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Gone Fishing

Life on and off the waters of the Wood River Valley

Top 10 Books by African American Authors

Feb 5, 2014 - 09:39 AM
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.

“Your Honor, remember that men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread! And they can murder for it, too! Did we not build a nation, did we not wage a war and conquer in the name of a dream to realize our personalities and to make those realized personalities secure!”

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.”

“You search hard enough in sump’n bad, you’s jes’ liable to find sump’n good.”

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.

“When I look too long/ at rivers/ you are there.”

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.

“You know, we get so caught up with what a man isn’t. It’s what he is that counts.”

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.]

“Be Adam again, be Eve. Be not afraid of life, which is a garden. Be all this not by turning back time, but merely by living to the true rhythm of our own age, to music as modern as today, yet old as life.”

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.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

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.

“But it is only after the deepest darkness that the greatest joy can come; it is only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come.”

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.

“I was a loose kite in a gentle wind floating with only my will for an anchor.”

 

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.

“Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the 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.

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was… I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.”

 

Sun Valley Magazine encourages its readers to post thoughtful and respectful comments on all of our online stories. Your comments may be edited for length and language.

Old to new | New to old
Mar 10, 2014 12:02 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

This constant hammering away at the American subconscious that all black authors can offer is slave/butler/servitude drama is repulsive. How about give some modern authors a chance, instead of filtering only negativity to the people? There's a lot more out here than just that stuff. If you have a hard time finding great black authors maybe that's because we are actively excluded from the world of publishing/ literary representation.

Mar 10, 2014 12:52 pm
 Posted by  Mac

Thanks for commenting. You definitely have a valid point, although not all of these books deal with “slavery/butler/servitude.”
But I would be remiss to not point out that by just attacking this blog and not actually mentioning any of the modern authors you state are being “excluded,” and who don’t write about the “drama,” that you are—technically—just continuing to fulfill the issues you’re complaining about.
Maybe you could offer up some other possibilities, modern writers who don’t cover these subjects but have still had success and written brilliant books like Ishamel Reed, some of Toni Morrison’s work or even Zadie Smith or Eric Jerome Dickey.
Thanks,
Mike
michael@sunvalleymag.com

Mar 11, 2014 08:33 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Toni Morrison is predominantly a poet...not a novelist. She's been around forever, and is by no means anyone new. The same can be said for Reed (who was born in 1938).

Yes...Eric Jerome Dickey sells well. Everyone that over-sexualizes black women does; so he's really no different than your average corporate rap group.

I'm still waiting for a list of modern black novelists who write across the "full spectrum of genres" that exist. I know for a fact: you're not going to make this list. Why?...because it doesn't exist. Black authors, as I said, are purposefully excluded...unless they are toting the slave/servitude/genealogy mantra or--as you pointed out--the floozy (a modern re-make of Iceberg Slim and pimpery). But I say again to the folks, we blacks do have more to offer. Unfortunately, corporate America is very good at filtering away positive writers and their creations.

Mar 18, 2014 10:36 am
 Posted by  Mac

Well you certainly make a strong argument. Most of these authors, outside of Kevin Young, wrote within a half-century window, from the `30s to the `80s.
And you also make a good point about the struggles of others—of any race, creed or gender—having trouble cracking the corporate powers of the publishing world, especially with anything positive.
That being said, I’ve still got to believe that there is hope for any writer who has a great story to tell and has the drive, talent, faith and perseverance to find a publisher and to find success.
Thanks for sharing your passion and opinions,
Mike

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About This Blog

Whether he’s being out-fished by his trash talking mother-in-law, guiding one of his young sons through the perils of manhood or finding inspiration from the people of the Wood River Valley, Mike McKenna’s award-winning writing is always sure to entertain. Order a copy of Mike's highly-acclaimed book, "Angling Around Sun Valley: A year-round fly fishing guide to South Central Idaho" from Silver Creek Outfitters.

Gone Fishing's awards include: "Best Blog" 2010 & 2011 by the Idaho Press Club, "Best Web-only Article" of 2011 by the Outdoor Writers Association of California and "Best Fishing" & "Best Humor" blogs of 2012 by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

           

"Angling Around Sun Valley" was selected as the "Best Book" of 2013 by Northwest Outdoor Writers Association!

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