On Favorite Black Authors

I’ve written before about some of the seminal influences on my writing, but I want to focus today on work by black authors I’d consider critical to my understanding of race, culture, class, and narrative. Regular readers know that, as an historian, I consider history to be something of a symphony, where all cultures and voices need to be present in order to make the music.

As a child growing up in a predominantly white area, my first exposure to African-American culture came through my television set. The first book on my list is one I first listened to on PBS’ Reading Rainbow, read by LeVar Burton. The book, Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau, was about a little girl who, like me, worried that she wouldn’t get the birthday present she wanted because her family was poor. I related to her on that level, and only peripherally noticed that her skin color was different from mine.

As I grew older, my aunt, who lived in and among the historically black neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, introduced me to one of my favorite authors: Maya Angelou. The first work I read of hers was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I rank it as transformative for me. I inhaled every other book and work I could get my hands on by Ms. Angelou, and I grieved when she passed. Her stories about growing up as a black woman, living as an artist, and working as an activist electrified me.

I already knew I wanted to be a journalist; Angelou’s work made me understand that the stories I told needed to come from all segments of society. She opened my eyes to the assumptions I’d internalized from my limited interactions with people from other backgrounds, colors, creeds, and cultures, and in demonstrating how she found her voice, I learned to find mine.

From there, it was Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Alex Haley. Ralph Ellison. bell hooks. Zora Neale Hurston. It was Oprah, whose rise as a journalist offering space for her viewers to tell their own stories was stunning to witness. I read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I started to read an up-and-coming columnist from the Miami Herald named Leonard Pitts, Jr.

I have been extraordinarily busy in the last five years, personally, but my original passion to find my own voice, and now, as an educator, helping others find theirs, remains. Education doesn’t stop as we get older. On my to-be-read list right now are works by former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and novels by Pitts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004. His latest novel, The Last Thing You Surrender, is on my e-reader right now.

I can’t honestly say this is a comprehensive list, in any fashion. In thinking about this topic, I Googled “favorite works by black authors,” and my list of new works to read easily tripled. As we move forward in this moment, let’s remember the importance of making our voices heard, and elevating those voices that could otherwise be lost.

On Using White Privilege to Protect; #blacklivesmatter

I wish I could say I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the protests taking place, now internationally, supporting #blacklivesmatter. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I almost expected it.

This is not about me; this is about my children. I am the white parent of black children, and since my oldest children came into my house as teens, I have been required to use my white privilege to fight for them. I didn’t understand the depth of the difference between the institutional challenges they face and the ones I face as a woman until the first time security followed my son and I around a big box store, finally stopping us to ask if he was bothering me.

Bothering. His. Mother.

As the phrase “the first time” implies, however, it was not the last time security took a hard look at us, and it was not the last time I looked a security person or a police officer in the eye and had to say that my son was not bothering me at all. Sometimes, the officer even looked a little chagrined. Mostly not, however.

I instituted a new rule the first time, though. I made sure my teens had phones capable of video recording, that they knew how to use them, and that they knew how to be respectful to police officers even when they had no reason at all to be. Police make assumptions, and I have no desire to see any of my children under one’s knee. George Floyd’s murder proved that even these measures cannot stand as a perfect defense.

I did my best to help equip them with the tools and skills they needed to navigate a world of white privilege while sporting dark skin. I remain angry that it was even necessary to do so. And I will never be certain that it was enough, because we need a world in which people do not have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

On a related note: A tweet this week left me breathless with rage. A white follower on Twitter brought Rose Wilder Lane’s name into the discussion, citing her and Ayn Rand as an inspiration in his quest for “freedom,” presumably at the expense of others.

Rose Wilder Lane would be appalled at the police state that surrounds us. Lane espoused freedom from government interference in the lives of everyday Americans, yes, but she focused on the rights of individuals and the need for all Americans, regardless of color, to take on individual responsibility. She would be marching, too. Or, more likely, using her typewriter to make a point about governmental abuse of power.

Be an ally. Be an anti-racist. Use your own privilege to help others. Do your best to be kind, and to question your own assumptions. Try to walk in the other’s shoes, and see how uncomfortably they fit.