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Reading Recommendations From Black Cultural Figures

By T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore

Portraits, clockwise from top left: Bryan Derballa for The New York Times (2); Chad Batka for The New York Times (2); Julie Glassberg for The New York Times.Portraits, clockwise from top left, of the musician Dev Hynes, the novelist Marlon James, the artist Kehinde Wiley, the comedian Trevor Noah and the activist and producer Janet Mock.
Portraits, clockwise from top left, of the musician Dev Hynes, the novelist Marlon James, the artist Kehinde Wiley, the comedian Trevor Noah and the activist and producer Janet Mock.

As the protest against the murder of George Floyd continues, various lists of books that address race, political upheaval and activism have been circulating on social media and elsewhere. They remind us that the work of combating systemic racism is never over, and that learning about the history of protest — and unlearning our own biases and prejudices — requires a lifetime of reading. In an effort to listen to black voices and encourage self-education, we’re revisiting these compilations, first published in 2016, of book recommendations from artists, leaders and writers of our time.

 

“Ceremonies,” Essex Hemphill

This collection of poems, prose and essays by Essex Hemphill is my go-to carry-around book. It includes words of wonder, sadness and critique all centred around the black gay experience — especially heightened within the AIDS epidemic.

“The Cocktail Party,” T.S. Eliot

Not too sure how I came upon this one, but if memory serves I was attracted to the cover (first edition) one evening at the Strand about seven years ago. I fell in love within the first few pages — the scenarios and reactions are both comic and devastating, especially within the dark second act that could be lifted straight out of society today.

“The Cello Suites,” Eric Siblin

What a wonder of a book. My cello bible. I long for many books like this — one-third investigative journalism, one-third history lesson and one-third self-discovery. Eric Siblin sets out on a quest to understand the uniquely mysterious history of the Bach Cello Suites, which were discovered by the cellist Pablo Casals when he was a child. Siblin goes so deep into the lives of Bach, Casals — and himself — and it will truly make you listen to these pieces in a whole new way.

 

“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston

I first read this novel at 16 and felt centred in ways I’d never felt before as a reader. I’ve since returned to it whenever I feel lost and am given affirmation to journey for answers, like Hurston’s protagonist Janie in the muck.

“The Color Purple,” Alice Walker

Celie’s audacity to give her journey words through prayer instilled in me an audacity to say that yes, I am deserving of testimony and deserve to be heard.

“The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton

Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel fulfilled me deeply as a lover of period piece romances. Her characters showed me early on that love is as much a choice as it is a feeling, and the pull of family, society and tradition can be overbearing.

“George,” Alex Gino

This small novel may have been written for young readers, but we can all learn and feel as we read about a trans girl yearning to take centre stage as Charlotte in her class’s production of “Charlotte’s Web.”

“Waiting to Exhale,” Terry McMillan

This was the first book to give me a thrill, the first to make me feel as if I was doing more than merely eavesdropping on grown folks’ business — I was one of the girls. At 12, I loved this novel so much that I never returned it to the library.

“This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa

When I first read this book, it was out of print. I felt I’d found a treasure when I uncovered a tattered copy online. It’s unapologetically feminist, queer, third-world, woke and woman. I am so glad it’s back in print for a new generation craving this kind of centring and elevated consciousness.

“Sula,” Toni Morrison

The character Sula was the first protagonist who made me feel O.K. with my own nonconformity, with the grey areas, with colouring outside the lines as a multiracial trans kid. Plus, Morrison’s writing about womanhood, convention and the fierce attachment of female friendship is astounding.

“Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex,” edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith

This book helped me give words, voice and deeper analysis to my activism, reminding me that we must be intersectional in our movement work. We will be judged not by those who attain the seemingly unattainable, but by how we care for the poor, the incarcerated, the targeted and the often forgotten. That lesson has never left me.

“Sister Outsider,” Audre Lorde

I read and write to find answers, and Lorde never fails to give me the wisdom I need. I am not a religious person, but reading this collection always leaves me stronger, nurtured and praising the Lorde.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou

This was the first autobiography that meant everything to me as a young survivor struggling to find voice and meaning through the overbearing darkness. Angelou did what great writers of memoir do; she let me know that I was not alone because someone else had been there and made it out to tell the truth.

 

“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More,” Roald Dahl

I loved fantasy books as a kid. I lived in my head, and Roald Dahl was the best of the best. This short story collection was one of my favourites.

“The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A wonderful fable, beautifully told. It’s so simple and yet so complicated at the same time.

“My Traitor’s Heart,” Rian Malan

A brutal excavation of a white South African’s conscience during the final days of apartheid.

“To Quote Myself: A Memoir,” Khaya Dlanga

A hilarious memoir by a great South African essayist. As good an account as you’ll find about life in the country today.

“Homegoing,” Yaa Gyasi

Thanks to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, America and Africa are linked in more ways than we usually think about. This is a fascinating novel about the legacy of slavery and white supremacy on both continents.

“Born Standing Up,” Steve Martin

One of the best accounts ever written about the art of stand-up and the life of the stand-up comic.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” J.K. Rowling

The whole series, start to finish. Like Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” and C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” Rowling’s creation is a masterpiece of fantasy.

“Long Walk to Freedom,” Nelson Mandela

He was as good a writer as he was a freedom fighter and president. This is a book worthy of his storied life.

“But What if We’re Wrong?” Chuck Klosterman

A question the architects of apartheid should have stopped and asked themselves at the start, and a question I try to ask about my own deeply held convictions every day.

“Native Life in South Africa,” Sol Plaatje

Plaatje was a founder and first general secretary of the organisation that became the African National Congress, and his writings have survived to become some of the most compelling and celebrated accounts of the early days of apartheid.

