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What makes literature such a beautiful and compelling field of study
is its fruitful bounty of diversity. Unfortunately, however, syllabi across the United States still tend towards books by dead white men, with everyone else competing for what few available slots remain. Progress has been made, of course, and dead white men still have plenty to say and offer. But the canon could easily do much, much better for itself. Whether historical, romantic, fantastic, mysterious or some combination thereof (or something else entirely), the following reads represent some of the best voices representing African-American women of today and generations past. By no means neither definitive nor emblematic of all experiences and perspectives, it still provides a great sample of some amazing books deserving of more consideration. Or, in some cases, fully deserving of the hefty recognition they already earned.
Alice Walker's Pulitzer-winning classic gives an empowering voice to women marginalized along racial, sexual and economic lines, setting her story during the Great Depression. Protagonist Celie ultimately finds empowerment despite such severe social, political, filial and financial hardships thanks to the loving sexual guidance of her bombastic friend and lover Shug Avery.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Another sterling Pulitzer winner and rightfully lauded mainstay in the literary canon, Beloved
compares and contrasts the times before, during and after the American Civil War. Haunting and intense, it features some horrifying depictions of slavery's reality and what lengths some might have gone to in order to escape it, including murdering loved ones.
Featuring one of the strongest female leads in all of literature, Zora Neale Hurston's undeniable magnum opus
follows a Florida woman through many different loves. Some horrid, some amazing, and all of them eventually shaping her into the self-assured, somewhat traumatized and frequently gossiped-about individual she eventually becomes.
This fiercely feminist slave narrative comes so laden with autobiography it may as well be shelved as a memoir. Harriet Jacobs, here cast as Linda, recounts how masters tortured their female slaves more egregiously than their male counterparts, not infrequently involving sexual assault and rape. While graphic and heartwrenching, the novel does carry historical significance making it an essential read.
Four middle-aged women show each other love and support through times of triumph and times of tragedy both inter- and intrapersonal. Although their individual stories do base a lot of characterization off their masculine relationships, it still turns a realistic eye towards dating and marriage problems.
The Serpent's Gift
by Helen Elaine Lee
Set at the turn of the 20th century, The Serpent's Gift
chronicles a tale of two families whose lives begin overlapping in some interesting – some good, some bad — ways as time marches onward. For almost 100 years, they love, share and suffer through their middle-class Midwestern existence, impacted by some of America's most influential historical moments.
Short vignettes bound together by common themes and characters greatly humanize the female inhabitants of a decaying urban neighborhood. They cycle through victories and tragedies, their emotions running the gamut from joy to despair to homicidal rage.
by Octavia E. Butler
Science fiction and fantasy author Octavia E. Butler tackles time travel in her narrative of a young woman flung to a pre-Civil War plantation. There, she must serve as a slave in order to protect her identity – and ensure she even exists in the future.
Published in 1946, The Street
takes a long look at the experiences of a young, single mother in Harlem harboring a love of books and Ben Franklin. The latter serves as her inspiration to keep pressing forward, working hard and ensuring the safest possible life for her beloved son.
The eponymous protagonist comes of age as the daughter of a doctor during school desegregation, witnessing firsthand the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. Ntozake Shange juxtaposes Betsey's experiences with those of her parents Jane and Greer to showcase the different attitudes the generations held about social change.
Push by Sapphire
Though illiterate, impoverished, twice-pregnant because of her father's repeated rapes and suffering under an abusive mother, the 16-year-old girl around which Push
rotates pines for a healthier, happier life. Sapphire leaves her ending ambiguous, but by the end an alternative school has already bolstered her reading skills.
Bildungsroman buffs might want to pick up this novel about a young woman crippled beneath poverty and racism in Chicago's South Side during the 1960s. Appropriate for teens and adults, it offers up some sobering lessons about some universal and historical themes alike.
An Atlanta-based hairdresser relocates to her Michigan origins following a devastating and unexpected HIV diagnosis. She reunites with her sister, adopts a baby, rediscovers love and finds excitement in the city she once deemed unworthy.
stands as one of the first novels ever published by an African-American woman and concerns itself with the mixed-race daughter of a former slave owner and the wife he once owned. But once the planter dies, she winds up thrust into servitude of her own before being freed and piecing together the broken fragments of her family.
Barbara Neely's debut novel introduced mystery aficionados to cook and housekeeper Blanche White, who eventually winds up playing detective while running from fraud charges. Her position as a majorly marginalized individual (along both class and race lines) allows her to go about her investigations smoother – handy, considering her first case involves a murdered gardener.
Speculation about The Bondwoman's Narrative
abounds, with many scholars believing it might be the very first novel ever written by an African-American woman; it wasn't published until 2002, however. This slave story makes for another first-person example about the horrors faced by people dehumanized by others who wrongfully forced them into bondage.
Odessa Rose's sensuous story twists and turns throughout an attraction triangle shared by a popular sculptress, a man she loves and the woman she ends up loving even more. It's a joyous journey through eroticism and art alike, and many readers consider it a major triumph of African-American lesbian literature.
Even skeptics towards the romance genre can still appreciate The Color of Love
for its frank, grounded depiction of the unique challenges interracial couples frequently face. Few authors ever put forth the effort to explore the realities behind such relationships, and fewer still with as much gravitas and intelligent commentary as Sandra Kitt.
At age 64, protagonist Avey Johnson heads out on a cruise to Carraiacou to find herself and better connect with her heritage after widowhood. Interspersed throughout her experiences on the Carribbean island are scenes taken from her childhood, marriage and motherhood to help her come to terms with where she's been and where she may very well go.
Through the powerful voice of haunted blues chanteuse Ursa Corregidora, her brutal family history of slavery collides with the realities and experiences of African-Americans in the 1930s. Her newly-acquired inability to bear children challenges her to think of the bitter past that scarred her mother and grandmother.
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