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Today is Juneteenth and I have the day off from work. I’m grateful for an extra day off, certainly, and I also know that this day is not about me and my experience. To me, it’s a day to educate myself, to learn more about the experiences of Black people in America. That’s always going to be about choosing and reading good books and I’ve got a few to recommend here if you’re interested. I’ve talked about all of these before but they are worth repeating.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A short but powerful book, I would say this is a must read for white people working on recognizing the burden people of color in this country have carried for hundreds of years. I particularly appreciate how Austin Channing Brown points out that it’s not enough to be nice, we have to be anti-racist. Highly recommended.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I thoroughly enjoyed Whitehead’s newest novel. Set in Harlem in the 1960s, it’s full of drama and crime, interesting characters, and a plot that keeps the whole thing moving forward in a brisk fashion. I’ve read some reviews that call this lighthearted, but I didn’t find that to be the case, as it covers a lot of heavy topics, including racism and riots, police brutality, poverty, and moral dilemmas. Highly recommended. I was given a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve come to realize that there’s a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere between those two is memory,” he said. “I think that history is the story of the past, using all the available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory, which is kind of this blend of history and a little bit of emotion…I mean, history is kind of about what you need to know…but nostalgia is what you want to hear.
Clint Smith writes beautifully about the terrible history of slavery in America. He exposes so many truths and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from him. Highly recommended.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“This is the tragedy of slavery. These are the grains of power. There isn’t a true innocence for children whose parents are shackled.”
An engrossing and encompassing story of one family’s roots, stolen land, the brutality of slavery, and the racism of modern day America, this is a masterpiece of a book. It’s long but never drags, the characters are real and wonderful, it made me angry and it made me cry and it gave me hope. Highly recommended.

Black Women Will Save the World: An Anthem by April Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Black women have done incredible work to make the world a better place and this book is both a celebration of that and also a sad reminder about the lack of recognition black women receive for it. As a White House journalist, Ms. Ryan focused quite a bit on Black women and politics, but also included historical figures and contemporary leaders, in this inspired and important ode to the work of strong Black women.

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a powerful book about a difficult subject, American slavery. At a time when the worst among us are trying to depict slavery as beneficial to the enslaved, I challenge everyone to read this book and not be moved by the harrowing story and horrific treatment inflicted upon Annis and the other Black individuals in the story. Ultimately, Ward has given us a tale of hope and survival in a world full of despair and pain. Highly recommended.
I was given an advanced copy of this book by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This story of a neighborhood called Chicken Hill, where Black, Jewish, and immigrants live and work together, is (in my opinion) McBride’s best work yet. The narrative is just brilliant, each chapter serving almost as a vignette that McBride connects to the rest of the story and other characters in remarkable ways. It’s tender and suspenseful, heartbreaking and hopeful, and at times laugh out loud funny. The ending is completely satisfying and brings the whole story full circle in such a beautiful way that I didn’t even mind that I saw it coming. I love it and highly recommend it.
I was given a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I am glad to have read this book and learned about Ellen and William Craft and their remarkable escape from slavery. There are many stories told about the Underground Railroad, but this young couple used disguise and deception in a unique and daring way: Ellen passed as a young white man traveling with William as her slave. They went by train and boat, risking everything, to obtain their freedom. The narrative nonfiction style is suspenseful and I was gripped by the story despite knowing the eventual outcome. Even in the North, the couple was not safe and they eventually went to England, where they lived for many years before returning to America. It’s a tale of incredible courage and determination, enduring love and devotion, and I highly recommend it.

James by Percival Everett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am a sign. I am your future. I am James.
I never really cared for Huckleberry Finn so I wasn’t sure what to expect of James, the retelling of the original from the perspective of Jim, the enslaved sidekick to Huck’s foibles. In James, the tables are turned and we see him as a survivor who is smart and capable and determined to tell his story and I loved every word. It’s literary but also accessible. It’s horrifying but also deeply hopeful. It’s complicated and inspiring, thrilling and satisfying in all the best possible ways. It’s so much more than a retelling, it’s truly a reimagining and it’s sure to be a modern classic. I will be recommending this to everyone.

I hope you find something on this list, be it fiction, nonfiction, or memoir, that you will read.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Juneteenth is a funny holiday, maybe because it’s happening on a Wednesday this year, but mainly because I don’t think many people know what it’s celebrating. I’m including myself in that group as I always thought slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, but that’s only partly true. Education is a good thing!

  2. Juneteenth is a very big deal where I live, and rightly so. You are correct, it would do folks are great deal of good to learn about true American history., rather than the cleaned-up and filtered variety. It might change their view on a lot of things and increase their understanding and compassion for everyone.

  3. I just learned this morning that importing slaves into the U.S. was banned Jan 1, 1808. That’s when breeding of slaves ramped up, especially down South. Dec 18, 1865 Blacks were freed! This was a long time to wait as Independence Day i. e. White America gained it 1776. Imagine how this travesty affected the 7-8 generations that endured thus atrocity! Thank you for the book critiques and Happy Juneteenth! We must continue to educate ourselves and not keep gas lighting history.

  4. Thanks Carole for all the book reviews. I’ve read two (Heaven and Earth and Love Songs), bathed forgotten about some of these others. I am in the queue for James – hopefully not too long.

  5. Thank-you for the recommendations today Carole and reminding us to continue to take time to learn.

  6. I have read most of these and agree with your reviews. While I’m glad Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, I think it’s a bit of a shame that most kids are out of school by now — who knows if they learned about it?

  7. One more for you: Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams. I just read it for a book group, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    NYTimes says: Ancient, blind Maryam Priscilla Grace is one of the tenacious survivors of the ugly practice of slavery. In Sheila Williams’s THINGS PAST TELLING (Amistad, 339 pp., $25.99), we first meet Maryam in 1870, as she basks in the sun outside her home in Liberty Township, Ohio. But she quickly sends her story back to “the before time,” when she was a precocious child in a thriving West African village. On visits with her father to nearby towns, she demonstrates a knack for learning different languages — a skill that will be key to her survival once she finds herself in the fetid hold of a slave ship, surrounded by the “many tongues” of her terrified fellow captives.

    Williams’s lively plotting takes her heroine from the Caribbean lair of a group of Black pirates to the fields of Virginia’s plantation country. Maryam will succeed in having a family, although not as she imagined it. Above all, she will break free of her chains, both “the iron kind and the kind that wrapped themselves around your thoughts.”

  8. Excellent book suggestions… learning is how attitudes will change! I have not yet read April Ryan’s book… I have added it to my TBR queue! Thank you!

    (I would add Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me to this list as well, it is a beautiful letter from a father to a son)

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