 

“Giovanni’s Room,” James Baldwin

“Giovanni’s Room” is one of my all-time favourites by Baldwin, a master of deconstructing the American character and social temperature during an era in which novels that explored race and queer love were few and far between, at best.

“The Honor Code,” Kwame Anthony Appiah

Why did Chinese foot binding end? Or the western pistol duel, for that matter? “The Honor Code” takes a stab at this history, revealing the importance of honour as an agent for major social and political change — a salient point to make in this morally fraught time of rapid transformation.

“The Book of Night Women,” Marlon James

More recently celebrated for his masterpiece “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” James has created in this lesser-known book a deeply personal view of Jamaican slavery. Set from a decidedly female perspective, “The Book of Night Women” takes you into domestic spaces, seduces you into understanding the very real conflicts and emotions behind charged and savage sexual encounters between slaves and masters, and dissects the negotiations of power within those relationships.

“Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag

A very slim volume, “Regarding the Pain of Others” is a quick, yet painful read that allows you to deeply delve into empathy, a commodity that is doubtless lacking in our current national conversation.

“The Queen of Harlem,” Brian Keith Jackson

As Harlem, the perpetual work in progress, continues to change, it’s refreshing to revisit this book by my dear friend Brian Keith Jackson. “The Queen of Harlem” sets the stage of a neighbourhood that was very familiar to me as I left Yale and discovered New York for the first time.

“African Metropolitan Architecture,” David Adjaye

The narrative around contemporary Africa’s cosmopolitan cities — exciting young people, vibrant artists and rapidly evolving promise — is, happily, becoming increasingly familiar to people around the globe. In this amazing book, Adjaye looks at architectural spaces across the continent, dividing it into regions defined by climates and cultures, rather than artificially derived national boundaries. Here the Maghreb, the desert, the Sahel, the forest, the Savanna and grasslands, and the mountains and high fields, are the defining features of how different architectures throughout Africa can be witnessed.

“How Pleasure Works,” Paul Bloom

Like artists of all stripes, I have attempted to analyse and justify my practice. The creative life, at its best, elucidates and thrives within pleasure: its absence, its expectation and its promise. Bloom’s book isn’t a how-to on life, but rather a cold, disciplined stare into the machinery of pleasure as it relates to human consciousness.

“White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg

Undergirding so much of the discourse surrounding resentment in America right now is the conversation about race. While the notion of “blackness” is often at the forefront of such discussions, the idea of “whiteness” is frequently left unexamined. In her surprising new book, Isenberg goes into the history of how the “white trash” identity is directly related to social caste and economic realities that are perpetually unacknowledged in American castings of itself, its character and its history. “White Trash” is at once informative, painful and enlightening in how complex our obsession with social-standing-by-virtue-of-colour has evolved.

“Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader,” Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze

One of my favourite reads from those fundamental years of art school, I first discovered this book when trying to come to terms with western Enlightenment culture’s broad impact on ideation in artistic practice. So much of Enlightenment thinking is poisoned by prior notions of race that one must ask: Is it ever possible to separate some of our greatest understandings derived from the Enlightenment era from its problematic history? In “Race and the Enlightenment,” Eze examines foundational writings on race by major Enlightenment figures and lays bare the toxic notions of their time in their own words.

“Love in the Time of Cholera,” Gabriel García Márquez

“Love in the Time of Cholera” is not a love story, but more a treatise on the subject of love in all its many forms. Márquez’s brilliant storytelling here is a joy, transforming the mundane realities of a long marriage into moments to be savoured and relished. The intimate discoveries and daily bonds of marriage are at once thoroughly human, relatable, as well as spiritually transcendent.

 

“Summer Lightning and Other Stories,” Olive Senior

Because she taught me everything about matching devastation with economy. The entire future of Caribbean prose is mapped out in this collection of stories, and I don’t know a single Caribbean writer who doesn’t reread it often.

“The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov

Nude vampires, gun-toting talking black cat, and devil as ultimate party starter aside, the miracle of this novel is that every time you read it, it’s a different book.

“Shame,” Salman Rushdie

What Kafka gave Marquez — permission to write — “Shame” did for me. And like all electrifying experiences, at first it was just the shock that such things could be done with novels, that got to me.

“Song of Solomon,” Toni Morrison

Three-quarters of the way in, and “SOS” is merely one of the three best books I’ve ever read. But the last 60 pages are one of the most astonishing feats of writing I’ve ever read. I remember reading it standing up, almost in this fever, and so thoroughly believing the ending that I almost jumped off my balcony.

“Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen

Because nobody has ever been slyer with characters than Austen. It still blows my mind that her unsavoury and unfortunate characters — Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Charlotte — are the only ones who truly know what time it is.

“Tom Jones,” Henry Fielding

First book I ever read for school that I was sad to see end. Best plot of all time? Maybe not, but too close to the top to merit serious argument.

“Dogeaters,” Jessica Hagedorn

Possible the most brutally, hilariously accurate portrait of post-colonial Jamaica I’ve ever read. And it’s a novel about the Philippines.

“The Autumn of The Patriarch,” Gabriel García Márquez

Picking a Márquez novel is a near impossible task. It’s too easy to just go with the obvious choice(s). But this is his most daring novel, and the labyrinthine twists and turns of each sentence demands undivided attention — so perfect for a desert island, then.

“Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories,” Gilbert Hernandez

I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person to realize that the collected Palomar stories, from one half of Los Bros Hernandez, adds up to the finest American novel of the past 30 years?

“Epic Traditions of Africa,” Stephen Belcher

Grimm’s Fairytales are great, the Icelandic sagas are essential and I’m always here for Grendel. But sometimes you want to read about the Cannibal Witch, unborn children who leave the womb at night to hunt for food and Son Jara, the original Lion King.