For Black History Month, take a break from the white heteropatriarchy
The eleven grueling and terrible months of white history are finally over. While hopefully you’ve found respite from the white heteropatriarchy with books like the mega-bestseller and National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marlon James’s Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, or Claudia Rankine’s Trump-trolling Citizen all year round, celebrate this year’s Black History Month with some new(ish) novels, histories, poems, and polemics.
Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Dramatist’s Play Service)
McCraney, an actor turned playwright, won a MacArthur Genius grant in 2013 at age 32. His 2009 triptych, The Brother/Sister Plays, transposed Yoruban mythology onto present-day rural Louisiana; his characters, memorably, spoke their own stage directions. Choir Boy, which premiered in 2013, follows a gifted singer as he struggles under the homophobic onslaught of his elite prep school-mates (and fellow choir members).
ForestPrimeval: Poems by Vievee Francis (Triquarterly)
In an interview with Muzzle Magazine, Francis talks about the central question of Ovid’s work: “how much of man is animalia, how much of man is human, what makes—all of us—human.” Her work grapples with the physical and philosophical questions bodies and nature, human and animal, negotiating her individual identity on her way towards addressing these quote-unquote universal questions. “I hollowed myself into a cave / for others,” she writes in the poem, “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way In,” “I wanted to touch / them, to take their tiny frames / and snap their necks. / Tell me you haven’t felt that way.”
Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney (Farrar)
It’s the 1980s and Jed, fresh out of rehab, flees his hometown of Chicago for the dream of West Berlin. Both AIDS and Reagan hover menacingly in the distance as Jed loses a job at a prestigious architecture firm but finds, more importantly, a new home, as well as a handsome young man who kisses back. This is playwright, essayist, and critic Pickney’s second novel, after 1992’s High Cotton, a semi-autobiographical novel about a man who similarly flees his middle class Indianapolis life for one as expatriate in Paris. A book full of well-observed, culturally astute details of time and place, it’s ultimately a keen story of self-invention.
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Houghton Harcourt)
PostBourgie-alum Angela Flournoy sets her first novel, about a sprawling and haunted family, in 2008 Detroit. The Turners are made up of 13 siblings, but Flournoy focuses on two in particular, the haint-obsessed eldest, Cha-Cha, and the gambling-addict youngest, Lelah. Woven throughout are snippets of their parents in 1940s Arkansas and Detroit, watching buses full of white people pass by and slipping on unfamiliar ice. A moving and complex book, it’s garnered well-deserved notice, chiefly a National Book Award finalist nod.
The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson (Houghton Harcourt)
Georgetown professor and New York Times op-ed contributor Dyson wrote movingly about his former friend, writer and academic Cornel West, in the New Republic last April, an essay that identified West’s deep, persistent issues with Barack Obama as the fault line along which their relationship ruptured. Here Dyson, who West once disparaged as one of Obama’s “cheerleaders and bootlickers,” turns his full critical (and often angry) attention to the president. It’s an early take, as Obama has a little under a year left in office, but a smart one.
The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli (Houghton Harcourt)
Former Chicago Defender editor and reporter Michaeli (who is, FYI, white) writes an extraordinary history of one of the most influential newspapers in American history. Founded by Georgia-born Robert S. Abbott in 1905, the Defender recorded the horrifying scope of lynching during the nadir of Jim Crow and encouraged the relocation what would become six million black Americans from the South to the North. The book also makes a strong case for the Defender’s role in ending U.S. military segregation. Michaeli clearly has a deep love for the newspaper, where he began working in 1991, and has produced a thorough, thoughtful, and much-needed history.
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (Houghton Harcourt)
Okparanta’s debut novel (and second book, following her short story collection, Happiness, Like Water) follows Ijeoma from a Biafran War childhood, where she witnesses her father’s death in an air raid, to the present day. Nigeria, which criminalized queer sexual relationships in 2014, is the backdrop to what is essentially a story about love, as Ijeoma finds it first with childhood sweetheart Amina and then, many years later, with a young teacher, Ndidi—despite the shame tactics of her deeply homophobic mother or the fact of her marriage to a man.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson (Pantheon)
In this memoir, Pulitzer-winning writer and cultural critic Jefferson looks back at a childhood spent among Chicago’s black elite. A member of Jack and Jill, a student at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a camper at Interlochen summer arts program, she calls this world “Negroland, because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonder, glorious and terrible.” Though she doesn’t linger either on her personal or professional life in adulthood, she does spend considerable (and well-spent) time examining depression and its role—often unacknowledged—in many black women’s lives.