Let’s enter Black History Month with these important reads—we have a thoughtful short story, a work of nonfiction with a personal approach and two meaningful educational books for young readers. I shared these with Good Day Alabama on WBRC Fox 6.
Recitatif by Toni Morrison
This 1983 short story, the only one Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison ever wrote, is a puzzle of a book. Twyla and Roberta have known each other since they were eight years old and spent four months together as roommates in St. Bonaventure shelter. They were inseparable at the time, but they lost touch as they grew older. As adults, they find each other again—at a diner, at a grocery store and at a protest. Opposites in many ways, they are nonetheless bound by their early, shared experience. Here’s what makes this story so important—Morrison keeps Twyla’s and Roberta’s races ambiguous; the reader doesn’t know which woman is white and which is Black. Morrison described Recitatif as “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” The story is short, but there’s a lot to think about here. The book is being re-released today as a lovely stand-alone edition with an introduction by Zadie Smith.
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
This book for young readers, specifically 8-12 years old, just won the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and the late Floyd Cooper won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. It’s a powerful look at the cruelty and racism of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our nation’s history. The book traces the history of African Americans in Tulsa’s Greenwood district and details the devastation that occurred in 1921 when a white mob attacked the successful Black community. The event was largely suppressed in our history; an official investigation didn’t happen for 75 years. This picture book for young readers will educate them about the tragedy, and there’s a call, at the end, for a better future. The book also won a Sibert honor as one of the most distinguished informational books for children, a Caldecott Honor and was longlisted for the National Book Award.
Howard French is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a former reporter at the New York Times. He’s also descended from an “enslaved woman” named Priscilla, who was purchased in 1812 by James Barbour, the governor of Virginia. When he was researching this book, French went on a tour of a grand plantation in Louisiana. When asked about the slave history, he was told (in hushed tones) that they don’t really emphasize the slave experience there. So, this book is personal in a lot of ways. It’s also a look at the role of Africa and Africans in the development of Europe and the Americas. From the African gold that propelled Portugal into the Age of Discovery to the sugar plantations of Barbados to the cotton fields of the American South, the labor of Africans has helped the rest of the world prosper. The slave trade, French writes, destroyed Africa’s ability to compete with other parts of the world “at the very moment when human society was globalizing for the first time.”
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Renee Watson and Nikole Hanna-Jones, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith
This book is currently the No. 1 bestseller in children’s history books on Amazon. It’s a picture book for young readers with lyrical verses that share the generational consequences of slavery and the history of Black resistance in the United States. The story hinges on a student with a school assignment to trace her family tree, but she finds she can only go back three generations. That’s when her grandmother gathers the family together to talk about how, 400 years ago, in 1619, their ancestors were stolen from Africa and brought to the United States by slave traders. Before that, they had a home, a language, traditions of their own. The young girl learns about those and about how people “born on the water” survived. The book is for readers ages 7-10, but, really, it’s for everyone.
I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and Books, The Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.