Bone
By Jacqueline Woodson
Published by Riverhead Books
I also cannot stop thinking about this lyrical, multi-generational story woven together back and forth in time in a rhythm that is utterly captivating. Memories sweet and traumatic, a ceremonial dress, a last dance, what skips a generation and a smile that is passed down. “Look how beautifully black we are. And as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen, I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.”
By TISA BRYANT
Published by LEON WORKS
Tisa Bryant spends this book remixing everything from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to Ozon’s 8 Femmes. Never quite read anything like it. It’s a blast to read.
Bookseller & Inventory Manager.
As Lie Is to Grin
By SIMEON MARSALIS
Published by CATAPULT
Woven together from literary and architectural references, history recorded and forgotten, photographs, memories, stories, and lies, As Lie Is to Grin follows David, a Black freshman at the (overwhelmingly white) University of Vermont considering his new surroundings while contending with the past. It’s a portrait of self-definition told in a style that mirrors the process of self defining. Recently reissued with an appropriately Rorschach-ian cover, this is a bold, lyrical novel brimming with images and ideas I won’t soon forget.
Graphic Designer & Webmaster
Breath, Eyes, Memory
By EDWIDGE DANTICAT
Published by SOHO PRESS
Danticat’s elegant debut novel from 1994 was an early selection of the Oprah Book Club, written when she was only 25. It’s a beautiful story about a young girl raised in Haiti who comes to New York to be reunited with the mother she never really knew. I was irresistibly drawn to the soulful voice of her heroine and her tale of trauma, the haunting memories of her homeland, and the strong women she left behind. Danticat has fulfilled the promise of her first effort, winning awards as well as the hearts of all who read her, becoming an essential voice in contemporary literature..
Brown Girl, Brownstones
By PAULA MARSHALL
Published by THE FEMINIST PRESS
A classic coming-of-age story set in Brooklyn, this edition has a foreword by Danticat whose work has been influenced by Marshall. Brown Girl was Marshall’s first novel, which she wrote in 1992 at sixty-three. Selina’s parents come to the US from Barbados and have different dreams of what home means. The challenges of the times (being poor, Black immigrants during the Depression and WWII) give this story a deep emotional power, an unforgettable protagonist, and an enduring resonance. I was lucky to work with Marshall at Vintage books in the 80s and her work continues to be important to me.
The Temple of My Familiar
By ALICE WALKER
Published by MARINER BOOKS
I decided to choose an old favorite to celebrate Black History Month: Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar. It is the first novel after high school that I reread, and I must have done so four or five times. Each time I had to buy a new copy because I had pressed mine into the hands of other readers. Wide in scope, rich with lyrical prose and big ideas, the characters and landscapes of this story live on in the imagination long after the pages are read.
Director of Public Programming.
The Good Lord Bird
By JAMES MCBRIDE
Published by RIVERHEAD BOOKS
There could not be a better time to enjoy James McBride’s moving and hilarious 2013 rendition of John Brown’s momentous, ill-fated 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. The protagonist here is Little Onion, a young slave who Brown frees, mistaking him for a girl, which gives him a front-row seat on Brown’s doomed plot to spark a slave rebellion. McBride has fun with religious zealotry while never losing an abiding admiration for Brown’s courageous stand against America’s Original Sin, and his ultimate sacrifice. McBride’s capacity to bring humor to bear on profound moral issues earns comparison to Mark Twain. Onion’s adventures deserve a place alongside those of Huck and Jim.
Interim Executive Director
By FAITH RINGGOLD
Published by KNOPF BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS
One of my favorite books growing up. I first encountered Tar Beach in 2nd grade. Ringgold’s words and illustrations transported me to a hot city summer night filled with laughter. While in college, I saw Faith Ringgold give a lecture about her work and had the joy of revisiting the book from a different perspective. Tar Beach is a beautiful mix of autobiography and fantasy. As eight-year-old Cassie flies over New York City, she encounters how inequality is built into the architecture of bridges and buildings. A great book for children ages 4-10.