Since we’re playing catch-up here: I have been reading. In February, I tried to stick to a theme, since it was Black History Month and there was (and still is, to be honest) a serious lack of diversity on my bookshelves. These were some of the books I picked to start closing that gap in my own reading life.
At Her Majesty’s Request by Walter Dean Meyers. Say what you will about juvenile biographies. They’re great for teaching children about people history books ignore. This one tells the story of an African princess taken to England and renamed Sarah (though her birth name has been lost to history). It tells of her rescue from a rival African king and how she grows up as the protégée of Queen Victoria. While remaining simple enough for its intended audience, it shows the horrors left in Africa from the European slave trade. It’s also very clear on the harmful effects on Sarah of her white teachers’ racism. Without preaching, he manages to combine “this is how it was back then” with “that doesn’t mean it was okay.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t realize Stowe was white until it was pointed out to me…and I got further in the book. I’m not going to fuss about the book too much, because it clearly did its job. It’s also a very feminist book for its time, as every female character is a strong character without being a Strong Female Character™. But it’s also a very problematic book. It becomes clear that the author is white as you see that she is often as concerned, if not more so, for what slave-holding has done to the masters as to the slaves. It also turns out that most of the slaves the reader is meant to sympathize with are “white-passing,” seeming to ask “Where do we draw the line?” instead of saying that slavery is wrong no matter how dark one’s skin is. Like I said, it did its job in its day, and for all I know, she could have done these things intentionally to reach even the most stubborn slavery-supporters. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it an interesting snapshot of its day.
She also wrote as if ending slavery would fix every problem it created. At the end, most of the enslaved characters the story follows have been both freed and reunited with their families. The only enslaved character who doesn’t make it through the book becomes the plantation owner’s inspiration for freeing everyone else (none of whom want to go anywhere).
A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green. This book actually belonged to my dad, which is no surprise really because it’s about baseball. Specifically, it’s another juvenile biography (he was an elementary school teacher) about one of only three women to play professional baseball. It showed how much harder she had to work to get there and the intersectionality of the racism and sexism she faced.
Green wrote the book in first person, taking on Mamie’s voice as she told the story. It gave it a personal touch and got to the root of “What sort of person achieves something like this?” There were a few lines that made the feminist in me cringe, about not being “like other girls,” but over all it’s about overcoming, and isn’t that something we can all get behind?
Celebrations by Maya Angelou. I had heard one Maya Angelou poem in my life (“Phenomenal Woman”), but that never stopped me from admiring her style and grace. I was so excited to find this book of her poetry and it did not disappoint. Angelou is one of those poets who truly understands how structure and rhythm can contribute to a poem’s meaning. Though the words were written a decade or more ago, her reflections on race and racism are as relevant as ever.
What’s your favorite book by a person of color? Or your favorite story from Black History?