I don’t know what it’s like to be black in this country.
Black-led protests, editorials by black writers, Facebook posts by black friends show me not only the constant fear that affects every black person’s interaction with white authority and white strangers, but also the toll daily emotional countless microaggressions, all the little pinpricks of (often unconscious) racism that gives black people and other people of color the message that they are considered suspicious, abnormal or sub-normal, not “really Americans, because of their race. Being considered “exotic” can’t be much better. Even compliments often carry a sting. Praising a black person for speaking up or being a good parent, for example, implies that the opposite is more typical of their race.
I can work harder to become anti-racist, constantly confronting the unconscious racist stereotypes I absorbed growing up white. I can show up for racial justice, participating in peaceful protests and challenging racist assumptions when I hear them. I can educate myself – not by asking black friends to explain everything to me, because most of them are fed up, and it’s not their job – but by reading new books on anti-racism . (My favorite is “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo for its straightforward clarity.) I can watch recently acclaimed films, from heartbreaking to terrifying, that depict the experience of some black people. Americans. But none of that allows me to see the world from a black person’s perspective.
That’s why I read contemporary novels by black American authors.
Numerous studies over the past 15 years show a direct correlation between reading fiction and developing empathy – so much so that a US medical school now requires literature courses as part of physician training . A well-written novel does something no other type of writing can: it allows me to inhabit another person, to experience the world through their eyes, their nerve endings, their soul. Afterwards, I can think about the context of that person’s life, but while I read, I don’t think, I feel. I become that person, and by the end of the novel, I know what it’s like to be them at least a little.
I’m not the only white reader who seeks to get to know black people better by reading more recent noir novels. Britt Bennett’s ‘The Vanishing Half’, the tale of black twins, one of whom passes for white, has remained on the Kitsap Regional Library’s most requested list since the library acquired its 24 copies in the summer last, and I’m sure many applicants are white. I pre-ordered it from a local bookseller, partly because I couldn’t wait, and mostly, to support the author. As a writer, I know the importance of getting paid for your work.
As excellent as this novel is, many other good and great novels are available by black American writers: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Alice Walker, to name a few. . But I also tried to read newer books.
Let me list a random selection of fairly recent novels by black American authors that I have read. Some, as much as I can afford, I bought new; others come from the Kitsap Regional Library, mostly without much of a wait. Some are firmly rooted in the modern black American experience; others delve into history; others are pure fantasy. Some are considered literary, others genre or pulp fiction, but all illuminate some aspect of the black American experience for white readers. So, without further ado, my list, in alphabetical order by author:
Octavia Butler passed away in 2006, but I read her often, and I’m including her here because her novel “Kindred” is recently reprinted. If you bypassed it because you don’t read science fiction, think again. “Kindred” is an American classic. Time travel is simply a framing device for the horror and grief of a modern black woman projected into the lives of her ancestors: slave and master. All of her work is indicative of power imbalances, in relationships and in societies.
Justifiably famous for “Between the World and Me,” a letter to his son about the harsh realities of being black in America, he is also the author of Marvel’s Black Panther comics. Her novel “The Water Dancer” is set in the last days of Virginia’s plantations. The story he shows us – broken families, the Underground Railroad, a gripping depiction of Harriet Tubman – is richer to be touched by fantasy.
Leesa Cross Smith
Cross-Smith has published short fiction films and novels. A housewife and Christian, she writes about vulnerability, intimacy and hope. In “This Close to Okay”, Tallie, a therapist, stops on a bridge to dissuade a man from jumping. That Tallie is black and Emmett is mixed-race is the least important part of their story — but for Americans of color, race is never irrelevant.
Los Angeles screenwriter Forna, born in Sierra Leone, moved as a child to Atlanta, Georgia. Her debut novel, “The Gilded Ones,” is a fierce, vivid fantasy about female warriors facing racism, male dominance, and the lie that their true allies are the enemy.
Under this pseudonym, politician and civil rights activist Stacey Abrams has written eight romantic thrillers about adventurous and beautiful black women, beginning with her law studies at Yale. The last, “Deception,” was released in 2009, but a legal thriller, “While Justice Sleeps,” will be released under Abrams’ own name next month. Consider pre-ordering from a local bookseller; KRL’s wait will be long!
Prolific mystery writer Mosley is perhaps best known for his series Easy Rawlins, set in Watts in the 1940s to 1960s, but if you prefer a modern setting, check out the Leonid McGill series, New York noir detective at its most black. “The Problem Is What I Do” came out last year.
Mott’s first two novels, “The Returned” and “The Wonder of All Things,” are lyrical like their titles, despite having complex and painful themes. I look forward to his latest novel, “Hell of a Book”, which tackles racism more directly.
Okorafor’s latest novel, “Remote Control,” about a child called “death’s adopted daughter,” is set entirely in Ghana, so it doesn’t say much about black American life except this: as white Americans, black Americans have rich ancestry. cultures to build on. Okorafor was born in Ohio to Nigerian parents, and her adult and young adult novels are enriched by Nigeria’s living tradition of magical realism.
Washington’s novel “Memorial”, about two homosexuals, a black man, a Japanese American and the parents of the latter, is by turns comic, touching and incisive. Washington is only 28, so this may be the first of many great novels to come.
Literary novels, detective novels, romances, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, lyrical or gritty: all can help show us the world through the eyes of others. I invite white readers to join me in trying to see our world through the eyes of our black neighbors.
Alison Slow Loris is a Bremerton writer, grandmother and KRL supporter. A frequent contributor to the pages of Opinion du Soleil, she has also published magical love stories under her maiden name, Alison Jean Ash.