Life on and off the waters of the Wood River Valley
Top 10 Books by African American Authors
WE ALL HAVE HEROES in life. James Baldwin is one of mine.
Now it might seem strange that a straight, white guy from Idaho, who was raised in Boston no less, would claim a gay black guy as his hero, but that’s the beauty and power of great writing. Well-written words are stronger than color or creed, gender or nationality.
In the early `90s, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston used to let in local college students like myself for next to nothing, so I became a regular visitor. Lining the ceiling of the massive hallway that lead to the new exhibits, written on banners as large as tents, hung the words of James Baldwin. His powerful words mesmerized me.
Becoming a fan of Baldwin led to reading more and more African American authors, which taught me a lot about both the art of writing and about the real history of America. I’ve now read enough African American authors that picking just the 10 best works was tough. Nonetheless, in honor of the annual celebration of Black History Month each February, here’s one American’s take.
10: Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
Richard Wright's fascinating and fast paced story about a man who becomes exactly what society molds him to be. It found immediately popularity, as well as controversy for its rough and raw look at the reality of life in America during the Great Depression. Considered a protest novel, it’s a powerful and bravely told story.
9: Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley (1976)
Although the PBS mini-series is how most folks learn of the story of Kunta Kinte and his family’s dramatic and heartbreaking ascent from being kidnapped out of Africa and forced into slavery in the States to eventually fighting for freedom in their adopted homeland, the book is also an amazing read. A Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel based on Alex Haley's ancestry, "Roots" is called the “book that changed America.”
8: Jelly Roll by Kevin Young (2003)
The poetry of Kevin Young pulses and grooves to the rhythm of jazz and the heartache of the blues. Young’s poems offer a raw honesty, tempted with a loosed-lip lyricism, spiced up with the heat of aching sexuality. Jelly Roll, a National Book Award finalist, is a powerful collection.
7: The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1982)
Gloria Naylor's “novel in seven stories” won the National Book Award. It is harsh and hopeful, honest and crude. Despite the fact that all the key characters are women, it’s still an interesting read for men, giving us glimpses into the struggles and the deep reservoir of strength of the fairer sex.
6: The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes (1934)
While Langston Hughes is best known for his poetry, this collection of short stories really shows off his well-rounded skills as a writer. Hughes is surprisingly humorous and offers a keen view of America’s racial struggles during the “Roaring Twenties.” [An interesting side note: Coach Phil Jackson once gave a copy of this book to basketball star Scottie Pippin to try to help the former Chicago Bull improve his game.]
5: The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
This heartbreaking epistolary novel is best read when you’re feeling bad about your life (it’ll look a lot better when compared to Celie’s) and you need to be reminded about the power of human spirit and the strength of true love. There’s no wonder why Walker’s novel won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book award. Heck, the film adaptation even had 11 Academy Award nominations.
4: The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As told to Alex Haley (1964)
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, this is a powerful book for people of any color or creed. With the help of author Alex Haley, Malcolm X’s autobiography is a well-written story of an often-misunderstood man who rose above monstrous challenges and was not afraid to search for and speak the truth.
3: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
Thanks to her sweet, but brutally honest and poetic prose, Maya Angelou’s first book was an instant classic when it came out and will still amaze readers for generations to come. The first book in Angelou’s autobiographical series is harsh and humorous, painful, resoundingly resilient and beautifully hopeful.
2: Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin (1961)
All the collections of Baldwin’s essays (“Notes on a Native Son,” “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” “The Fire Next Time”) are powerful and exceptionally well written. His writing is electric and his essays are as strong, intelligent and articulate as any ever written about life in, and as, an American. Baldwin’s novels (especially “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Another Country”) are pretty solid as well, but nothing beats the pure power of his prose, his raw honesty and eloquent takes on life in America and the literary world.
1: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
Ellison’s novel, about a nameless black man working his way through a cursed and yet magically blessed and ultimately hopeful life in the middle of America’s racially-challenged 20th Century, is one of the best stories ever written by someone from the good old (and fairly screwed up) USA. The story is not only rich in its rolling plot, but is brilliantly written and both highly entertaining and thought provoking, which is probably why it won the National Book Award in 1953.