graphic with Black literature book covers of The Warmth of Other Suns, Strength to Love, Beloved, Walking with the Wind, and Sing, Unburied, Sing

Reading Black Literature as American Literature

I first read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in high school. It was one of the only books I had ever read by a Black author. I loved it. I went on to read it at least three more times.  

I loved reading white authors too. I loved The Scarlet Letter and Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby. In all of these cases, I soaked in the language and the characters and the way the authors created a world I could enter in from a distance of time and space. But Beloved told more truth than the others about both the horrors of and the possibilities for redemption within the story of America. Beloved’s haunting message was also a message of hope, if only we would look that horror in the face and seek to repair it. 

African American literature is American literature

So I sought out more Black writers in college through an Introduction to African American literature class, which turned into an African American studies minor because I just kept taking classes. I learned in these classes that African American history is American history. That African American literature is American literature. Without the voices of Morrison and Hurston and Baldwin and King, I could never have understood our nation or myself within it. And this understanding came not because these authors shamed me as a white person, but because they forced me to reckon with the complex reality of my humanity, of our humanity. 

I always live with the capacity for beauty and love and the capacity for evil and injustice. We always live within systems that will perpetuate evil unless that evil is named and resisted and overturned.

An Invitation for People Like Me

As we come to the beginning of Black History Month, I write this as an invitation for people like me, who have the privilege of living in a homogeneous world that often ignores the harmful reality of racial injustice, to engage with Black history. Read Strength to Love by Martin Luther King or Walking with the Wind by John Lewis or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou or Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Read Beloved by Toni Morrison or Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmine Ward or Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison or Song Yet Sung by James McBride. (Go here for more book, film, and podcast recommendations for Black History Month.)

A Word of Thanks to the Truthtellers

And I write this as a word of thanks to the truthtellers of the past and the truthtellers of the present who expose us to hardship and pain in order that we all can move towards repair and redemption. The path toward healing is a path of honesty, humility, and hope. 

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